Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How I Got Fast Part 3

Part 1 - Weight Loss
Part 2 - Base building and Endurance

For this section, I want to talk specifically about how to swim faster, and how that affects your run speed.


There are lots of well documented ways to get fast at swimming, but there are still a few key points I want to drop.

  1. Swim speed is typically measured in the time it takes to cover 100 meters. Really fast pro triathletes can hold a 1:16 pace for the entire 2.4 mile swim in Ironman, finishing between 51 and 58 minutes, typically. Some pro's still come out of the water around 1:10. The slowest age groupers out on the ironman course will average around a 2:45 pace or slower and finish after the 2:30 cutoff time. Typically for olympic (0.9 miles) or half iron (1.2 miles) my swim pace will be just over 2:00. Middle of the pack open water mile times are around 40 minutes per mile. My 30 minute oly time and 40 minute half time were both good enough to get me into the top third of the field.
  2. Some tri's want you to enter a swim pace at registration to seed the start times and put the fastest swimmers at the front of the pack. My first swim pace entered was 2:30 for my first triathlon. Last night at Master's swim practice I was knocking down 1:25 hundreds like they were nothing.
  3. Improving your swim pace is all about improving your technique. It has very little to do with adding cardiovascular or muscular strength. Don't believe me? Most pools are 25 yards or 25 meters long. Count the number of strokes you have to take (both arms total), and use that as your measure of improvement. The slower swimmers will take 28-30 strokes, and the faster swimmers will only need 12-14. I'm typically around 15 or 16 strokes now.
You cannot get fast swimming on your own. There are plenty of books out there to read, including Total Immersion, one of my favorites. There are TONS of youtube videos on stroke technique. But until you get some types of coach to watch you swim and give you the corrections needed you will never really improve. Books and videos can give you lots of advice, but it takes a coach to actually watch your technique and tell you if you are doing it right. You just can't see it yourself short of using an underwater camera and watching it later.

I think the best way to get this instruction is by joining a masters team. I absolutely LOVE the Raleigh Area Masters Team that I joined back in March to get me through Ironman training. The coaches are amazing. One of the coaches there is also the track and field coach and swim team coach at NC State. She is absolutely incredible.

Before Masters I would typically swim over lunch and get in 800 - 1800 yards in around 40 minutes. Enough to get my heart rate up. average pace was around 2:00.

Last night I went to a Masters practice with the NC State coach. We covered 3000 yards in an hour and 15 minutes. Average pace was about 1:30. The warmup was 800 yards, and it was harder than any 800 yard workout I ever got by myself over lunch. Then the real work started.


Water provides resistance when you're swimming, this can be both good and bad. You want your body to glide through the water with as little friction as possible, but your arms and feet create a grip on the water to push you through.

Body position is usually the first thing that gets addressed. You want to be as flat as possible with about 90% of your body underwater. The first piece of advice I ever got from a swim coach was to swim like I was trying to hold a golf ball under my chin. Imagine your body laying flat on the surface of the water face down. Being as flat as possible means your body will create the least resistance possible from the water. This is actually controlled more by your head position than anything else.
Right. Level body position will shoot you through the water like an arrow.
Wrong. Lifting your head pushes your lower body down into the water, creating more drag.

Images taken from this great article. If you look up, your tail will drop in creating more resistance. This is why you only want to sight in open water every 5 or 6 strokes, and sight as quickly as possible then get face down again.

Bilateral breathing is the next skill you want to master. You want to take quick breaths to both the right and left sides every three or five strokes alternating sides (bilateral). Mastering this means that if you are in open water and you're constantly getting waves crashing over you from the right hand side, you will also be comfortable breathing to your left. And don't pick up your head to breathe, just rotate to one side with your chin on that shoulder as a relaxed separate motion from the body rotation. Here's a good demonstration article.

There are plenty of other form guides out there for arm technique, kick technique, breathing technique, it's kind of insane. I really like Total Immersion techniques, but your coach will know what's best. As a comparison, you can spend as much time on swim form as you would on a golf swing, and even Tiger Woods has a coach that constantly adjusts his swing.

My final word on technique will be on flip turns, there's a great debate going on with triathletes on flip turns. There are no flip turns in open water, so a lot of triathletes think you don't need to do them in the pool. Flip turns are done with your abs, and I'm all for anything that will help you work your core muscles. Also in open water, you don't get to hang onto the wall for that half a second and take the huge breath that you normally get to take at each turn. Flip turns encourage breath control. You should be able to flip, push off of the wall, and take two strokes before taking your first breath. Breath control and core work will help immensely with open water swims as well as cycling and running. Having said that, I still rarely do flip turns in my masters practices. I'm just too lazy. And I like getting the big breath at the turns.


Want to swim fast? Swim more. People who log 18,000+ yards in the pool every month will swim faster than those with less practice. Again that means more yards, not more time in the pool, more swim sessions, or more strokes. Get efficient to get faster and you'll get more laps in the same amount of time. See how it all works together? I went from swimming 3 or 4 times a week over lunch to attending two masters practices a week at most, and got so much faster. Went from averaging 7000 yards a month to 16,000 yards a month while actually spending less minutes in the pool!


I'm really a purist when it comes to swimming. I like a small nylon suit or tri shorts for racing, goggles and that's it. You can really get lots of gear for the pool, and I actually just bought a new Zoot mesh swim gear bag yesterday that's really cool. But I didn't even wear goggles for my first triathlon. Evidence:

Greenville Sprint triathlon 2008. I take my entire head out of the water to breathe, look up to sight, have no goggles on.

Since joining the masters team I've also embraced a kickboard and pull bouy, because they establish a separation and allow you to work on a specific part of your form. Pull buoys provide support for your lower body to keep it elevated. It can help you recognize the feel of being flat in the water and allow you to focus on using your arms in the stroke and on centralized body rotation.

Kick sets actually kill me. I work my legs enough in the bike and run workouts that I think I don't need to practice kicking. Hold a kick board and don't use your arms for a while. ugh. torture. Triathletes typically don't use swim kicking for forward propulsion anyway, just to maintain body position. I do still swim faster when kicking than just pulling, but that doesn't mean I have to enjoy a 700 yard kick set like we did last night.

Paddles really mess with my arm entry and catch in the water, so I have a really tough time using them. Same thing with fins. They make you go so fast that I don't get to use my arms as much and that feels like I'm defeating the purpose of being out there. Plus I tend to get lots of calf and foot cramps when I use fins. It freaks me out and I don't like it. I also get calf cramps from pushing off of the wall too hard.

And since I just stuck a bunch of links out there to my favorite online swim gear website, I should mention that the outlet/clearance section of is fantastic. I've gotten some great suits from there.


How does this affect speed when running? Swimming, by nature, works your entire body. Heavy volumes of swimming will raise your overall level of fitness immensely. It works all of those tiny muscles behind your abs, in your lower back, upper back, glutes, shoulders, pecs, triceps, everything. It's the best whole body workout you will find. And there's zero impact unless you run into a wall (hey, it happens if you don't wear goggles).

Since you spend most of your time face down in the water and focus on breath control and breathing patterns, it teaches your aerobic system to process oxygen more efficiently. You will raise your VO2 Max with regular swimming. This is a huge factor in fast running. I think this is the biggest benefit runners can get from adding in regular swim workouts.


Don't start swimming while you are trying to lose weight! Yes, it's a huge calorie burner, so after a good hard swim workout I will eat twice what my normal recovery snack is. You can't swim very much and stay inside of the 1800 calorie a day intake limit/600 calorie burn limit from Step 1.

Yes we've all seen the kind of hardbodies produced by Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. But they also take in 12,000 calories a day. After you've hit your target weight, adding in swimming with a more protein based diet can really sculpt your abs, yes. You will build some amazing pecs and shoulders.

Final Word
Good form - face down, body rotated, arm taking a nice entry angle into the water. I wish my feet were higher, you should see me kicking more here. But this was at the start of the OBX half iron last month, and I tend to not kick much when there are so many other people swimming around me. Don't want to kick anyone else in the face.

Seriously. Google "masters swim team" and your city name and I'm certain there is a team or two that you can choose from. They will normally let you go a couple of times for free before you decide to join, but the workouts are so good that you will want to join.

After Ironman Florida, I'm going cut back my cycling during the winter. Regular triathlon training wants you to get in three swims, three bike rides, and three runs every week plus strength training and stretching/yoga. I want to spend the off season swimming twice a week with the RAM team, and running three or four times a week. Occasionally I'll hit the stationary bike if I miss a swim practice, and I'll get in more yoga and strength work early in the mornings. But I believe that swimming + running is going to give me the best combination for fast running over the winter.


Katie said...

you know, when i first started swimming, i hated and dreaded it, but now it's almost my favorite of the three! some great tips in here!

Karen said...

Great advice. You can gain so much from the smallest change in your form. Even if you don't have a masters group nearby, try to have a swim coach watch you for a lap or two.

Theresa @ActiveEggplant said...

Great post! Swimming has been so hard for me to get the hang of - and while I know I'm better than I was when I started swimming (just over 1.5 yrs ago) I know I still have a long way to go.

I really like using the pull buoy - makes me realize just how bad I am at keeping my hips up WITHOUT it! And you're right - using the kick board is sheer torture!

Alecia@tincantreader said...

Awesome post! Swimming is the one and only reason that I want to join a gym.

Heather @ Side of Sneakers said...

First, you're improved swim times are SO impressive. Second, I disagree that you can't get faster on your own (although like anything else, having a coach always helps). I definitely think Masters programs are the way to go if you're lucky enough to have one in your area.
I've heard of people doing flip turns before they get to the wall, that way you don't get the advantage of pushing off the wall or the extra long breath. ;)

Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

I would love to join a masters swimming group some day. I think it would encourage me to incorporate swimming into my fitness regimen. I am an ok swimmer. I have the basics down, but am far fromm being fast in the water.

Kyria @ Travel Spot said...

I love swimming. I have never done it competitively but I grew up near the river and we went swimming every day. We used to race each other upstream all the time. HOWEVER, a few years ago I was thinking of doing a sprint tri and so I started swimming at the gym and it is HARD to maintain a pace for a long time. It really whoops you! And speaking of hunger, I was SO hungry and SOOOO thirsty afterwards!

I admit, I would love to get back into it, but it's more work than running, logistics wise. I would have to join a gym and buy a new suit etc.... (okay so I am cheap and lazy)

Your post is full of great advice! Thanks!

Alisa said...

However, when you can't run SWIM. It is a good calorie burn but like all things that burn calories one has to be careful about eating too much to "over compensate." Way to get fast!!!!!!!!

momof2 said...

That was a great post packed with information! I swam with Ram for quite a while, but cannot really swing the times available with my two kiddos now, and so I swim on my own when I can. I also do Karate with my son. These two are a nice cross-training as well. I get a much better cardio when I swim, but I love the discipline, focus on detail, and body balance of Karate.

Good luck with your goals!

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