You are currently viewing 5 Components of Swim Fitness Part 1

5 Components of Swim Fitness Part 1

I have seen many swimmers asking on Facebook about training sets and what they should do when they swim. I have answered many of them but feel it might be good to do a general post. I am a coach and many ideas are circulating on how to train so I thought it would be good to help those who want further information.

Fitness has 5 components, so to be truly ‘fit’ you need to be working on all 5 components.

  1. Cardiovascular fitness (or aerobic fitness)
  2. Muscle Strength
  3. Muscle endurance
  4. Flexibility
  5. Body composition.

Sadly, many in these swimming forums focus just on number 1 and swim mega distances without paying attention to the rest. With aging all 5 components deteriorate unless you work at them, and we do need all of them to lead a healthy aging lifestyle.

Next, there are 3 different systems you get energy from and unless you systematically train all 3, you will end up plateauing. Sadly, we will all get to an age where we stop improving simply because we are old, even if we do all of the above.

The energy systems are:
1) ATP-CP system (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate and Creatine Phosphate) which is responsible for fast immediate action, such as running out of the path of an oncoming car while crossing the road. It is your maximum speed over short distances that keeps your reflexes sharp. The energy is stored for immediate use in your muscles but is short-lived and takes time to replace. It is typified by 100% effort over short, under-distance sprints (usually 25 meters or even less as the energy is short-lived lasting up to approximately 20 seconds after which you start working more in the lactic system. ) with long rest and full recovery (studies show it takes approx. 2 minutes to resupply the working muscles) in between. This develops explosive speed, power and muscle strength.

A typical set might be 8 x 25 max effort on 2 minutes and you can also do easy swimming in between to aid recovery so you are fresh for each one. Your work: rest ratio is 1:3 or higher e.g. 20 seconds swimming/60 seconds resting OR MORE! Sprints should be scheduled EVERY training session even if you are more distance oriented so you remain sharp.

2) LACTIC ACID System. Lactic acid is an inefficient energy source but is naturally produced in your body even at rest. Typically, we don’t feel its effects until we do sustained speed. The Lactate builds up to a point where our kidney and liver can no longer metabolise it away – ultimately it is toxic but most people will stop before it ever gets to that sort of level. You will feel pain, heaviness, burning, and possibly nausea. We call it the ‘blood and guts’ training as you would be swimming at 80-95% of your fastest swimming speed. Training in this system needs careful planning and monitoring as too much can lead to burnout or even a state of ‘overtraining’. In a training program at an elite level for someone training 10 times a week they would likely only have 2 sessions per week with a Lactic Production or Tolerance type set, programmed because of how stressful they are, and the need to allow the body to recover, for at least a day or 2 in between. But if you do this sort of work your body can build up a higher level of tolerance to the lactate which means the effects of fatigue are delayed and you generally recover quicker. In racing it means you can finish your race fast even with high levels of lactate, instead of ‘dying’ at the end. Warming down facilitates the removal of the lactate faster than simply stopping, which is why it is such an important part of a training or racing regime.

Work: rest ratio is usually 1:1 or less. e.g. Swim 60 seconds/rest 60 seconds. Each successive repetition starts with increasing amounts of fatigue and times will drop off because of it – but that’s the point – pushing through that – it’s the ‘No pain No gain’ training. So someone who is a fast 100m swimmer PB of less than 55 seconds per 100m, might swim 10x50s in 30 seconds or faster departing every minute. It is a tough set even though it is not long in distance. These sets build speed with endurance and the ability to swim fast under duress. If you are after weight loss, this is a big bang for your buck, but only do these types of sets if you are fit, have built up to it and have your doctor’s blessing. They ARE stressful and NOT recommended for anyone who is unfit or has injuries or pre-existing medical conditions that might preclude them which include colds/flu/ heart conditions/high blood pressure etc. If in doubt talk to your GP!

3) AEROBIC ENERGY which most people understand – trains your heart and lungs to better deliver oxygen to your working muscles and burn body fat as its fuel. Within this sort of training, there is a huge range of variation but generally, it is at slower intensities (75% or less of your fast speed) with lower heart rates and over longer distances. Swimming purely in your ‘aerobic’ range means swimming at a comfortable speed that you can maintain. If you can’t maintain it over increasingly longer distances you either are not aerobically fit (in which case set your goals or expectations lower) or you are swimming too fast. The Work-rest ratio is generally 3:1 or greater. In other words, swim for 30 seconds rest for 10; Swim for 60 seconds rest for 5 to 20 seconds; etc… As the distances increase, the rest has to remain short so if you are doing a set of, say, 5 x 200โ€™s freestyle on 4.00 you might take 3min 30 seconds to swim it, which gives you about the maximum amount of rest 30 seconds. Any more and your heart rate recovers too much.

The short rests mean your heart rate remains elevated throughout the entire set, but you can go a bit faster than if you just did a non-stop swim. Swimmers in a coached program do most of their training doing sets of shorter distances (repetitions) with short rest rather than just swimming non-stop. This is true for distance and marathon swimmers as it is for sprinters. So they might still do a 3km set but they might do it as 5x 200s on 4.00/ 10x 100’s on 2.00 and 20 x 50’s on 60. The total is still 3km but they will swim with more QUALITY and faster than if they do it without stopping!

By working to a pace clock and monitoring how fast you swim each repetition, you can learn how to pace yourself for even swimming, holding the same speed over and over again, and it gives you direct measurable, quantifiable feedback as to how you are going each session over the days, weeks, months and even years. It also adds a huge amount of variety and allows you to progress a set as you improve, e.g., 15x100m on 2mins but holding 1.45 each 100m will give you 15 seconds rest. If you canโ€™t hold the 1.45 pace for all 15, do it on 2.05 or greater instead until you can master it. Then you can either 1) increase the number of repetitions eg 18x100s at the same time 2) go slightly faster eg try to do all 15 in 1.43 or 3) cut down the rest eg 15×100 holding 1.45 on 1.55. The types of sets you can do are limitless but add variety and comparison when you repeat them over time.

Energy SystemDurationActivityEnergy Source
ATP-PC System (Phosphagen)0-10 secondsHigh-intensity, explosive movementsPhosphocreatine (PC) breakdown
Glycolytic System (Anaerobic Lactic)Up to 2 minutesIntense activitiesBreakdown of glucose to produce ATP
Aerobic System (Oxidative)Beyond 2 minutesEndurance exercisesUtilization of oxygen to metabolize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins

Ultimately, a good program balances work in all 3 energy zones. For a swimmer who only swims 3 times a week you might do what I call a mixed bag, where you do a bit of each type of work every session. If endurance is your goal, you still do your typical endurance set but you would ALWAYS still do some speed work either at the start of your swim when you are fresh or at the end of your swim. To get your lactic tolerance work in you might do your endurance set descending. In other words, you increase your speed or intensity toward the end of your swim finishing as fast as you can so your times get quicker.

If you swim more than that you might dedicate one session to working more with speed, and another more in the lactic range, but you should still do your aerobic work as drills, kick, pull or whatever.

So how do you swim faster and/or longer? The most improvement will come with first and foremost, improved technique and swimming slowly and with control, to get more detail and mastery.

Secondly, check your breathing as many lay swimmers do not have good breathing techniques, over inhaling or exhaling too fast and through the mouth instead of gently through the nose.

Lastly, it is HOW you train.

A good coach will take away the guesswork for you. Setting specific goals that you can work toward in training is also helpful so you can train specifically to those goals. But that’s the subject for another time. Hope this helps.

By Anita Killmier.

Anita Killmier has been both the State and National Coaching Director of Masters Swimming in Australia and has been twice awarded the National Coach of the Year Award. She currently teaches adult private lessons in Kyneton Vic, for beginners through to those looking for technique or skill development.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dave

    great article!

  2. Reno Petit

    This is really helpful for my swim squad, as they don’t tend to know which area within a swim session they are focusing on for that training session. I’ve forwarded it to them to read. ๐Ÿ™‚ In particular, I can quote the work-rest ratios to them now, 1:3, 1:1 or 3:1. ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘ I can hear the groans already…๐Ÿ˜†๐ŸŠ๐Ÿ˜…

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