When it comes to swimming, in the triathlon game some say he's the best. Here's Josh Amberger with a guide to his essential swim sets.
Swimming. I’m not bad at it. In the triathlon game, some would say I’m the best.
Others commenting on YouTube videos would debate at length that I’m easily beaten by some short course stars, as if it were some episode of fantasy triathlon. But no matter how easy it may look for me on race day, be sure to know there’s a ridiculous amount of work done in training to get to that point.
Growing up a swimmer, a lot of people assume that it all came easy, and still remains easy. But let me tell you this for nothing; swimming, cycling, and running mixes like oil and water.
They don’t compliment in any way. I feel horrible most of the time in the pool, and as a triathlete, you probably do too.
That’s why we train, to feel better and get better, and why have a ton of drills and equipment to help us cheat out that terrible feeling along the way.
Here are some essential swim sets I use, or have used in the past, in order to achieve this.
Set 1 – Speed Session:
Speed. Bloody ripping 90’s movie with an all-time cast (Dennis Hopper as the bad guy, are you kidding me!).
It’s also a great area to work on in becoming a better swimmer.
Speed off the start line is most relevant in triathlon. A skill most important in mass starts, perhaps less so in the new rolling start format, but not yet entirely diminished thereafter.
I shape races by being the fastest off the line. Those who want to race at the front in Kona have to match my pace and follow. Those that can’t are out of the podium spots, unless they ride as well as Cam Wurf, or they can run a course record marathon.
Start with 25m sprints, or even shorter pure ATP 12-5m sprints. Mix it up with prone position starting sprints (as if it were a deep water start).
You can stretch it out to 50m sprints, but I always find you have to go into those workouts much fresher to benefit from that length of a sprint. Always take max recovery, don’t dilute your speed session to become a lactate tolerance workout by trying to be a hero with little rest between intervals. Leave the heroics to Keanu Reeves.
Volume isn’t important in these sessions, it’s about high velocity, and a moderate amount of repetition. Look at a session like:
- 400 easy warm up
- 8x 50 variable pace ( 50 easy/hard, 50 hard/easy, 50 hard, 50 easy, twice through)
- 200 choice
- 8x50 (25m full gas/25m easy)
- 400 pull buoy, easy swimming
- 8x 50 (20m full gas/30m easy)
- 400 pull buoy
- 8x 50 (15m full gas/35m easy)
- 400 choice warm down.
Set 2 – Endurance:
Endurance. This is the meat and potatoes of triathlon, and where your real interests lay if you want to improve.
If you’re doing sprint distance, you can get away with avoiding this kind of work for now.
It’s generally the most boring aspect to train for, yet the most important to standard distance and above.
Ultimately, because you’re not a shmuck, you know that nothing in life is free, and you’ve got to work for those finisher’s tees.
You might be able to pick them up on eBay, but you’ll still be a crappy swimmer.
Get used to getting in the pool or open water, and swimming long. No shortcuts. In the open water, I like to do up to 5km.
But you can do this set easily enough in the pool too. I already told you it was boring, but just prepare yourself again. At least one of these workouts a week is essential.
- 15-20 Mins easy warm up
- (Set the GPS watch to auto lap every 500m)
- 2x 1500m building every 500m. For paces, think of a medium, moderate and mad progression
- 5-10 Mins cool down
Set 3 - Technique & Drills:
Put fins on for most of your drills, perhaps even your buoyancy shorts. Swallow your pride, because even I rely of these tools. I do drills in most sessions. Before the main set mostly, to shake out a bit of fatigue I’m probably carrying into the session, and to reinforce some basic principles that we all need to keep ourselves on track.
Drill 1: Motor Drill
Our power in the water doesn’t come from our arms, it comes by the assistance of our arms, enabled by a fluid rocking movement through our hips.
Put a kickboard between your thighs. And rock your hips as you move through the water.
Imagine watching yourself swim, and seeing that kickboard swaying side to side as you’re swimming, tick tock, tick tock.
A kickboard that remains still between your legs means you’re not rocking your hips as you move your arms. Introduce a small two beat kick to compliment that hip truncation, and then you have motor drill.
It’s the most basic motor pattern you need for effective swimming.
Drill 2: Breathing
It’s hard to explain drills via text on a page, so let me kind of give you a drill, but mostly something to think about as you’re swimming.
Breath timing is critical to a creating a fluid stroke. When you breathe out of time with your arms, it’s like putting the brakes on in the water.
You should time your breath just as your hand that’s out of the water (in the recovery phase) moves past your head. Use it like a cue. Arm passes the head, breathe immediately.
Start swimming breathing to both sides, and work out which side feels more natural, and which side feels more robotic.
Don’t be put off by this robotic feeling, it’s normal and will reduce to feel more natural with time. I’d recommend always swimming bilateral (breathing to both sides), as it’s going help your body, particularly your pelvis and back to stay in balance.
Drill 3: Long Dog & Short Dog
These drills are done with your arms remaining underwater during the recovery phase of the stroke. At no time should you bring your arms out of the water, but still try to swim as normal in the catch phase.
Long dog is a full length stroke, and short dog is a half length stroke. Switch up with these two drills doing 25 of each, alternating back and forth.
I like this drill because it really helps you feel the water on the catch, and promotes a good hold of the water.
Do the drill slow, don’t try and rush it. This slowness will totally change how well you think you’re catching the water, as the drop in forward momentum will challenge your ability to grab and press the water efficiently each time you stroke.
The change between short and long stokes will also enhance how well you hold the water through the length of your stroke.
I’ll always be sure to pack these training aids when heading to the pool:
I use these every time I’m trying to back up a big bike or run session. Use them for just the warm up, or keep them on for the whole session. They also help if the water is a little chilly too, and probably hide your poor cycling tan lines.
Paddles are a great tool for strength and developing power through the water. A lot of people only use them with a pull buoy, but give them a crack without the pull buoy too. I almost guarantee you’ll get more out of them going paddles only, as it will promote a much more natural movement through the water with proper hip rotation and a matching kick. Sometime people put a pull buoy and paddles together, and go all arms, forgetting about the role the hips and legs play in balance and enhancing movement through the water.
Paddles aren’t about a heroic upper body effort. For me, they are designed to complement the swim stroke, not create some other strength based discipline to become good at.
I wouldn't ever be caught at the pool without my Zone3 High Jazz swimming briefs, they’re perfect for getting amongst the chlorine and throwing down some hard laps. Also bound to bring a few prying eyes to the pool deck…