Are you a 'skilled' swimmer?
As much of the EC team is on the verge of kicking off ‘Swim Game v2.0’, I could not think of a better time for this post.
I received a little bit of heat/disbelief when I posted some comparison tables looking at relative fitness standards for swim, bike and run in a recent blog. To be fair, the upper end ranges in that table were assuming ‘elite’ swimming skill/economy.
Elite swimming skill can be an elusive thing to define, let alone achieve. Certainly, in the triathlon world, it is seen as a ‘holy grail’ of sorts, something that is the exclusive domain of the fortunate few who ‘grew up swimming’. But before we write off the possibility of converting ourselves into ‘skilled swimmers’, let’s consider what it means to ‘grow up swimming’.
I can’t think of a squad that I’ve been involved with in which attendance of at least 5x per week was not mandatory. When I think back, it also strikes me how, once committed to the squad routine ‘drop outs’ were few and far between. When I think back to my own squad experience, even coming in as a late starter at 12 years old, I was still swimming with the same folks that I started with when I finally made the move to college.
Another interesting tidbit, while I can recall doing a lot of standard drills over the 10,000 or so km I reckon I swam over those years, I don’t think I did one T.I. drill at any point in that time. This is not to suggest that there is no benefit to the T.I. drills but rather to suggest that the mindset of a ‘quick fix’ to turn an unskilled swimmer into a skilled swimmer is misplaced in the world of swimming.
Another personal observation as I’ve transitioned into triathlon: Even with these 600,000 strokes or so of motor patterning behind me, my status as a ‘skilled swimmer’ is up for revocation at any time. If I swim my usual tri frequency of 2-3 swims/wk, I fall somewhere between ‘triathlete swimmer’ and ‘skilled swimmer’ in economy terms.
It takes a lot of time and a lot of meters to create a ‘skilled’ swimmer. However, the good news is that swimming is the kindest of the 3 sports on the body, both in terms of connective tissue stress and energetic cost. It takes very little energy to cruise up and down the pool (providing technique is decent). For that reason, many athletes are amazed at how well they deal with a ‘swim camp’ period of overload volume. Athletes are often equally surprised by the technical improvement that comes with these periods of constant exposure to the water.
So, in addition to expressing the relative upside that will come with converting yourself into a ‘skilled’ swimmer I also wanted to provide a more realistic measuring stick for those triathletes who have great fitness but lack the background of (or time to turn themselves into) a ‘skilled swimmer’. Data derived from Holmer (1972) & Khort et al. (1987)
The tables show relative paces for a number of different fitness levels for a 100 for time, 400 for time, 800 for time, 3000 for time and Moderately-Hard, Steady and Easy training paces.
Fitness categories are expressed in both VO2max and CP5 numbers so that athletes with good bike field data but no recent lab data will be able to have a good estimate of where they fall.
When looking at the data, 2 things become readily apparent:
a) There is a BIG difference in performance across the unskilled-skilled spectrum for the exact same energy output. In other words, at 400 time trial effort, an unskilled athlete with a VO2max of 3.8L/min will swim ~7:40. A skilled swimmer with exactly the same size ‘engine’ will break 6:00. When you extrapolate this difference to the distances in IM racing, the implications become apparent.
b) There is a notable difference in the range of paces from easy-flat out between the three groups. In other words, the less skilled the swimmer, the more they will tend towards being a ‘one pace swimmer’. For the unskilled swimmer, an easy pace is only ~28% slower than their max pace. For a skilled swimmer, the range from easy to ‘all out’ is a much greater 45%. The reason for this is really at the heart of this post, the better the swimmer, the less resistance they create at higher speeds.
This is something that is rarely emphasized in the world of triathlon swimming. Everyone is doing their hour of drills at 2:00 or 3:00 per 100 pace without realizing that, at these paces resistance doesn’t matter a whole lot! I am not suggesting that drills shouldn’t first be practiced slow but they need to be progressed to fast (and be able to be incorporated in) fast, whole stroke swimming in order to have any practical significance. For this reason, regular, short fast swimming is more important in the pool than any other place in the athlete’s program.
With the potential ‘free speed’ available to many triathletes, on your designated easy days or when fitness begins to show diminishing returns, the best place to spend some extra training time may be in the pool.