Why coaches give 30-minute swims--and why you should use the "TI Algorithm' instead
Warning: LONG post.
This week TI Coach Steve Howard (Lafayette LA) related in an email: I swim periodically with the Masters group. At our latest practice, we were timed for 200 yards. My time was 3:50 which I was happy with. Then we did a 30-minute timed swim. My goal was to maintain good form and a consistent pace for 30 minutes. I swam 1200 yards, for an average of 5:00 per 200 yards. What does this tell me?
TI Coach David Shen (Silicon Valley CA) had a similar experience: The Masters team I used to work out with always did a 30 min swim the first week of every month. If you missed that day, the coach would make you do it whenever he saw you next. I always hated the first week of a month because of that swim, but inevitably I would have to swim it. I never got any explanation for why we did it, other than some vague reference to fitness levels etc.
TI Coach, and author of the Lou Tharp wrote: Swimming 30 minutes to gain speed is like driving 30 miles to lose weight. The activity has no relation to the goal.
So why do Masters coaches give this swim--like virtually all swim coaches and a growing number of tri coaches? The 30-minute timed swim (or “T-30”) is the most common test set employed in what’s called Energy System Training, the universally-embraced paradigm for conventional workouts. As David alluded, it is supposed to predict the pace you need to swim on shorter repeats to 'build your anaerobic threshold.'
As my friend Mike Joyner, MD, director of exercise research at Mayo Clinic says, the entire Energy System framework is 'pseudo science.' Also none of the physiological measures it’s designed to focus on have ever correlated with swimming performance. On a practical level, it's ill-advised to give uncritically to wide varieties of athletes--most of whom are probably wasting 93% or more of their energy and horsepower, and virtually none of whom are ever given an adequate explanation for the purpose of this swim they’re so regularly asked to perform.
We favor using what I've decided to call the TI Algorithm for Swimming Success which precisely targets the exact metrics that correlate highly with swimming speed – Stroke Tempo and Stroke Count (or Length). The fastest swimmers in the world have consistently demonstrated a superior ability to increase Stroke Tempo while maintaining Stroke Length. So it stands to reason most training should be aimed at developing that capacity—then hardwiring it into the brain so it endures through fatigue, race pressures, etc.
The other advantage of the TI Algorithm is it’s personalized. Instead of pursuing a an airily abstract, and unsubstantiated anaerobic threshold, any athlete can learn their ‘neural threshold’ of SPL/Tempo combination (the point where it breaks down, and focus on improving that threshold in every set and practice. If they set a goal – say to improve from 30 min to 27 min for 1500m—they can easily calculate how they must improve their SPL/Tempo threshold, via a mathematically-specific approach. That’s a huge improvement over the one-size-fits-all approach of using T-30 sets to identify a theoretical anaerobic threshold.
To give Steve a concrete neutrally-oriented alternative to the T-30, based on the TI Algorithm Principle, I suggested this:
Steve, you’ve stated clearly that your goal is to improve your pace for 1500m – and eventually even the 10K swims you’ve discovered you love—to something in the range of 2:00 or better per 100 yards. The practice you cited gives you two 'data points' to compare: For the 200 trial, you swam 3:50; when you were asked to swim 30 minutes continuous, your pace fell off to 2:30 per 200. That’s 30 percent slower! The danger I see in long unbroken swims is they are 'wiring in' a pace that is plodding in comparison to the brisk pace you could be wiring in with short repeats. I.E. Taking you away from, not toward, your stated goal.
A far more valuable exercise would be a regular benchmark set of 200-yard repeats (since you have a handy data point that’s faster than your 2:00/100 goal) to see how many you could complete at the 3:50 pace in the same 30 minute investment of your precious practice time.
A simple, systematic way to approach this would be to break up 'effortful' 200s with recovery swims of some shorter distance in your first trial. Use intuition to determine how long the recovery swims should be . . . and subsequent 200 trials to test your intuition. Perhaps you guesstimate 100y of recovery between timed trials on your first go. If that feels easy, you could subsequently reduce recovery to 75y and see if you can still maintain the 3:50 pace.
Alteratively, start with 25y recovery swims, and simply adjust upward as you move farther into the set if you feel unready to swim 3:50 on your next 200. Again, use intuition as your guide. Adjust rest until you feel ready to hit your intended pace. Why do I suggest using an intuitively-based, experience-adjusted (another term for this is ‘organic’) approach to choosing repeat distance and rest interval? Because it's just as important to design practices that hone personal training intuition as it is to wire in unbreakable SL and a well-calibrated internal gauge of pace/effort.
As your neural and metabolic systems adjust to this particular task, you’ll find that you can maintain that 3:50/200 pace with shorter recovery swims. This is critical: Since your goals are oriented to longer swims, particularly in open water, it’s more valuable at this point to strive to make a 3:50 pace effortless, than to improve to a 3:40 pace! Progressive ease will occur because:
1. You devote other practices to easier, shorter swims that target Balance, Streamlining or Propelling skills, with TI drills and Focal Points; and
2. Your nervous system adapts to the specific task of swimming a 3:50 pace by learning more efficient patterns of muscle recruitment for your current threshold combination of SPL and Tempo.
This brings me to me to the other critical principle: Besides time, always use either SPL or Tempo as a reference point on your 200-yard benchmark swims. As David Shen wrote, when he can’t escape the 30-minute swim, I set my tempo trainer to around 1.1s, then try to hold consistent SPL for the entire 30 min.
As I noted, it’s better to do 200y repeats, than 30 minutes. Choose a relatively brisk tempo, or a semi-challenging (and height-indexed) SPL. Discipline yourself to stay within those ranges and discover what 200 pace results. If your pace starts to creep towards or above 4:00, adjust recovery swims upward. As it gets easier to hold 3:50, adjust recovery swims downward. You’re working toward eventually holding the 3:50 pace without rest, for 400-600-800 etc.
I feel strongly that it’s best to save long continuous swims for open water. I’ve managed to swim multiple marathons (up to 28.5 miles), win six USMS Long Distance Open Water championships (up to 10K), and break national age group records for 1- and 2-miles without ever swimming 30 minutes nonstop in the pool – and devoting 95 percent of my practice to repeats of 400m/500y or less.
However, if you still want to do an occasional 30-minute test swim in the pool, do the following: As David did, swim with TT and count strokes. Swim an easy length every time your SPL goes above your chosen range. And compare the difference between your current 200y pace and your 30-min pace. If you can close the gap from 30 percent, to 20 percent, 15 percent, you’re doing well.
Head Coach & Chief Executive Optimist
May your laps be as happy as mine.
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