Monthly Triathlon Training Advice
Swimming fast is about more than just seeking the perfect swim stroke. Here's how to break it down into two simple numbers...
You know how it is - swimming isn't like cycling or running. You won't get anywhere without a good technique and you're wasting your time until you learn how glide through the water effortlessly. It's hardly worth doing loads of hard swimming until you sort out your technique, right?
Well, maybe not - there's more to it than that. What if I told you that you could still swim fast, even without the perfect technique? Let me explain.
If you were to watch 20 of the best triathletes in the world training in the same pool, you would witness 20 very different front crawl swimming styles. Some would be long and flexible, with barely a splash. Some would be short and punchy. Some would rotate onto their sides on each stroke, like a chicken on a spit-roast. Whereas some would swim as flat as a barge.
And yet they'd all be swimming fast times that the rest of us can only dream of. Their strokes are by no means perfect, but the common factor is that they all swim for around 90-minutes (sometimes more) per day, and have done for years.
Pro IRONMAN athlete James Cunnama once told me: "When I went to Brett Sutton for coaching, he said my stroke was 'as pretty as a picture'. He also told me that I 'swim about as fast as a picture too'. He said I needed to do more swim training to build my fitness. Some people in his squad don't look like great swimmers, and yet they swim unbelievably fast."
Cunnama's experience suggests it's not essential to have a beautiful stroke in order to swim well. For all its complexity, the art of swimming actually boils down to two simple numbers.
1. Stroke Rate - how many strokes you do per minute
2. Stroke Length - how far you travel for each stroke
Elite open-water swimmers have stroke rates of between 75 and 95 strokes per minute, whereas age-group triathlon swimmers have stroke rates nearer 50 to 60 strokes per minute. With those numbers in mind, it's easy to see why elite swimmers swim faster than the rest of us. But the good news is that if you can improve your Stroke Rate (without shortening your Stroke Length) you will swim faster.
Your Stroke Rate is largely governed by your swim fitness - the fitter you are, the quicker and more powerfully you can move your arms through the water. Whereas your Stroke Length is largely governed by your technique - the better your technique, the more efficiently you can grab hold of the water and use it to lever yourself forwards. There is a cross over between the two as well, because your stroke rate will increase as your technique improves, and your stroke length will increase as you become fitter and stronger.
The conclusion to all this is that you need to attack your swim training on two fronts. One is to swim regularly and progressively, just like you would train for running or cycling. This will help you to become fitter, enabling you to increase your Stroke Rate.
The other is to seek poolside coaching assistance in order to improve your technique, so that you can become more efficient at moving yourself through the water (Stroke Length). As a by-product of swimming regularly, you’ll also improve your "feel for the water". In other words, you'll learn to feel whether or not you're moving well through the water, and how to correct it yourself.
If you can't get regular coaching, all is not lost - you can still improve by reading books, watching swim videos on You Tube or even better - check out the Swim Smooth Guru app to diagnose and fix your own stroke.
Having some way of measuring your Stroke Rate is important too so that you know if you're improving. I use a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro - a beeper that goes under a swim hat. You can also get watches that measure your stroke rate, including those by Garmin and Swimovate.
So don't give up. Follow a training plan if possible, so that your fitness keeps growing. And keep trying to improve your technique too, whether that's with a poolside coach or via self-learning.
Fitness tests are a great way to track your triathlon training progress. Here at myprocoach.net we recommend that our athletes measure their fitness every eight to twelve weeks, with three simple tests. We show you how...
There are three individual tests, one each for swim, bike and run. Ideally you should do them during a recovery week, so that you’re not tired. And it's a good idea not to train hard for 48 hours between the bike and run tests, so that your fresh for them both.
We'll start by explaining how to do the tests. And then at the end of the article we’ll reveal some important things to consider when you analyse the results of your fitness tests.
1. The Swim Fitness Test
We use a Critical Swim Speed (CSS) test. This simple test gives you a good idea of your current fitness and can also be used to set your pace-based training zones for swimming. The aim of a CSS test is to predict your current race pace for 1500 metres or yards. The beauty of the test is that you don't actually have to swim that far.
Swim Test Protocol:
To test your current CSS pace you need to swim a 400 and 200 Time Trial within the same session. Swim as hard as you can for both time trials, with around 5-10 minutes of active recovery in between. Ideally, get a friend or coach to time you and record your 100 splits and strokes per minute. Failing that, simply record the 400 and 200 times yourself.
We don't include CSS tests in our training plans, but we recommend you do one every 8 weeks (during a recovery week). This will give you an idea of your current fitness and also allows you to update your training zones
After you've done a CSS swim test, use our online swim calculator to work out your current CSS swim pace (per 100). You can also create five training zones, to use with our training plans.
2. The Bike Fitness Test
We use a Critical Power 20 minute test (CP20). This simple test gives you a good idea of your current fitness and can also be used to set your power-based training zones for cycling.
The aim of a CP20 test is to predict your best average power output for a one-hour steady state time trial, without actually having to ride hard for an hour.
Bike Test Protocol:
15 minutes easy/steady, with at least 5x10 seconds at your approximate test pace.
Ride for 20 minutes, at the hardest effort that you can sustain throughout. Making sure you're measuring your average (mean) power and heart rate during the 20 minutes.
5-10 minutes easy spin.
What was your average power for the 20 minute test? For example 200 watts. This is known as your CP20 (the CP stands for Critical Power).
Once you know your CP20 you can also estimate your CP60 (known as Functional Threshold Power or FTP). Simply multiply your CP20 test result in Watts by 0.95. For example, if your CP20 is 200w, your FTP would be 190w. If you use Training Peaks you should enter your threshold into your Settings. You can also create your five training zones using our online bike calculator.
3. The Run Fitness Test
We use a Threshold Run Pace test to measure your fitness. Threshold running pace is a measure of your current best pace for a 60 minute race. It is a useful benchmark of your running fitness and is often used to create pace-based training zones.
You can get a good idea of your threshold run pace without having to do a 1-hour race. You simply need to do a 30 minute solo time trial with no training partners. You'll just need some way of measuring your average pace, such as a GPS watch or smart phone.
Once you know your threshold run pace, you can create training zones using our online run calculator. If you use Training Peaks, you should also enter your threshold into your Settings.
Run Test Protocol
Start with a warm up of 15 minutes, mainly easy jogging with three or four 15-second accelerations up to approximate 5km race pace.
Then begin the 30 minute time trial. Press start on your phone or watch and run at your fastest sustainable pace for 30 minutes. After you've completed the 30 minute test, stop your watch/phone.
What was your average run pace throughout the test? This is your new Threshold Running Pace. What was your average heart rate throughout the test? This is your new Running Threshold Heart Rate.
The three tests described above will measure your ability to perform for one hour in cycling and running. And for around 20-30 minutes for swimming. These are excellent measures for Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. And they are still useful fitness measures for longer triathlons like Ironman 70.3 and Ironman 140.6.
It's important to understand that these tests are not direct measures of your stamina (your ability to keep going for hours and hours).
That said, improved test scores will also signal small improvements in your stamina. Because the higher your FTP, CSS and Run Threshold Pace, the easier it will feel to maintain a given pace.
Another thing to consider, is that you can’t expect big improvements every single time you do triathlon fitness tests. The path of improvement is not always linear.
Over time your test results might look something like a chart of a stock market, for example the S&P 500. The overall trend is upwards, but there are ups and downs along the way.
You don’t necessarily need to change your training if you don’t set a new best score in a test. It's hard to continually improve at all three disciplines and life also gets in the way sometimes. There are so many variables to consider, it’s usually better to step back and look at the long term trends before you make sweeping changes.
Ever wondered why your friends can cycle up hills quicker than you? This feature explains how to ride faster and avoid getting dropped.
Let’s start by dispelling a common myth:
“To be a faster rider up hills you have to train in hills all the time”.
It's not necessarily true. The main determinant of performance when riding up a hill is your power to weight ratio. Your power to weight ratio consists of two separate things:
If you can improve your power output or reduce your weight you will ride faster up hills - regardless of whether or not you train in hills every day.
How To Reduce Weight
i. Bike Weight
The weight of your bike and everything attached to it effects how fast you ride uphill. Is your bike light or heavy? You can get some idea by weighing it. Simply hold your bike upright, balanced on its back wheel on some bathroom scales. What’s the result?
As an indicator, Tour De France bikes can weigh no less than 15 pounds or 6.8 kilos. Safety rules prevent them being any lighter. If your bike weighs more than this, it suggests there is room for improvement. The best components to upgrade first are the rotating ones such as wheels, shoes and pedals, as these give the biggest bang for your buck.
However, there’s no point spending a fortune on new wheels if your frame and components are old and heavy. So you’ll just have to make the most cost effective overall decision on how to upgrade your bike to reduce its weight.
If you have no budget for upgrades, you might consider reducing the weight of your bike by minimising what you carry on hilly rides. For example do you really need two water bottles? Could you carry one and re-fill it on the route? This would save you one pound in weight for a start.
ii. Rider Weight
Reducing your body weight can make a big different to your cycling speed in the hills. How much? Well, later in this blog I explain that you can increase your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) by 15 watts by training intelligently for three months. The amazing thing is that you can achieve a similar effect by shedding 3.5 kilos or 7.7 pounds from you and your bike. That makes you a significantly faster hill rider, without improving your power output at all.
Shedding excess body fat is not easy though. To lose one pound in weight per week, you’d need to consume 500 calories less per day, or burn 500 calories more through exercise.
If you did this every day you’d lose weight at a rate of one pound per week (or half a Kilo). It's a sensible rate of weight loss that won’t leave you feeling hungry or tired.
I lose weight at this rate before my key events by tracking my food and exercise using a free smart phone App called MyNetDiary. There are other similar Apps available.
How To Improve Power Output
There are no shortcuts when it comes to improving your power output. Essentially you need to train consistently over a period of several months. Before you launch into training, you should test your current power output with a CP20 test and use it to estimate your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). This acts as a benchmark for future improvements.
Once you have a benchmark you should then aim to train at least three times per week on your bike. Including a mix of high and low intensity sessions that gradually get more demanding over time. Don't expect overnight success. Your improvements will occur in a slow “drip drip” way - like coffee working it’s way through a filter.
If you train intelligently for at least 3 months you’ll start to notice a significant difference in your fitness. In that time you might expect to see an increase in your FTP of around 15 watts (give or take 5 watts). For more training ideas, check out the structured bike sessions in our triathlon training plans.
5 More Ways To Ride Faster Up Hill
Aside from power output and weight, there are five other ways to improve your hill cycling ability.
When you ride up hills, you should pace yourself appropriately so you don't blow up. But it’s hard to do that when you don’t have the right gearing. Riding uphill in a big gear forces you to turn the pedals slowly at a high power output. This can cause muscle micro-trauma and lactate build up - both forms of fatigue.
For hilly rides it’s better to set your bike up with easier gears, so that you can ride at your optimal intensity without tearing your legs apart.
If you have a 53/39 chainring on the front, you might need a 27, 28 or even 32 or 36–tooth sprocket on the back. If you have a 50/34 chainring on the front, you might still want the option of a 28 or 32-tooth sprocket on the back. Your legs will thank you for it.
ii. Upper Body Strength
When you ride up hills, the stress on your upper body increases. If you’re doing a long ride in the hills, your forearms, shoulders, chest and back will soon get tired. For long rides or multi-day hill cycling events it’s worth building your strength beforehand. This blog explains how.
iii. Rolling resistance
You can save yourself precious Watts by carefully choosing your tyres, wheels and tyre pressure. I use this rolling resistance website to help me make the best choices.
Aerodynamic drag is not such a big deal when riding up hills, but still of some relevance especially on lower gradients. This YouTube video by GCN explains it well.
v. Mechanical resistance
This refers to how efficiently all the moving parts on your bike work. For example, a well maintained chain might save you wasting a couple of Watts. I have written a separate article about this. You could potentially save seven Watts by reading it.
To get better at riding up hills, the best things you can do are to improve your power output and reduce your overall weight. If you do both of these things together, your hill climbing will improve at the fastest rate.
The next biggest gain is choosing the right gear set-up for you and the route you'll be riding. After that there are several smaller gains you can take advantage of such as reducing rolling and mechanical resistance and improving aerodynamics.
Coach Phil Mosley Training Tips Blog
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Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and triathlon magazine writer.