Escaping the Swimming Plateau

I’ve been dealing with a swimming plateau since, well, practically since I started swimming. I was a lifeguard and a swimming teacher in high school, and the classes I took to become certified in those areas means that I have a basic understanding of the correct form for the major strokes and the ability to do said strokes passably for a maximum of 5-6 strokes as a demonstration.

I didn’t start swimming for fitness until I quit track in college.  Swimming allowed me to take advantage of the free access to a pool and to break up the monotony of running. I really enjoyed it and, even after never swimming more than the required 500 yards in lifeguarding in-services for years, I picked it up relatively easily. I quickly added volume to my long, slow swims without much effort and remember swimming my first mile and quitting only because I was bored, not because I was tired. Since then, I stopped and started swimming regularly based on whims and my passing fancies (and free access to a pool). I never had much trouble picking it right back up again and hitting the point where I can swim a mile or so without exerting myself too much.

The relative ease with which I do this makes me think I might have some sort of affinity for swimming. However, due to the on-again, off-again nature of our relationship thus far, I’ve never been able to fully reap the benefits of that affinity. Even when I actually started training for a triathlons, swimming took a backseat. I knew I could swim the 1.2 miles in a half Ironman. I had no such confidence in my ability to ride 56 miles or to run 13.1 miles after the previously mentioned cycling. So I exchanged one swimming workout a week for an additional cycling or running workout. This was the right decision at the time, but my swimming never advanced noticeably further than is accomplished by regular ol’ getting-back-into-shape.

Ironman 70.3 swim exit (2014)
Ironman 70.3 swim exit (2014)

This year, I focused more on swimming, and while I did see improvement in the 1000yd time trials I did during training (an overall drop of over a minute), some of that was because of the different efforts I put into them. I swam the first one hard. I raced the third one (against myself, but still…). My actual races this year didn’t give me a realistic picture, either. My 1500m swim leg was 30:36 and my 1.2 mile swim leg was 33:08 compared to my times from the previous year at the same distances of 27:14 and 38:54. I’m pretty sure the former course was long and the latter was short, so they weren’t the best measuring sticks. I do feel like I’ve improved some this year, I’m still a back-of-the-front-of-the-pack swimmer like I have been since I started triathlons. This isn’t exactly uncommon. Once a basic level of competence is reached, swimming often takes a backseat in triathlon training. The reasoning is simple: you can train hard as a swimmer four times a week and take 3-5 minutes off your swim time or you can focus on cycling and/or running and take off 6-10 minutes in those disciplines. If you are looking for an overall PR, it’s a pretty obvious choice.

The water is very low this year. Usually, the swim exit would be way up where the green rug takes a sharp turn.
Swim exit at Jordanelle (2015)

But, as I said earlier, I think I may have an affinity for swimming, and as such, I’d like to reach my potential. So I finally gathered up all my motivation and started attending the masters swim team that meets (really early) in the mornings at my pool. I didn’t get a really good sense of what it was like my first day because we worked solely on breaststroke. So I basically drowned for an hour and spent the next couple of days so sore I could barely cross my legs. I made sure to ask the coach (who was very helpful and didn’t make fun me at all, even when I am sure I looked like a drowning rat) what the typical schedule was so I could try to avoid breaststroke days in the future.

So I started regularly going to the pool at 6am for masters once a week. Now, I’m a morning person. I’m productive in the mornings, I like being awake when I know others are asleep, and I find the time very peaceful. But I like to get up early and do some reading or writing. I like to get up early and maybe do an easy swim, run, or bike ride and enjoy seeing the sun come up. Waking up at 5am so I can go swim until I feel like my lungs are going to explode and my arms are going to fall off is less appealing. And that’s exactly what happens at masters where I have learned at least one very important fact about my typical swim workout—I spend way too much time resting between sets when I do swim workouts.

I set out all my stuff the night before (actually, I stuff it all in a bag-- laying it out is step one).
I set out all my stuff the night before (actually, I stuff it all in a bag– laying it out is step one).

Usually, when I finish a set and am tired and out of breath, I’ll stop, take a drink from my water bottle, shake out my arms, sigh dramatically, look at the clock, groan, give myself a little pep talk, and then start out on the next set. This is probably a hold-over from my track days where we would have nearly full recoveries between our reps. This makes a lot of sense when you are running 200s, 400s, and 800s as training for 200s, 400s, and 800s. It makes less sense when you are swimming 25s, 50s, and 100s as training for races that are 500+ yards, and that means that most swim workouts look a little different than most track workouts.

Standard swim workouts are often structured with a group of sets that look something like this:

8 x 50 on 1:00
4 x 100 on 2:00
8 x 25 on :35*

Basically, during the first set, you will start another 50 every one minute. So if you get done with the 50 in fifty seconds, you rest ten seconds then go. If you get done with the 50 in fifty-five seconds, you rest five seconds then go. The rest of the sets follow the same pattern. I’ve known about this convention of swim workouts for a long time, but I’ve never done it. And it makes a huge difference. The workouts are tough. I have to pick a pace that I can sustain throughout the reps, but I don’t want to go too slowly and eat into my recovery time (or look like a slow poke). After attending for a few weeks, I can already see these quick sets making a difference. Form is important while swimming, and when I start getting tired, my form slips. Doing these sets while tired and gasping for air gives me the chance to focus on keeping form while I’m tired. And all that practice will be useful at the end of a 2.4 mile swim.

Death clock. Only it counts up, not down.

Form is vital for speed in swimming—in my opinion, even more so than when running because of the drag you create in the water if you don’t have good form. The other benefit to masters class is having someone who can critique my stroke and offer suggestions. Like I said before, I’m a decent swimmer. My form is very far from perfect, but it’s honed to the point that online articles about how to better your triathlon swim leg are typically not very helpful. Even after going just a few weeks, I’ve gotten some good advice for my stroke. My most recent breakthrough? To keep my hips right at the surface of the water and to give me a better body position, engage my core muscles. Very obvious, but something I probably would not have figured out on my own. Time to actually add a core workout into my routine.

Masters class is early. It’s tough. In fact, these workouts are probably the toughest swim workouts I’ve ever done, and that’s a good thing. With a renewed focus on swimming hard and the added bonus of useful stroke critiques, I’m hoping that I will be able to make some real progress this winter.  I’ll have something better than poorly measured open water courses  to mark that potential progress.  So that we don’t swim all over each other while sharing lanes, we swimmers divide ourselves into lanes based on speed.  I’m currently in the third fasted lane (out of four).  Moving up to the second fastest lane is on my radar and has become an off-season goal for me.  Maybe it’s finally time to move on from my perpetual swimming plateau.

Fairmont-- before and after (my phone does not take high quality pictures at night)
Fairmont– before and after (my phone does not take high quality pictures at night)

*This workout is for demonstration purposes only. It is probably really worthless as an actually workout.


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