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Coaching Speed Sets

How to give your swimmers the race-pace training they need to succeed

Terry Heggy | January 11, 2017

The Goldilocks Zone

Swimmers come to our practices in search of a satisfying porridge of workout sets that average out to being “just right.” If our workouts are consistently too hot (intense) or too cold (without adequate challenge), our athletes will leave our program to try out the next bowl on the table, and may end up in front of someone else’s placemat.

At the same time, they do want to get better. Our challenge is to mix the hot and cold in a way that includes the intensity needed for improvement without causing permanent burn scars. In other words, we want to spice up our workouts with some race pace swimming challenges that help the athletes learn how to swim the way they will during their races. How frequently you incorporate race-pace training into your practices will depend on the team’s seasonal plan and the goals of the individual athletes. But as a general guideline, you might try adding highly intense pace-oriented sets every 10 days to two weeks.

NOTE: Race-pace swimming is different from “timed swims” or “working really hard.” Those two concepts should be a part of nearly every workout. Race-pace sets mean that you’re swimming at the speed you expect to swim during competition.

Implementation

Consult the Spreadsheet

Race-pace training can’t be accurately designed unless the coach and swimmer know the goal times for their target race. In your role as team database administrator, keep track of past performance and future potential so you can ensure that swimmers aim for the appropriate speed during their race-pace sets.

It’s OK to ignore excuses and rationalizations (and trust me, you will hear them) when you ask for high performance. Swimmers often perform to meet the coach’s expectations, even if those exceed their own expectations. And the fun of it is that they will thank you for challenging them when the workout is over (even if they cursed you during the set).

Shake n’ Break

The only way to achieve race pace during a practice is to break up the distance, and offer adequate rest between each segment. For example:

Meet target: 100 in 1:00

  • 4 x 25 on 1:00 sendoff, holding :15 (or under) on each 25. Repeat 5 times with an easy 50 and an extra minute rest between 100s.

Meet target: 200 in 3:04

  • 4 x 50 on 1:20 sendoff, holding :46 (or under) on each 50. Repeat 4 times with an easy 50 and an extra minute between 200s.

Meet target: 500 in 7:00

  • 5 x 100 on 2:30, holding 1:24 (or under) on each 100. Repeat 3 times with an easy 100 and an extra minute rest between 500s.

Meet target: 1650 in 25:00

  • 5 x 300 on 6:00, holding 4:30 (or under) on each 300. Repeat twice with an easy 100 and an extra 2 minutes between 1500s.

Remember that the concept is to swim each segment at the target pace. If the swimmer beats that pace easily on the first segment but fades later in the set, get them to either 1) go slower on the first repeat (still achieving the target pace, but not much faster), or 2) take more rest.

If the swimmer finds the set too easy, reduce the intervals or change the target to a faster pace. After the set, review the swims with the athlete to discuss how the effort felt compared to the times achieved. A perfectly performed race pace set will teach the swimmer the level of perceived effort to allocate throughout the race to achieve their goal. For most swimmers (especially as the distance increases), they feel fresh and relaxed through the first part of a perfectly-paced race, and utterly exhausted at the end.

Recovery

Race-pace training is draining, both physically and mentally. Swimmers need time to recover. Follow these intense sets with low-energy technique drills or easy cool-down swims. Then do something less challenging and more fun at the next practice. With a good mix like that, Goldilocks will visit you over and over again!

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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