all images courtesy of Dylan Haskin

by Jesse Kropelnicki

Ed. Note—It's been a while since our last swim article, so we are back with Jesse Kropelnicki, CEO of QT2 Systems and coach to some of triathlon's biggest stars. He joins us with a novel approach to what is very often the triathlete's most significant mental hurdle.

Swimming tends to be the single biggest frustration among triathletes. Sometimes it feels as though if you didn’t swim your way out of the womb, then you might as well have been born as a stone. Swimming is one of the few sports where you can get more and more fit and not see any improvement in speed. In fact, it is very often case that the fittest swimmers are the slowest swimmers! They have perfected the art of thrashing the water, but not moving through it. So many athletes work so hard at swimming, and just see minimal gains, that it is perfectly understandable when many athletes start to let it drop down their training priority list, somewhere below a voluntary Graston treatment. This tendency has them see the swim as something in the way of getting to bike and run on race day.

How About a Different Approach?

What if we were to take an approach that focuses more on the happiness of the athlete, and a bit of reverse periodization? As I said, above, swimming has so many moving parts, all of which are interrelated. It is a multi-variable equation in a dynamic setting. Unlike running, which has one anchor point (points where the body is connected to something firm and defined), and cycling, which has FIVE anchor points, swimming has none! An athlete's ability to understand themselves in this non-static environment does not come easily. Most A-type triathletes try to approach their swim training like their bike and run training where they feel there must be a magic solution somewhere, or special tip that they haven’t heard yet.  Our psyches tend not to handle this well, that more work invested doesn’t equal faster swimming returned, an equation which leads to unhappiness. But what if we turned that on its head and created an environment where athletes could better understand their body’s relationship with the water, and simply enjoy swimming first? That is going to create a happier swimmer. Or at the very least a less unhappy swimmer…And, a happy swimmer is more likely to be a consistent swimmer, who is more likely to become a faster swimmer.

OK, What Does this Approach Look Like?

It looks like attempting to take the frustrations of swimming away, as much as possible: let's build a focus around what the athlete does well. Success has a tendency to breed success, so to speak, and we should allow that success to occur in swimming. A primary example is the seeming love affair that so many triathletes have with the pull buoy. For years, we coaches have grown frustrated by the reliance on this device, because most athletes are not using for its intended purpose of focusing the swim stroke on the catch and pull—they use it to aid in flotation. So we have taken it away, time and again. And what has happened? Maybe some slight improvements in in-water body balance, but also a whole slew of unhappy swimmers, who dread going to the pool. I say, “give them the buoy,” and whatever else excites them to get into the water! Put an athlete into a situation where they can be excited, or at the very least, not hate what they are going to be doing, and you are going to have an athlete who is going to do that thing much better than they might, otherwise.

Another example is the athlete who loves fins. They love the speed at which they are able to swim with them, and how they help to keep the legs afloat. Take the fins away, and the athlete feels significantly slower, which is also significantly less fun. I say, “give them the fins!”

We can justify a buoy all we want, by saying that it helps to put the athlete into the same position that they will be in, on race day, when they are in their wetsuit. We can do the same with fins, by saying that they will help with ankle flexibility, and stroke-kick connection. But I say that the only justification that we need is that they make the athlete a happier swimmer as priority number one. Speed will come as a consequence. Also consider the fact that the buoy adds more swim specific stress to the upper body, and certainly lowers the systematic stress of a swim. When you turn off the oxygen use of the legs, the heart rates go down significantly!

How Does Reverse Periodization Play a Role in All of This?

Traditionally speaking we have taken a very conventional approach to swimming, treating it little different from biking and running. It followed a typical linear periodized progression where an aerobic “base” is built first, and then intensity later.  What I have found is that a reverse periodization, for swimming in particular, makes a heck of a lot more sense, even if using linear periodization for the bike and run. The beauty of reverse periodization is that it allows the athlete to start out with shorter, more crisp, repeats, when fitness is low. Because they are shorter, they represent an excellent opportunity to focus on good form. And athletes just tend to think that they are more fun, i.e. motivating. As an athlete’s fitness improves, they will be able to maintain good form, as the length of the interval increases, eventually progressing to more aerobic and race-specific repeats. The other more physiological rational behind reverse periodization for swimming is that most triathletes have trained themselves to be VERY aerobic in the water; they “lack gears,” so to speak. They have done this via chronic aerobic bike and run training as well as always pushing to squeeze the sendoff interval in the water.  By squeezing their push-off interval, they unintentionally end up with continuous aerobic swimming. The reverse periodization approach forces these athletes to open their physiology back up and find gears early in the swim training.

Why NOT Take this Approach?

There are a couple of valid reasons to pause before jumping right into this approach. First of all, if an athlete sinks like a stone when in the water, then it may be a good idea to address this prior to working on anything fitness- or speed-related. Any major balance issues, or gross mechanical impediments, which could lead to injury, should be mitigated prior to, or in conjunction with, this approach. Any real progress is going to be a function of in-water body balance, and ensuring that consistency is not impeded by injury, due to significant mechanical technique issues. Once an athlete knows that they are swimming at the surface of the water, and/or not doing any harm to themselves, then they should feel comfortable in embracing this approach, full-on.

The other reason that an athlete should pause prior to diving into this approach is merely a matter of discussion and consideration. Very strong swimmers, who have no negative feelings towards the pool, and no reliance on any of its toys, can, at the very least, decide whether or not the approach is something that they should consider. I am not speaking of athletes whose swim would be described as “not a weakness.” I am speaking of athletes who come from a swimming background, and competed at relatively high levels. As long as their motivation levels remain high, there is no need to meet them halfway by allowing them to utilize pool toys. Balance will be a non-issue for them, and they are unlikely to have any significant flaws in their strokes. These athletes can consider a more traditional periodized approach. While the reverse periodization may be effective for these athletes it may not be necessary.

Swim Protocol In Action

The number one consideration in this protocol, and the basis around which it is built, is the idea that a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer. Most triathletes have a history of identifying with a particular pool toy, whether a kick board, fins, snorkel, or a set of paddles. The pull buoy, of course, remains the traditional fan favorite. Whatever it is, an athlete should use it. If an athlete doesn’t like to use pool toys, then they shouldn’t get anywhere near them! Whatever gets them to the pool in a positive frame of mind is the adjustment that needs to be made. The psychosomatic impact of being on happy on physical progress is a real thing!

Once in the pool, with a big smile on their face, an athlete will want to run through about three phases of training, within the reverse periodization. The first phase would consist of extremely short intervals, no longer than 75 meters. These would be completed in a way that ensured high muscle tension, which may include a band, buoy, or paddles, and with a seemingly unnecessarily large rest interval, upwards of about half of the interval’s split, itself. This will ensure that the intensity on these is extremely high, and energy system, extremely anaerobic. This will also ensure good body balance and crisp form. This phase may also be dovetailed with strength training in the gym if the athlete did not come from a swim background.

The second phase consists of slightly longer intervals, with slightly less rest, than what was experienced in the first phase. And, we ease up on the muscle tension, a bit. These intervals may run as high as 150 meters, and be done on a rest interval that provides 15 to 30 seconds rest, after each. This will still be a strong effort, but the length of the interval, as well as shorter rest interval, will make it feel like a bit more of a tempo effort than best effort.

Lastly, the third phase, again, increases the length of the interval, and reduces its rest interval. These intervals may be as long as 600 meters, with about 5 to 15 seconds of rest between them. They are quite aerobic, as the shorter rest interval simply doesn’t allow for the athlete to really rev their engine, all that much. This phase also reduces the muscle tension, and can be done without gear. The swimmer may want to keep 1-2 strength based sessions per week, depending on their strength needs as well as how many days each week they are swimming.

The above is reverse periodization, in a nutshell! Start with short, hard intervals, with a great deal of muscle tension, and plenty of rest between each. As the athlete progresses increase the length of the interval, but squeeze the rest interval, just enough to help to define the energy system that is being targeted, while removing some of the muscle tension.

Please just make note of one thing that I mentioned, above, regarding rest intervals. It is often the case that we think, or feel, as though our fastest swimming occurs as a result of these ever tightening rest intervals. Be cautious of this mindset. While it is certainly very rewarding to complete a swim set on a tight interval, such as 10 x 100 on 1:30 and holding 1:25 per 100, this is still a very aerobic set. Due to the tight rest interval, the athlete doesn’t have the capacity to swim at top speed. So, if the intent of the workout is to work on aerobic development, then a tight interval is exactly what you want. But, if the intention is to target the anaerobic system, then we want to promote an atmosphere where anaerobic energy can be utilized. To that end, keep the repeats short, sweet, and with plenty of time between each, so as to minimize as much fatigue as possible, prior to each.

Other Considerations Along the Way

  1. Body position: as I mentioned above, you want to be on the top of the water, if you are going to move through it efficiently. If this is a significant issue, then put it right to the top of the list of things to fix.
  2. Rhythm: Whatever your swim stroke looks like, it should look good on a dance floor. What I mean by that is that it should have rhythm. You want to swim such that each stroke is the continuation of the one before it. We also want to see a nice smooth connection between an athlete’s kick and his or her stroke. You will often watch Olympic swimmers with a gallop to their stroke. They are creating a rhythm that works for them and works with their kicking. It is not critical to be a two- or six-beat kicker, as long as you have rhythm!
  3. Strength: We, oftentimes, forget about the need for strength in the swim.  A great way to target the upper-body is through TRX, or swim cords, on dry land.  In the water, of course, we have the ankle band, paddles, and/or a pull buoy. One particular consideration, worth noting, is that most females, who have no swimming background, will very likely need to spend some time doing gym-based strength work, as they will likely lack the upper-body strength, necessary to meet their fitness. Most males can develop the swim specific strength needs from swimming alone.
  4. Recovery Swims: When athletes are only swimming 3-4 days per week for a total of less than 15,000 meters per week, there is no need for recovery swims!  They are already so far below the stress that “real swimmers” apply that they need to add swim specific stress every chance they get!

Some Final Words

Athletes, like anybody else, enjoy doing what they are good at. Nothing is as motivating as success. Very little is as demotivating as constantly feeling and experiencing a sense of failure. Swimming is such a different animal than biking and running, because there are so many variables which play a role in improvement. It is quite easy to become a fit swimmer. But becoming a fast swimmer is a very different story. In this difference lies the frustration. Our goal, with the approach outlined above, is to attempt to bypass the frustration, or at least diminish it, by creating an atmosphere of success. This air of success can serve as the key motivating factor to keep swimming from becoming a chore, and more an enjoyable and efficient part of an athlete’s day.