Fitness and Technique in Triathlon Swimming with Rory Buck | EP#70
How do you structure your swim training as a triathlete to improve your fitness, technique, and performance? Rory Buck, retired international level swimmer and experienced triathlon swim coach, shares his framework for triathlon swim training.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How many times per week should you swim?
- How much should you focus on technique training and how much on fitness?
- What kind of sets should you use to improve fitness?
- How do you structure the technique part of your workouts and don't waste your time with mindless drill training?
About Rory Buck
- Started swim training at 16.
- From South Africa, but swam at a collegiate level in the US.
- Reached an international level and competed in e.g. the Commonwealth Games.
- Retired from swimming in 2012 and focused on coaching full-time.
- In the last 4-5 years, he transitioned to working exclusively with triathletes.
How many times per week should you swim?
- My experience has taught me that the magic number is 3 times a week.
- This is due to the way that we develop feel for the water. If we go less than 3 times a week, the body loses its feel for the water. Feel is how well our body interacts with the water.
- Swimming 3 times a week gives us the ability to maintain that feel from session to session.
- If we only swim 2 times a week, a good part of each session is spent just re-establishing a good feel for the water.
- Swimming more than 3 times a week generally results in better improvements. But you have to ask yourself what are the overall gains and what is the opportunity cost for those extra swims.
- You could improve your swim time in your Olympic or 70.3 distance by 2-3 minutes by doing those extra swims, but could you improve 10-15 minutes on the bike or on the run during the time you spent on those extra swims? So, it is important to have balance in working out.
When should you consider adding more swims to those 3 per week?
- For athletes training a lot (e.g. 10+ workouts per week), it might be beneficial to add more swim workouts to those 3.
- It depends on the distance you’re looking to race. This will set the parameters on whether or not it’s in your best interest to move up.
- If you’re training for a full distance Ironman, it's likely the extra hours are best spent on the bike, because it is such a big part of this race.
- If there are any injuries that limit the number of run workouts the athlete can do in a week, we immediately increase the swim up to 4-5 days per week. We try to just get as much benefit as we can out of those periods of timewhere they can’t do the other training.
What about beginners or time-constrained age-groupers who can only do 6 workouts per week
- In this situation, I would recommend doing two 1-hour swim workouts during the week and then try to get in a shorter 20-minute block somewhere else in the week if possible.
- This is just to get a feel for the water. Even a 15-minute block will do.
What should triathletes think about when prioritizing technique or fitness in swimming?
- You have to focus on both. Have a combination of both technique and fitness.
- You need to have a baseline level of fitness to be able to build good technique.
- You need to have good technique to be able to swim faster and more efficiently over long distances.
What is your view on the overlap of different cardiovascular fitness abilities from the different disciplines of triathlon?
- There isn’t a great deal of fitness transferred from bike or run fitness over to swim fitness.
- Your cardiovascular system will be efficient in many ways, but you’re using completely different muscle groups to move you through the water than in the bike and the run.
- If those muscle groups are not efficient at utilizing the oxygen, at clearing the waste products, at delivering nutrients and blood to the muscles, you’re going to fall apart very quickly if you don’t have that swim-specific fitness.
What about the other way around? Do you see a lot of overlap of fitness from swimming to the other sports?
- There are lots of benefits that get transferred over. Obviously, at the end of the day specificity wins.
- To become more efficient on the bike, you have to spend time on the bike. To become a better runner, you must run more.
- Something that does transfer over very well is your ability to manage and control your breathing which has a direct relation with your heart rate. Swimming teaches you how to control your breathing and how to maintain a good respiratory rate. This has lots of benefits that crosses over to biking and running.
- Swimming also teaches very good lessons on pacing. This is because we don’t have immediate feedback in the water. We don’t know how fast we are swimming and what pace or zone we’re working in like we do when we’re on the bike looking at our bike computer or when we’re on the run looking at our watch.
How to improve swimming technique in triathletes
- You need to have a baseline level of fitness to really work on technique.
In the early stages of developing technique, you need to be doing both technique work and some swim fitness work to supplement it.
- Focusing on the pure technique side of things, I tend to use a lot of swimming drills to help teach specific movement patterns in the simplest form.
- Drills help us break down and isolate individual pieces of the overall stroke which gives us one thing to focus on and get better at.
- It can be a fundamental movement like your balance, position in the water, or your alignment through the water. It can also be looking at something you’ve identified as a weakness in your stroke.
- In a beginner swimmer, the purpose of drills is to fix a weakness. In more experienced swimmers, it is to refine or reinforce a particular movement.
How to know which drills to use and how to use them
Big mistakes that a lot of triathletes will make with drills.
1. Drilling with no purpose
- Just simply Googling a drill and doing it because it looks fun doesn’t tend to really bring about tangible change.
- Make sure you have a purpose for your drill. Identify a weakness or something specific that you want to refine and then find a drill that meets the need or helps you develop that. This is my number one advice.
- Identifying that weakness can be as simple as having somebody who knows what they’re doing watch your stroke. It can be a coach or you can record yourself swim and compare it to a model or a good swimmer. You can also get a full video analysis done by a coach.
2. Doing too many drills in one workout
- We tend to limit the number of drills that we cover in the drill portion of a workout. Then we repeat those drills many times. Repetition is essential when it comes to refining technique.
- There is always something else that you can focus on within that drill that’s going to help you become more efficient or effective.
- Pick one drill or one stroke focus and have one or two drills that really nail that specific stroke focus.
- Then repeat it a number of times over and over again until you can feel the sort of automation as you move through the stages of learning of that piece of that stroke.
- So that when you go into the 4-stroke swimming you don’t necessarily need to have the conscious focus on that piece. You can just focus on swimming and execute that part of the stroke well.
What is the proportion of the drill/technique part to the entire workout?
- This depends on the skill level of the swimmer and the time of the season that they are working in.
- The more advanced swimmer can get away with doing less drill work. I still recommend that they spend a good portion for it. Early on in the season, in the off-season, or anything 20+ weeks out from a race, you can be spending 50-60% of your total workout time on technique.
- As you get closer to race day, we drop that down to 40%. Then in the last 12 weeks leading into a race, you’re looking at about 10-15%.
- With drill work, we always do full stroke swimming in the drill portions of our workouts. It’s not just exclusively doing a drill for 4 x 25 or 4 x 50 or a couple of 100s. Ideally, we also take that full-stroke swimming up through different speeds.
- For a beginner, we spend more time on technique. 20+ weeks out, we spend 75% upwards of the total workout time on technique and drills. As we get down to 12 weeks, we can spend about half the time. Then in the 12 weeks leading into a race, it would be about 30%.
When do you become an experienced swimmer and when are you still on the beginner side?
- In my experience, once a swimmer hits the 1:40 per 100-meter mark as their CSS or threshold pace, at that point they are likely moving as a triathlon swimmer to the experienced side.
How do we work on the fitness aspect of swimming?
- There are a couple of ways that we can build our swim fitness.
- One of the biggest mistakes that triathlete make is not varying the intensities that they are swimming at in their workouts.
- Building fitness is all about stressing the body in different ways. By stressing the body in different ways we bring about adaptation.
- We can stress the body by swimming longer, faster, or be reducing rest intervals.
- The easiest way to stress the body is through intensity levels. The four intensity levels that I work through with my athletes are recovery pace, endurance pace, threshold pace, and speed.
- The amount of time that we spend in each of those of those intensities depend on where we are in the season, what the goal of the athlete is, what race they are preparing for, and where they are in their swimming journey.
What might beginner triathletes do in the early stages of a swim workout?
- Technique work is generally done at a recovery and endurance pace.
- A recovery pace is your relaxed, easy swimming. This would be Zone 1 or a perceived effort of 1 or 2. This allows the athlete to concentrate more on technique without stressing their body and worrying about breathing.
- Endurance pace is slightly faster than the recovery pace but it’s still a sustainable pace. This would be a low Zone 2. Swimming in this pace builds the ability of the body to keep moving consistently over long periods of time and not having to resort to stopping or hanging on the wall which is a luxury that we don’t have when we are in the open water.
- The real game changer for a swimmer is threshold training. This is where the majority of the time the main set is spent.
- The threshold or CSS pace is the hard but sustainable pace. It’s a pace that you’re not working so hard that your body is going into oxygen debt.
- There are a number of ways to find what your threshold pace is. A very simple one is a CSS-test which is a 400-meter time trial followed by a 200-meter time trial. You then plug the results into a CSS-calculator. For more details, check out Training Zones part 1: Swimming | EP#27.
Example of a main set: 1500 meter threshold set
- 200 meters with a 20-second rest, then 3x100 meter with a 10 to 15-second rest per interval.
- Repeat the above for 3 rounds with no extra rest in between.
How do you incorporate the speed zone in training?
- This is something that gets overlooked quite a lot when we do a lot of threshold/CSS pace.
- Essentially, with threshold-training we are looking at about 85% intensity. You’re teaching your body to become highly efficient at that specific heart rate in that specific zone. But that’s 85% of your maximum speed.
- We could become really efficient at swimming at that 85% but not necessarily get any faster because our 100% speed hasn’t improved at all.
- In order to push our 100% speed a little higher, we throw in some speed work. This is a fast pace that absolutely can’t be sustained. It’s much faster than your CSS-pace. We tend to do this on longer rest intervals. It’s pure, all-out speed.
- This can be 50s or 75s. We could also push this out to 100s.
Is this still something that intermediate or even beginners could do or is this more for the advanced? At what point of the season should you do this kind of training?
- I introduce this to my beginner or intermediate swimmers at the end of some of the technique work. It may take the form of descending sets, so only the last rep is really all out.
- The time we do this in the season tends to be during that 20-12 weeks out from the main race. As we get closer to race day, we tend to do more race specific work at race pace.
Testing your progress
- Your race day swim time is not always a good reflection of the swimming progress you’ve made.
- There are so many variables in open water triathlon swimming that looking exclusively at the time that you swim for a specific distance is not a great measure of the progress that you are making.
- Testing your speed in the pool tends to give you a more accurate measure of how well you’re progressing. The easiest way to do that is by measuring your threshold speed and your top-end speed.
How often do you recommend testing?
- I tend to test with my athletes every 6 weeks. This is also dependent on where we are in the season.
Favourite book, blog, or resource related to triathlon or swimming:
Favourite piece of gear or equipment:
Something you wish you had known or done differently in your swimming career:
- Transfer principles in other areas of life into swimming
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Rory Buck
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Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
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