Swimming by Numbers

by Elaine Garvican

Swimming has always been by far my weakest discipline within triathlon. Although I learned to avoid drowning in a pool whilst on holiday as a child, it would be a stretch to say I ever really learned to swim. Like many, when I first took up tri, a continuous 25m length was a major milestone. I will never be a good swimmer, but over the course of the last year, I have made significant improvements. Last week Gary discussed training by feel and his intense dislike of numerical targets in the pool. Just as people learn in different ways (visual, auditory, tactile), athletes respond differently to a variety of motivational stimuli in their training. In the pool, the clocks that don’t work for Gary, do work for me.

I don’t set undue store by numerical goals. I don’t believe my life will magically be better if one day I manage to swim a 6 minute 400m TT. I don’t measure my self-worth by how fast I am in any medium, but I do set myself sporting goals at the start of each year. Some are longer term, focusing on my season’s A race for example, but others might be training based, particularly those involving swimming, since I don’t race standalone swim races. Working towards those goals requires regular assessment of my progress.

One of the main problems I used to have with swimming was that I hated it. I hated it partly because I was no good at it. As a result of being no good, I didn’t want to do it very often, which rather precludes improvement in a sport in which frequency and volume are key; thus the cycle would continue. What I needed were targets and tangible evidence of any improvement. As important as they are, unquantifiable “swim fitness” gains don’t particularly drive me to push harder or swim for longer (or more frequently). Initially, Adam’s suggestion of a 400m time trial was simply to gauge my ability (or distinct lack thereof) and I suspect we were both horrified at the resulting 7:46. My most recent 400m time is 6:25 – still not fast by any means, but faster than I ever thought I’d be swimming. This graph plots the results of my 400m time trials between those two points.

400m TT Times

I drew this graph purely for this article – I’m not that much of a numbers geek that this was a pre-prepared display! Now I have it though, I really like it. I like the fact that, after a block of hard work in the pool, I can be fairly confident that the next time I’ll be a little bit faster again. I like the visual reminder of the effort I have put in. It has since been explained to me that such frequent pool time trials (approximately once a fortnight) are not ideal, but in the build-up to my August 2013 race, such regular evidence of improvement – however small – undoubtedly motivated me to keep working hard. As I approached the 7 minute mark, this was an additional stimulus and at the beginning of 2014, I set myself the target of swimming sub 6:30; a goal I can now tick off.

I don’t violently disagree with anything in Gary’s article, but some of what he writes isn’t really applicable to me. A couple of these points are as follows;

“Pace versus Effort:
There are those sessions where you expect to feel sluggish but something clicks and you’re flying – how do you compensate for this if the programme says 100’s off 1:45 and you’re struggling to hit 1:50 or cruising on 1:40s?”

Not having a coach means I don’t have a program to follow, so this specific point is less of an issue for me. I often swim on a Monday, following a long bike ride on Sunday and yes, I am significantly slower than on another week day when I am carrying less residual fatigue. The same is true if I run or bike. So although I wouldn’t choose to swim a hard speed set on a Monday, I just accept I’ll be swimming slower – maybe up to 2 seconds a length slower for the same effort – than I will be just a few days later. Personally, I don’t find this demoralising, because that time, with the additional 2 seconds per length, is still so much faster than it used to be and I can still make progress and reap training benefits. My “speed sessions” are swum at, or just above Critical Swim Speed (CSS). This concept is best explained by the grown-ups at SwimSmooth. I work hard in these sets, so the days I decide to swim a CSS set are those when I can be confident of hitting the pace, but there is no danger of swimming 5 seconds per 100m rep faster than I am supposed to be!

“Don’t rely solely on gadgets”:

Here, I agree with Gary. My Tempo Trainer (see below) will be of no use to me in the sea. This is why it’s important that when I swim, particularly when I swim at “goal race pace”, I remember how it feels. I need to be able to replicate that effort level at the start of my race – crucially not going off too fast, as, just like with running, target pace can feel far too easy for the first few minutes. But without my tempo trainer, the time I spend in the pool is less well utilised.

“Pacing versus Racing”:

When it comes to the Ironman swim, my goal is get out as quickly as possible, having expended as little energy as possible. That is a single aim, not two distinct ones; I’m racing for the finish line, not T1. After all, a 10 second improvement over 400m amounts to only 90 seconds over the course of 3.8km. I am under no illusions that my 400m time alone will get me back to Kona. What it does do, is help motivate me to go to the pool for the 4th time that week, to push through lung-bursting efforts, and stay focussed over longer reps, as a pace that started off easy becomes increasingly annoying to hold.
Why isn’t RPE a useful scale for me in the pool? Probably because I’m lazy. Given a block of, say, 400m reps, chances are I would start too fast and fade throughout the set. Starting too fast is amazingly easy to do in swimming. I lack the discipline and experience to know how to swim 20 reps of 100m with every length exactly the same speed, without relying on a timer, or to swim 4 x 800m at gradually increasing pace. Looking at the clock at the end of the rep is no good for me – I need constant feedback that I am on pace, not falling behind, or getting overenthusiastic.

There are three main factors which helped me make this improvement in my swimming:
  1. SwimSmooth Video analysis

It still amazes me that there can be such a gulf between what we think we’re doing with our bodies in the water and what we are actually doing. Video analysis was an incredible eye-opener; I’m still not very sure how I ever managed a sub-7minute 400m with a total lack of any discernable catch. But my swim smooth coach, Julian Nagi, was incredibly patient with my incompetence and deserves a lot of the credit for my improvement.

  1. Tempo Trainer


I have to admit that when Adam first suggested investing in this super little piece of equipment, my first response was “£35 for a waterproof metronome? You’re having a laugh!” Now, I consider it an essential training tool. It stops me slacking, pushes me to squeeze out the last vestiges of effort and provides unbiased evidence of my improvement. In terms of “expenditure per unit of improvement” this represents one of the best investments I have ever made in triathlon. Of course it’s true that the bike makes up the biggest block of an ironman race, so a gadget that results in a 5% improvement there will clearly make a bigger impact on your finishing time. The trouble is, a lot of those gadgets are really expensive; of course I’d love a power meter, I just don’t have the cash. I’ve seen a lot of people spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t seem to deliver much on any scale other than image or street cred. Pure swim splits aside, improvements in the water will have an influence on the rest of the race (in terms of less energy expended) as well as raising the enjoyment factor of something I spend 4 hours or more a week doing. To me, that’s clearly worth the money.

  1. Swim Frequency

I now swim, on average, 4 times a week, for a weekly distance of 9 – 12km. I have been known to swim 5 times (and over 15km) in a single week, but I try to avoid quite that degree of chlorine exposure if possible.

The irony of someone who swims as poorly as I do and is mentored by someone who dislikes swimming only marginally less, having written an article on swim improvements, is not lost on me. I will admit, though, that I don’t hate swimming as much as I used to and I’m not quite as bad at it as I used to be; I’m sure the truth of these two statements is no coincidence.

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