Podcast, Swimming

Q&A on swim training | EP#377

 February 13, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Jack & Mikael - That Triathlon Show

Mikael and Jack Hutchens answer listener questions on the topic of swim training for triathlon.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Training to translate pool swimming to open water swimming
  • Training strategies for 1- to 2-mile open water swim races
  • Differences between training for pool swimming and triathlon swimming
  • Critical Swim Speed testing protocols and application
  • Is using buoyancy shorts a good idea or a crutch to be avoided?
  • How to swim easy enough on your easy days
  • Flexibility training and strength training for swimming performance
Quick Navigation

Sponsored by:

Precision Fuel & Hydration
Precision Fuel & Hydration help athletes personalise their hydration and fueling strategies for training and racing. Use the free Fuel & Hydration Planner to get personalised plan for your carbohydrate, sodium and fluid intake in your next event. That Triathlon Show listeners get 15% off their first order of fuel and electrolyte products. Simply use this link and the discount will be auto-applied at the checkout.


FORM Smart Swim Goggles give you unprecedented real-time feedback in your swim training through a display on the goggle lens. See every split to stay on pace, track your stroke rate and don't let it drop, use heart rate to become more scientific and precise with your training (through integration with Polar HR monitors) and analyse more in-depth metrics post-swim in the app. You can also use a vast library of workouts or training plans, or build your own guided workouts. Get 15% off the goggles with the code TTS15 on formswim.com/tts.


Jack's background

03:17 -

  • I am a Scientific Triathlon coach.
  • I was the head coach of a swim club and grew up on the coast, meaning I have experience swimming in those environments.
  • I race in the professional ranks in long-course triathlon as an athlete.

1º Question - Do I get lazy with the buoyancy shorts? Does it matter because I race only with a wetsuit?"

04:40 -

  • Anything that will allow you to swim more will be a good thing.
  • If you are racing with a wetsuit, you can argue that swimming with buoyancy shorts will be more specific.
  • You can do a session focused on technique and body position without the shorts, which will help you perform better with a wetsuit.
  • It allows you to focus more on technique and does more good than harm.
  • As the athlete only has a swim per week in the winter, having something that allows for better stroke technique will be beneficial.
  • If you are doing Kona, you would need to train without them to practice that.
  • You can go far by training with those shorts.

2º Question - "How should one train for an open water swim when open water is unavailable?"

06:46 -

  • The pool is a more controlled environment, so this should make up the bulk of your training.
  • Adding basic open-water skills in the pool (sighting, drafting, turning around a buoy) will benefit you when you return to the open water.
  • The problem with the pool is that you have a micro rest and a push off the wall each 50m, giving your arms a break, which is different in open water.
  • When I train open-water swimmers, I make them swim without pushing off the wall, which gives them that continuous stimulus. It is also an excellent opportunity to practice tight turns.
  • The challenge is more logistical: you can only do that if you swim with a group.
  • If you arrange with friends, you can sprint side by side to simulate a race start, swimming in a pace line.
  • If you are 3-4 people, you can swim in a diamond shape and give turns to be in the front or back.
  • It will also depend on your open-water swimming strength compared to the pool. If you perform worse in open water, you should focus more on open-water elements.
  • If you can add open-water sessions as you approach the race day, it will add specificity.
  • If you cannot do that, ensure a couple days at the location where you can swim at the race venue to get used to swimming in the open water in those specific conditions. It will allow you to review the race course because some will have tight turns, which can make it confusing.

3º Question - "What's the best way to adjust Zen8 training over the season?"

11:13 -

  •  It depends on your background and goals. Zen8 is suitable for specific conditioning and allows you to ingrain that specific swimming movement pattern.
  • It doesn't allow you to get a good feel for the water.
  • Zen8 is more specific than just using the cords. 
  • If you can get two pool sessions weekly, that would be good.
  • For some people, that will not be enough to improve, but you can also supplement with some dryland training. (it could help you maintain and ensure that you don't lose anything you have built up over the years of training)
  • Concerning using the Zen8, it comes down to how much time you have overall for training. You can use it if you have much time for training but can't get to the pool. 
  • And if you don't have much overall time, use it for one or two short sessions in the week to supplement your two pool sessions and then focus the rest on the bike. 
  • Suppose you could block out some time where you could focus a little bit more over the year. In that case, even if you are very time crunch, you could add another session and have that as the compromise for less swimming in other parts of the build-up.

4º Question - "I find it challenging to swim efficiently in zones one or two. What physical cues should I look for to ensure I'm not going too fast?"

15:19 -

  • Going too fast is a common problem. 
  • Technique-wise, ensure that you're stretching out to full extension and using a nice rotation to maximise that distance per stroke rather than just spinning the arms.
  • You can also implement some hypoxic training. (breath in every 3-5 strokes)
  • It forces you to slow down a little. 
  • I'd consider adding some longer reps with rest because you have to swim there more aerobically.
  • Mikael wouldn't want to do it as hypoxic, personally. His preference would be to breathe every three strokes if you breathe every two strokes on high-intensity sets.
  • If you're doing more intensity, you want all the oxygen you can get. Breathing less frequently increases that distance per stroke because it gives you more time to focus on stretching out and rotating more. 

5º Question - I feel my stroke rate is low (60 strokes per minute). Is it worth trying the tempo trainer to improve my stroke rate?

18:57 -

  • There is a culture that everyone needs to increase their stroke rate, but it is an individual thing based on your swimming speed, the conditions you're swimming in, and your pool-to-kick frequency or ratio. 
  • As the stroke rate increases, your stroke length potentially drops. So it's about finding that sweet spot.
  • In the pool, you can do reps at race pace, changing the rate and seeing how it feels at different paces. 
  • When you increase the stroke rate, you want to ensure that you increase the right part of the stroke.
  • You want to ensure you're taking enough time to get a good hand entry and catch. You want the increase in the rate to come from the acceleration of the pool back past the hips. 
  • We also have different stroke rates for different conditions or situations. In open water, the stroke rate will be higher. 
  • If you're swimming faster, it will be higher. If it's a nice day, the stroke rate will be lower.
  • Swim Smooth did this on a Swim Smooth course: a specific set of the 50s (10x50s) where you increase your stroke rate by two strokes every 50 m, and you record your RPE and heart rate. You get a chart of how effective you are at different stroke rates. 
  • You tend to see one or two break points where your stroke gets more or less effective. 
  • When you get fitter, your stroke rate usually goes up automatically. 
  • Your distance per stroke might not increase, but your stroke rate increases when you get fitter.
  • Most people drop off quite quickly in the longer reps, and that's where a tool like a tempo trainer can be handy. (holding a constant stroke rate)
  • It can tell how long you can hold your pace and stroke rate. 
  • That's where a lot of athletes need to work.

6º Question - "I start swim training sessions with a tri group, which is helping with technique, but is there some strength or flexibility work I should or could be doing outside the pool?"

24:11 -

  • Some strength and mobility work definitely will help. 
  • Focus on the shoulders, neck, back, and ankles for mobility.
  • For strength-wise, the Zen8 is perfect. (ingraining those specific movement patterns to the swim)
  • The general strength work should focus on the core and big muscles, which will help in swimming, by doing exercises like pull-ups, bent-over rows, lap pull-downs, triceps, and deadlifts. 
  • Most athletes benefit from flexibility and mobility training.
  • It doesn't necessarily have to be a long, intricate routine.
  • Most athletes would feel some positive benefits from doing short mobility sessions. In terms of strength, I'm a proponent of strength training. 
  • But very few adult onset males, in particular, are limited by their actual strength in the pool.
  • It's a general adaptation you're getting from it, and I don't know how strongly or directly it will translate to direct speed in the water. 
  • But over time, it will help you maintain your muscle function better over the years and be a good balance to long endurance training.
  • The other aspect is the hormonal response you get from strength training.
  • The benefits are more apparent when it comes to running and cycling. 
  • So, adding one or, at most, two swimming-specific or upper-body exercises is straightforward if you are going to the gym.
  • In terms of scientific evidence, there's quite a lot for running and cycling, but there's not that clear evidence for swimming. 

7º Question - "What should be done differently in triathlon swim training compared to regular swim training? What should the ratio of technique focus to main work sets also be at different times in the season and for different levels of swimmers? Should triathletes devote time to learning the different strokes other than freestyle to become more flexible in their movement patterns? What thoughts on limiters and how to overcome them or transfer technique and speed from the pool to open water swimming?"

29:55 -

  • Answering the first question, swim coaches should know how to get better at swimming because it is just swimming, but there are some different considerations when it comes to triathlon swimming, technique-wise and training-wise.
  • In terms of doing technique work, that would depend on the individual. But it probably wouldn't vary that much, but it would just be that the technique work might be slightly different based on the requirements of the triathlon swim. 
  • Rather than being focused on kick technique, it might be more focused on the open water skills and maintaining good body position within the open water environment. 
  • In terms of strokes, I'm a big advocate of triathletes doing different strokes. 
  • If you can't do the strokes, it's probably not worth learning them.
  • It is suitable for evening out muscular imbalances, technical improvements and a feel for the water. (moving differently through the water helps)
  • You need to generate much power in butterfly to get your arms above the water.
  • I don't think it's worth focusing too much on developing the other strokes, but including them will not hurt.
  • I've coached people who are natural at a particular stroke. They might not be the strongest freestylers in triathlon swimming, but they can swim butterfly well or have a nice backstroke. 
  • So including it and continuing doing it within their triathlon program is 
  • A benefit or at least not a hindrance. 
  • A crucial aspect of transferring the pool to open water is confidence in open water, which comes from exposure to being in that position and pacing and not rushing it. 
  • People lose efficiency because they're trying to fight the water rather than relax. 
  • The ratio of technique in main work sets depends on where they are in the training cycle. Earlier on, you put more of an emphasis on technique. 
  • All of the swim programs focus on improving efficiency and technique. Then as you start adding more specific training, you put that technique work into maintenance mode and increase the specific workouts. 
  • (10% of total volume would be technique)
  • One of the main differences between triathlon swimming and standard swimmers is that triathletes have much less time to swim. 
  • It's crucial to know what exactly you want to improve because you don't have the luxury of being able to swim 60k per week. 
  • Your typical age group might need 8-9km per week.
  • Most pros don't do much more than 20km.
  • As a triathlete, you need to make it count.
  • On the technique question, all swimming is technique, whether you're swimming hard or easy.
  • My personal opinion is that if you're an amateur triathlete going to the pool on your own with no coach on deck to give you feedback, I don't think that there's a considerable amount to gain from doing drills because you've seen them on a YouTube channel unless you have them from a video analysis or a coached in a one to one session. 
  • I would rather the athlete do 10x100m, mixing up the different toys (snorkel, fins) and focus on the constraints-based learning that the different tools allow you to practice. 
  • The snorkel allows you to visualise where you're placing your hand and your alignment. 
  • Keep in mind that our shortest event is 750m of swimming. And the longest is 3800m in the standard triathlon distances. 
  • That differs from a 50m up to a 1500m in the pool. (different energy systems)
  • We need to do a lot of endurance work and higher aerobic intervals.
  • The training distribution is different for swimmers because they might be making a lot of sprints if they're sprinters or a lot of VO2 work. 
  • Whereas for triathletes, especially if we're talking Olympic distance and above, the focus is threshold swimming. (intensity domain where the swimming happens in our races)
  • It makes no sense to spend a lot of time doing anaerobic training. 
  • It would help if you always thought about how to be the most efficient.
  • There shouldn't be a drill without you recognising that you are focusing on technique.
  • Even if there's no specific kind of focus, doing a single arm drill makes them travel through the water slightly differently, making them have to think about what they're doing more. 
  • When you do drills, do them well and use tools to help you do them well. (fins)
  • If you can, do open water races and more triathlons to get better at it. 

8º Question - "What are the pros and cons of using critical swim speed testing to figure out training paces for swimming? Does it tend to overestimate or underestimate CSS for some athletes based on their characteristics, or are the errors more random? Could these swimming paces be better constrained by an additional time trial, such as an 800 or 1000 time trial done on a particular day? How would you incorporate the additional information into the CSS model?"

45:17 -

  • The CSS uses two swims and measures the drop-off between them to predict the longer distance roughly, but doing a more extended test on a particular day can be insightful.
  • One of the significant advantages of doing a three-point critical speed or critical power test, you find the linear fit is not perfect, and you can see where your weaknesses are (short end or the long end)
  • I like to use three-time trials (100, 400 and 1900 for CSS testing).
  • If you're slower than 35 minutes for 1900, you can do a 1500m instead.
  • The selection of time trials will always influence the critical speed or power. 
  • If you do a three-minute and a 20-minute critical power test, it will be different than a three-minute and a 12-minute.
  • I've found that the 1900m time-trial pace is where critical speed ends up in swimmers with good endurance.
  • If your critical speed doesn't end up being there, that can be a good goal.
  • If you don't want to do three different tests, I would just do the 1900m test. Critical power has a lot of scientific validity behind it (aligns well with LT2)
  • The drawbacks come down to test selection. 
  • So if you don't have good endurance in swimming, the CSS test will give you a critical speed that is too fast. 
  • If you do, 8x300m at a steady speed that you can maintain, but you're tired at the end, you know this is probably right around my threshold.
  • There's no one size fits all critical speed testing.

9º Question - "Do you have suggestions for simulating open water swimming in choppy conditions, such as in an ocean?"

50:01 -

  • The turn is probably the most significant difference between open water to the pool and having that push-off.
  • Eliminating that is probably the most significant thing in mastering choppy conditions.
  • Make sure you can sight well and incorporate that sight into your stroke cycle well. 
  • When it's choppy, you'll need to sight even higher up. So it's going to interrupt the stroke even more. 
  • You might need to sight more frequently and on multiple kinds of strokes. The water polo drill, so swimming with your head up for a few strokes can be good because you might have to do that in a race. 
  • Ensure that you can breathe to both sides and choose based on where the chop is coming from in a race. 
  • About ocean swell, ensure your sight when you're at the top of the swell because if you're not, then you're not going to be able to see above the line of the swell. 

10º Question - "How does one incorporate swim-specific movements/exercises in the strength/mobility training?"

52:55 -

  • There needs to be more evidence of swimming for strength training.
  • Many good strength and conditioning coaches recommend strength training. 
  • Working your muscles through a range of motion can't be wrong. 
  • Regarding mobility, when you think about running and cycling, everyone can, and the movement could be more moderate. 
  • If you look at elite swimmers, they can get into positions most people can't. 
  • And it takes so many years of swimming to develop those positions. 
  • The mobility side is worth putting some effort into. 
  • Using things like stretch cords and elastic bands can be helpful strength training because it allows you to work better on applying a little bit of force, but through the specific movement patterns, you want to be doing in swimming.

11º Question - "Is putting CSS as faster than LT2 seem to be appropriate? Do you have any comments on its applicability?"

57:17 -

  • Depending on the test selection, LT2 and CSS can be completely aligned. 
  • Critical power differs from a lactate threshold because lactate is only measured in lactate. 
  • Critical speed and critical power measure an actual performance level, but they're both trying to separate what is sustainable from what is not. 
  • You should expect to have some minor differences. 
  • I would still always try to set three different zones. (low-intensity, moderate and the high-intensity)
  • The moderate intensity zone is everything at and below the threshold.
  • High-intensity zone is anything above the threshold where you can't sustain it for a long time. 
  • I found with lactate testing that the difference between LT1 and LT2 is about 5s/100m. 
  • That's how I do CSS testing. Set the CSS first as the upper end of zone two, and then set the upper end of zone one as 5s/100m below that. 
  • The speed will change based on if you're doing shorter reps, and with more frequent rest, a higher speed can be maintained.
  • If you've got your threshold around your CSS, then +5s would be your tempo, -5s/100m would be your VO2max.

12º Question - "Is heart rate more of a limiter as the athlete's swim technique improves, or is respiration typically a limiter?"

1:00:53 -

  • When a runner goes cycling, they can't get their heart rate up the same way because they don't have that specific conditioning in the bike.
  • I'd also make sure that you're breathing correctly. (breathe out before the face rotates to the surface, so you do not have to do a rushed exhale and inhale when the face is out of the water)
  • Ensure that on the opposite end, you're holding the air in your lungs and exhaling before you rotate to breathe.
  • If it's not a breathing technique issue, the other option is that this athlete is very anaerobic. So even at what they perceive as low intensities, they have a CO2 build-up. 
  • In that case, the solution is to make your swimming even easier. And that might require swimming with a pool buoy or with fins.

Question 13 - "How do I improve my 1min30s pace to 1min20s if I can do several sets at 1min10s/100m?
What sets should I include in some or all of my three to four workouts per week?"

1:03:24 -

  • This athlete has a good top end there but needs more endurance comparatively. Therefore, adding more endurance tempo work with longer reps would be a good place to start. 
  • Doing testing with the CSS and the longer rep to get more specific data to help inform your decision there. 
  • If he's doing four swims per week, you could do two endurance swims with some technique work and open water skills and two higher-intensity swims. (threshold swim 8x300m, building up to 10x300n and a tempo swim with 6-7x600m at low zone two pace in a three-zone system)

Instagram Questions

1:05:44 -

Jack's favourite toys to correct form

Paddles without too many straps over the top.They come off if your hand entry or alignment is wrong with them. So they force you to have a good hand entry catch.Snorkel is one of my go-to's

Longer reps in training to swim 3000m in open water


The ratio of load to rest compared to running or cycling

I reduce the rest in swimming. Sometimes the work-to-rest ratios are too high still in swimming. For VO2max intervals, coaches do short rests in swimming, but the rest should be longer. In running or cycling, you would like to have one-to-one. Whereas in swimming, you have two-to-one. 

Swim bike bricks in training

They aren't necessary. The biggest reason why they're not commonplace is logistical. It's pretty challenging. I've done them both on the pool deck, getting the trainer to the pool deck. In short-course racing, it can be super important to do that sort of training. They're helpful but challenging, and you can get away with not doing them.

How do you decide when to leave the draft during racing? 

It depends on the race, race distance and how close you are to the end of the race. In doubt, it's better to swim at your pace in the long run. It could also be the case that the train is going too slow, and you want to overtake it. And you can step to the side and see how much more effort you need to put into that case. But if somebody takes your place and you need to go to the back of the pack, go to the front, or stay at the side and do the work. You are saving a lot when you're drafting off somebody. To go faster, you might have to put in a higher effort.

Benefits of swimming as cross-training for the bike and the run

It depends on your level. If you're focusing on cycling and running, it would be worth focusing your energy on them. As a triathlete, there is some crossover, especially at a lower level, because there's more to gain from putting in extra hours of training. Once you get to a higher level and you're more optimised in swimming, physical developments could hinder the bike and the run. There are many anecdotal examples of swimmers that can bike well. Running is different because there are different biomechanics, but clearly, there is a positive aerobic crossover effect. When you look at scientific studies, that has never shown a crossover. (maybe due to the study's short vs long-term design).

Heart rate and swimming

With the swim, using heart rate is helpful if you're not used to using the pace clock and need help getting splits. It's like cycling and running. You have the external load, the pace, and the internal load. I remember reading Bill Sweetenham's, "Championship swim training". That book is from the early 2000s, but a lot of the training concepts are from the 90s or even the 80s, and a lot of training focuses on heart rate. (5-10bpm below maximum). 

Assess technique improvement without video analysis.

The gold standard would be to get a coach who knows triathlon swimming to have a look at you. But even just getting a kind of friend to look could be insightful. Without knowing what it is you're doing wrong, it is hard. I've done swim clinics with people that had pretty wrong ideas of what they should be doing. Getting a professional video analysis with a professional in the area helps a lot, and you will get the knowledge and information. If you don't want to spend the money, you can still get some videos to analyse. In Europe, it's a bit easier, but in the UK, they're very strict with most pools. 


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Explore our products and services