Are you finding it difficult to increase your speed in the water? Are you looking to combine some speed swimming training with your current endurance workouts? Do you find that you are not moving any faster in the pool or in your triathlon no matter how hard you try? Then let’s look at some tips on speed and sprint training that we can show you during our lessons.
How to train for sprint swimming?
Sprint swim training can be gruelling and exhausting, but having a good coach taking you through the best way to develop these steps will lead to you increasing your power and speed in the water (even over longer distances). Developing your stroke and technique are obviously vital in improving performance and overall speed in the water, but what are the main elements that you should be looking for when aiming at ‘speed work’ in the pool?
Breathing during sprint swimming
Breath-holding (otherwise known as hypoxic work) is part of swimming at top speed. This method includes limiting the number of breaths per length or over a given distance. Some swimmers hold their breath for the entire length of the pool, whilst others breathe once per length, or equally novice swimmers may start with taking a breath every five arm strokes. All these techniques will develop your breath holding ability.
During sprinting, it is imperative that a swimmer acclimatises to swimming at maximum effort and the breathing demands that such effort entails.
The ability to hold your breath during speed swim training can be developed more and more over time. When performing sprint freestyle or butterfly swimming, a single breath will interrupt the power, acceleration and flow of the stroke, hence why we see Olympic 50 metre sprinters not turning for a breath at all when racing.
Stroke rate and length
When performing sprint and speed sets, always try and increase your stroke rate (number of strokes per length) but maintain your stroke length at the same time. If you can increase your stroke rate without shortening your stroke length, you will inevitably swim faster.
Develop a strong kick
Swimming faster not only requires the arms to increase in speed but also the leg kick at the same to time (on any of the four strokes). The timing of the legs to the arms also needs to be maintained no matter if you are swimming at 60% effort or maximum effort. Using fins during sprint training can also benefit a fast and powerful leg kick.
Recruiting fast twitch fibres
Performing short, sharp sprints in the water over very short distances will develop fast twitch fibres in the muscle. Such fibres are needed for better sprinting and you can change your physiology and biochemistry with speed work in the pool. As a distance swimmer or triathlete, this recruitment of fast twitch fibres can be developed over time and you will see a difference in your sprinting ability in both training and in racing.
When to perform sprinting and speed work
Learning how it feels to swim fast is important, however, this does not mean that sprint swimming should be done during every workout. Depending on experience of this kind of training, we would not recommend sprint training every day but limit it to 3 times per week (please talk with your coach and we can advise you more).
On the whole, sprint training is performed at a higher intensity than distance training. Swimming at race pace can quickly lead to a spike in your heart rate and the build up of lactic acid in your muscles. The ability to delay the onset of lactic acid can be achieved with regular sprint (speed) work in the pool. With practice, you will see yourself your sprint training move to entirely different level.
The biggest issue for novice and beginner triathletes is the type of swimming training that they should be doing in the pool.
Whether this is speed, endurance, strength, recovery or technique training, Strictly Swimming workouts are designed to develop a variety of specific elements of your swim training. Our swimming training lessons will help you improve your swim time in your next triathlon by boosting your swim speed, power and technique.
A necessary component for any swim training programme and more importantly, for developing your triathlon swimming pace, is Interval-based Training. Some sports consist of continuous workouts, but swimming training should be made up of repetitions of shorter distances with a rest interval between each swim (i.e. 10 x 100 metres freestyle). Interval training sets are designed to allow the swimmer time to rest and recover after each individual swim within a particular set. A good quality interval training set is proven to develop your aerobic capacity and endurance capacity more than a continuous workout, as interval training allows the swimmer to increase the effort and train at a higher level. The added rest and recovery also allows the swimmer and triathlete to maintain their stroke technique when fatigue creeps into the body at the end of a swim training set.
Within any training session, it is vital for triathletes to develop and understand their pacing in order to achieve the correct pace for aerobic training (distance), anaerobic training (speed) or lactate threshold training (the point at which blood lactate builds up in the muscle faster than the body can remove it and sustain effort). Strictly Swimming triathlon courses will build your technique and develop your understanding on the best way to train in the water.
Originally, the wetsuit was introduced to competitors in the sport of triathlon as a safety aid to help swimmers endure the cold water and prevent the onset of hypothermia.
The wetsuit simply acts by allowing water to fill between the rubber of the suit and the body. During the swim of the triathlon, the temperature of the body increases which causes the water within the wetsuit to also increase. Hence, allowing triathletes to endure the cold during open water swims.
Apart from benefiting from such warmer temperatures in cold water around the UK, it soon became apparent that there was an additional advantage of the wetsuit. Open water swimmers soon found that their performance in the water was improved by the increase in buoyancy from the wetsuit, giving the additional propulsive lift and height in the water that they may not have experienced in the pool without a suit. Not only are swimmers guarded against the cold water and lifted higher at the surface, but swimmers also experienced a decrease in drag and frontal resistance in the water. Thus, swimmers were swimming faster in a wetsuit (and some with better ‘distance per stroke’ than they had in the pool).
How much faster?Well there is no exact answer to that question. The benefits can vary from individual to individual. It depends on various factors and also a combination of factors. Skill level is a major factor – novice swimmers often tend to benefit more from wetsuits than better swimmers. Swimmers with natural balance and buoyancy in the water tend to benefit less than swimmers with poor balance and buoyancy. The wetsuit itself plays a part – a good quality suit along with a good fit can both help with speed (so maybe the cheapest wetsuit that is too loose or way too tight isn’t the answer to maximising your potential speed – a badly fitted wetsuit can actually increase more drag). Saying this, new swimmers to the sport of triathlon often find the wetsuit very heavy and need to develop upper body strength in their stroke to cope with the suit.
Personally, from experience, I believe that swimmers with a weak or problematic leg kick, benefit highly from a suit as it lifts the legs and the hips higher in the water and produces a better streamlined position (perfectly horizontal position of the whole body). Although a wetsuit will not cure a poor leg kick, it can make you feel less exhausted by your kick (however, simply wearing a wetsuit will not increase the propulsion of a weak leg kick). Be aware that some swimmers complain that the wetsuit floats their legs too high in the water which can equally disturb the propulsion of the leg kick.
When experiencing choppy water (and sea swell), many people in triathlon swimming often report that all of the above benefits of a wetsuit are reduced because the benefit of height in the water is lost, along with the help of buoyancy and streamlining of the legs due to the up and down nature of the water. Reports often show that swimmers feel inhibited by the wetsuit swimming into the ‘chop’, yet aided by the prevailing wind and downward part the ‘chop’ (but overall swim times reflect a lack of help from the wetsuit, with slower swim times in choppy water as it would be without a wetsuit).
What are the disadvantages of using a wetsuit?There can be a decrease in the range of motion around the shoulder joint, inhibiting rotation (depending on the suit, the fit and the swimmers flexibility). The lift of the hips from the suit can disturb the leg kick as the legs are lifted too high preventing the usual ‘connection’ to push the water backwards as the legs kick down. As already mentioned, such lift can be an advantage to others. Some swimmers feel a loss of tactile sensation on the ‘feel’ of the water during both the underwater pull and leg kick. I have seen unbalanced swimmers gain the necessary buoyancy from a wetsuit, but at the same time such buoyancy leaves them in a static, flat position, inhibiting body roll (this is often due to a lack of core strength to push down the hips during body roll). If you experience any of the above, adjustments are needed to counteract such changes in your stroke.
Should your front crawl technique change in a wetsuit?As wetsuits are extremely flexible and durable these days, the mechanics of your stroke should hardly change at all (body roll, free roll of the shoulder joint, good high recovery, high elbow during the pull phase can easily be maintained). Changes to your breathing pattern will often occur in open water due to other competitors, the ‘chop’ of the water, the cold or simply oxygen deficit.
What type of wetsuit?Try not to buy any old wetsuit. Find a triathlon-type, swim-specific wetsuit. The triathlon brand is not so important overall for non elite competitors; they all have good points and can help make you a faster triathlete in a open water. Go to a shop and try on various wetsuits to find the best fit irrespective of the brand – what fits you for your size, might not fit someone else of similar size. Make sure if fits around the chest, so not to take in too much water but also doesn’t over restrict breathing. Higher price suits use better neoprene material that is more flexible than cheaper suits. For example, swimming wetsuits should hold less water than surfing wetsuits (thinner and lighter material, tightly fitted).
SummaryThe best method of swimming faster in your wetsuit is to train in your wetsuit and acclimatise to your stroke and the feel of the suit. Better swimmers may not get the advantage of using a wetsuit as improver swimmers. Apart from the speed benefits that some people encounter, many open water swimmers report that they feel far less exhausted after a fast swim in a wetsuit than a slow swim without one (again if the wetsuit fits and the swimmer has sufficient upper body strength to pull the added weight of the wetsuit). Speed is definitely the motivating factor as triathletes often use wetsuits in cold and warm water swims (with the lightest, tightest and most manoeuvrable wetsuits). Wearing a wetsuit in warm waters can easily dehydrate you, but luckily or sadly, that problem isn’t so apparent in the UK. Drag forces in the water can be reduced from a wetsuit, although the wetsuit cannot disguise or avoid bad stroke mechanics.
If the suit fits snugly without irritating you and leaves your stroke mechanics unaffected while providing warmth and buoyancy then you should be at your fastest. If you have a low percentage of body fat, then you will particularly need the wetsuit to safeguard from hypothermia in cold water.
So do wetsuits actually make you faster? There is no easy answer, hoping that you can buy a great wetsuit to faster times isn’t that simple, you still need to put in the training and develop your stroke mechanics. But there are certainly advantages and a potential speed boost for many triathletes and open water swimmers for using a good quality WETSUIT!
Paul started competing in swimming from the age of 8 and eventually went on to represent his country all over the world. During his time at University, Paul specialised in Aquatics and the Biomechanics of Swimming and produced numerous theses on swimming performance.