Distance Training

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    With the pro swim series starting up again there are a lot of athlete interviews describing their training. Ashley Twichell, an elite distance and open water swimmer, noted she swam “27k” in the 2 days leading up to the event. While stating your “work volume” is still a badge of honor among swimmers, even sprinters, the act of swimming a high volume describes little about the quality of the training sessions.

    Some distance training concepts have been explored in USRPT literature and on this forum. This post will consolidate and add some newer insights into the discussion. From an earlier post:

    “Just as every other USRPT concept focuses on specificity, in order to improve 100% VO2max we must train in the 100% zone. For trained athletes, a continuous high-effort lasting 5-6 minutes will plateau VO2 for about 4 minutes. From research, an athlete running a mile in 4 minutes will be at or above 100% VO2max for about 2 minutes and peaks at about 107%. But because these are continuous efforts to failure they are very hard to repeat during a training session.”

    And a reply to a question about distance training:

    “1) The velocity change between the 800m and 1500m LCM events, for high-level athletes, is about 2%. I will assume another 2-3% change to the 3k for this. For ref, the velocity change from 100 LCM to 50 LCM is 12% for men and 9% for women.
    2) Technique is tied to speed. However, a 2-3% velocity difference for a long event might not be mechanically noticeable for most rec athletes.
    3) marathon runners need to condition their bodies for ground impact as well as the energy cost of running forward. Swimmers don’t have impact issues so you only need to train for energy costs of moving through water. We don’t need a ton of general volume.”

    Distance swim coaches and their athletes are probably misunderstanding the need for high volumes in running as simply “getting in shape” and erroneously applying these concepts to swimming. The impact effects of gravity are significant for all runners (trust me…) but pretty irrelevant for swimmers. Distance swimmers need to build ABSOLUTE VO2max and improve pulling efficiency. Their stroke rates need to be super consistent.

    A VO2max set was described in the previous “Tips” post on this forum. What comes next for distance swimmers has not been described. It is conceivable that a 1500/3k/5k swimmer may alternate between VO2max and distance “technique performance” sets. The VO2max sets are to energy-delivery failure but the distance sets might be to technical failure. A distance set may be 15×100 at 1500m pace with :20 rest. This shouldn’t result in energy-delivery failure due to the rest periods. So we need to induce technical failure.

    The key to the distance set is strokes per lap versus target time. If the swimmer uses 20 strokes (SCM) per lap and holds a 1:10 for 15x100m then the overload is working down to 19 strokes at a 1:10 target by training the 8 technical elements in microcycles (drag reduction, pulling power phase, turns, etc.). Failure in the 19-stroke session is when the swimmer takes 20 strokes, even if they make the target pace. The goal is to become extremely consistent. Completing 20-25x100m at a 1500m target pace is fine but if the athlete is increasing the stroke rate to maintain the pace then the overload moves back to energy-delivery. And since this is below 100% VO2max (this pace is 90-95% VO2max) it is an inefficient way to train.

    The fallacy of distance training for swimming is that more volume should be completed for longer events. Runners need volume for structural development due to muscular damage from eccentric forces. The reason a swimmer can swim 15k in a session is because there are no eccentric forces damaging muscle. But, in order to swim 15k intensity must decrease. Swimming slower to simply complete more volume is pointless. 50 and 100 swimmers need VO2max training to improve the ability to train (the old aerobic base generalization) and faster work to build muscle and force (which depends on technical proficiency). Distance swimmers need VO2max training to improve energy delivery during races and distance technical training to improve stroke consistency, distance, and efficiency. All training literally centers on an athlete’s 100% VO2max.

    Ryan Upper
    Gold-Level USRPT Coaching candidate

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