Last month we shared a blog post on “Endurance Skills: A Practice Set to Improve Balance, Streamline, and Focus.” This week we delve deeper into the topic of endurance. We revisit Terry’s March 2017 blog post on the topic of swimming endurance, featuring his interview last year in an episode of the “Mile High Endurance” podcast with Rich Soares and Bill Plock. 

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 10.04.15 AM

Highlights include:

  • Training for economy of motion and aerobic efficiency, as much as for work capacity
  • How to Swim Faster in an Ironman—and Feel Amazing
  • “Permission” to swim less: shorter, more effective training sessions

Here’s a brief description of their podcast:

“Mile High Endurance is your weekly connection to coaches, experts and professional athletes to help you reach your endurance and triathlon goals.  Rich, Khem and Bill bring their passion for triathlon, cycling, running and other endurance sports to help you learn and enjoy being an athlete.  Join them each week as they bring you the latest authors, coaching insights and relevant topics to endurance athletes all over the world.” 

We at T.I. would like to thank the folks at Mile High Endurance for hosting Terry on their podcast for multiple episodes last year, to discuss and deconstruct many different aspects of swimming, and offer practical guidance for training. We’re happy to be able to share this engaging discussion and we’ll re-post Terry’s other podcast episodes in the coming weeks. If you prefer to skip Terry’s accompanying article (which discusses their conversation) and go straight to the podcast, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the post for the embedded audio (Terry’s segment begins at 14:30).

Enjoy and Happy Laps!

Dad and Dave Eleuthera 2006

Terry and friend David Barra sync swimming in Eleuthera, the Bahamas, December 2006 (Credit: Dennis O’Clair)


One week ago today, I recorded my second interview with Rich Soares and Bill Plock of Mile High Endurance. Our topic was What Does Endurance Mean? I opened the discussion by asking the hosts for their definition of endurance.

Bill said, since becoming an endurance athlete, he has subscribed to Ellen Hart Peña’s description of endurance as a ball of string. The string represents energy needed for effective muscle function. When you begin an endurance event, you send the ball rolling toward a distant wall, representing your finish line. Your goal is for the string to run out just as it reaches the wall.

I like that analogy as well. But to illustrate the complexity a swimmer faces, let’s consider three different ways to swim 1500 meters:  in a pool race or time trial; in an open water event; or as the first leg of a triathlon.

When swimming a 1500m event in the pool, the ball of string analogy is quite apt. You want to have enough energy to be going with a full head of steam as you reach the finish, yet have nothing left as you get there.  But even with a lap counter to let you know how much remains, it’s extremely challenging to make that string reach the wall.

Most athletes start too fast, and the string must be stretched more and more—often to the breaking point. Stroke length and/or stroke rate fall off markedly in the middle and last half and pace slows markedly. One needs highly developed pacing skills to roll that string out evenly for the entire 1500.

In a 1500m open water event, the goal is the same–run through the finish line chute having spent your energy wisely and nearly entirely. But without distance markers along the way, it’s very difficult to gauge.  Even when I’ve swum quite well and fast, I’m generally far fresher at the finish of an OW race than at the end of a pool race and happily so. In part, this is because there are no turns, meaning you make little use of the body’s largest muscle groups—thighs and glutes—and because you don’t experience the oxygen deprivation of being underwater for as many as 65 turns and pushoffs.

In a 1500m triathlon swim the goal radically different: The smart triathlete, wants to have rolled out as little of the string as possible when you complete the swim leg, because that string will produce far more speed (relative to each discipline) on land than in the water.

This means that the best training for each of these examples will differ in important regards than for each of the others. I participate in the first two, yet my training during the colder months—preparing for 1500m/1650y pool races—undergoes some significant changes during warmer months preparing for open water events of 1500m or longer.

Rich Soares shows how much he enjoys podcasting.

Rich Soares shows how much he enjoys podcasting.


Training for Economy

Host Rich Soares says that the longer he’s been an endurance athlete, the more he’s come to appreciate a highly nuanced definition: The smart athlete focuses on training for economy of motion and aerobic efficiency as much as for work capacity. In other words, train to reduce the demand side of the energy equation, rather than maximize the supply side. Seek the least amount of energy expenditure for the greatest amount of performance—and be grateful to have “string” in reserve as you cross the finish line.

Additional topics we discuss on this podcast include:

  • How much does land endurance help swimming and how much can swim endurance help land endurance? Does the training I do on a bike help my distance swimming ability in any way?
  • How much time must a triathlete devote to swim training to optimize their tri-swim?
  • How many hours of training does it take to increase bench press by 10%, run or cycle distance or speed by 10%, swim distance or speed by 10%?

How to Swim Faster in an Ironman—and Feel Amazing

Finally, there’s a great exchange where Bill reveals that he’s hit a wall with his swim speed—as many swimmers and triathletes have. No matter how much he trains, his swim pace never improves—and he routinely runs out the string during training. He often starts a set of 100m repeats at a brisk 1:30, then gradually fades—often to a pace as slow as 1:50.

Bill can do an Ironman swim in a respectable 1:10, but—given what happens during his training swims–wonders if it’s worth the effort it might take to swim faster.

When I explain the techniques that will allow him to both swim faster and become a far more ‘tireless’ swimmer—able to complete longer swims at a faster pace, and feel completely fresh upon finishing—Bill says “My mind is blown” upon realizing that the techniques and stroke emphases that will increase his efficiency are exactly the opposite of what he thought.

“Permission” to swim less

During the post-interview wrapup, Bill tells Rich: “I feel like Terry gave me permission to trade an 3000y training session for a 1500y session focused on increasing my stroke efficiency.” Why is this so? Because it takes far less time and dramatically less training volume to increase economy—the priority Rich cited—than it does to make that “ball of string” larger. And shorter training sessions are almost always more effective in doing so.

Please give a listen.  I promise you’ll enjoy.  [Interview with Terry begins at time signature 14:30]

We’ve planned at least one more interview segment where we discuss the advantages of training designed to created adaptations to the brain and nervous system—instead of the aerobic system—and how to get it. Which will also be the topic of next week’s blog. Stay tuned.


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