Swimming is a funny sport. You can thrash yourself up and down the lane for day after day, month after month but never feel like you're improving. Similarly, there are other times when you can make significant improvements in a seemingly short time-frame.
Why is that?
Well, there are two elements to swimming - fitness and technique. To improve at a rapid rate, you need to be doing workouts that are continually improving both of those aspects. If you're only working on one aspect and not the other, you'll only improve at a slow rate. Or not at all.
To improve at a rapid rate, it's important to identify which sessions give you the most benefit. To help you along, I’ve devised a swim-workout priority list which grades the usefulness of the various types of swims you might do.
Number one in the list is the most effective workout and the best use of your time. It goes all the way down to number six, which is the least effective use of your time (although it's still better than nothing). Use this list to determine how time-effectively you're currently training.
Swim Workout Usefulness Scale
(Where 1 is the most useful and 6 is the least useful)
Which one of these sessions do you do most often? The higher up the list you are, the more you'll improve in a short space of time. In fact, you'd make more progress from three coached swims per week than you would from four or five unplanned solo swims per week. It's that big a deal.
Coached group swim sessions offer several major benefits. You'll experience higher motivation to swim further and faster because of the people around you, the structure of the workout and the coach's encouragement. You'll also get technique pointers from the coach, enabling you to gradually iron out any flaws in your stroke. And last but not least, you'll enjoy the social interaction which will keep you coming back for more.
At the other end of the "usefulness scale" we have unplanned solo pool swims. These sessions aren't terrible – they can help maintain your swim fitness to a degree. But with nothing to push you and little variation in your training pace, your performances will soon plateau. Training on your own isn't great for your technique either.
There's a saying in swimming: "Perfect practice makes perfect". Meaning that swimming with bad habits won't make you a faster swimmer, it will simply serve to reinforce those bad habits. So if you want to improve your swim speed in less time, think carefully about the types of workouts you do and prioritise any coached group swims available locally.
Getting Better Organised
Let's face it, swimming involves quite a lot of messing around. There's packing your kit, defrosting your car windscreen, driving, parking, standing in a queue to pay, getting changed and showering. That's at least 25-minutes wasted and you haven't even got yourself wet yet.
Anything you can do to shave off a few minutes is worthwhile, especially when you add it up over a period of months and years. I know a professional triathlete who moved from a 5th floor apartment that was 20 minutes from his local pool, to a ground-floor flat just 5 minutes from the pool. Purely to save himself time and energy going swimming each day. It's an extreme example, but it illustrates the importance of logistics when you're already leading a busy life.
Top 3 Time Saving Tips
1. Get a dedicated swim bag.
To reduce the time you waste on packing your kit, make sure you have a separate bag always packed for swimming. It should include things like goggles, hat, shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, deodorant, spare goggles, floats, swim toys, coins for a locker, gym pass, dry swimwear, spare swimwear and a towel. Don’t use this bag or the contents for other sports.
2. Eat something.
If you swim in the mornings it's important to have a little breakfast beforehand to make sure you have enough energy to swim properly. Instead of sitting down to a bowl of cereal, try munching something on your way there such as a healthy energy bar or a couple of pieces of fruit.
Afterwards you should eat within the first 30 minutes, as this is the window of optimal recovery. Aim to eat 400-600 calories. To save time you could opt for recovery bars and fruit or have cereal at work.
3. Print your plan.
If you're swimming without a coach, make sure you always have a session plan ready to follow. You can find swim plans (including some by me) on the website TriRadar.com in the training plans section. Or you can buy waterproof books on Amazon.com such as "Swim Workouts For Triathletes" by Gale Bernhardt and Nick Hansen. Even if you scribble something on the back of an envelope, it's still worthwhile. Lastly, all of my triathlon training plans come with detailed swim workouts. The link below will help you find them.
The Serious Triathlon Blog
Train Smart. Race Fast.
Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and writer.