How Tos,  Training and Technique

If you want to swim more, swim slower

Although swimming feels restorative it is (really) exercise. If you exercise too much and don’t rest enough, eventually your body says “no”, and you get ill or injured.

There are plenty of reasons to increase the amount of swimming you do. You might want to improve your fitness and technique so you can swim faster, build your endurance for a long distance challenge or just get in the water more because you love it.
Whatever the reason, you want to ensure that your extra swimming time is a positive experience with positive results rather than a short cut to exhaustion and breakdown.
One way to help ensure this is to swim more slowly.
This might seem counter-intuitive. Surely if you want to become a better, stronger swimmer you need to push yourself in training?
Actually, no. At least, not all of the time.
It’s quite common to see swimmers (especially masters swimmers) completely blitzed after a training session. Apart from a token warm up and cool down, practically every length will be swum at the maximum speed that swimmer can manage for any particular set. This is often encouraged by coaches who like to see their charges working hard and fellow swimmers who will label you as a skiver or dosser if you slip to the back of the lane (or, heaven forbid, a slower lane). If you’re not reduced to a crawling, quivering wreck after an hour in the water you clearly haven’t been trying hard enough.
“You’re only cheating yourself,” they will say.
While we often mock triathletes and their addiction to pull-buoys, it has to be said that they appear to have a better appreciation than pure swimmers of the need to sometimes train slowly. The long steady run or recovery bike ride are key components of their training week. Why are they not part of a swimmer’s routine?
Here are some reasons to swim slowly in training:

  • Slow swimming really is restorative. You feel revitalised after being in the water rather than mullered.
  • When swimming slowly you can focus on and improve technique, which will make you a faster swimmer in the long term.
  • Swimming fast can disguise technical weaknesses such as sinking hips or a poor catch that really show up (and can be corrected) when swimming slowly.
  • Swimming slowly can be graceful, elegant and satisfying.
  • Swimming slowly helps build your aerobic capacity (which will help you swim faster over all distances from about 200m and above).
  • Swimming slowly some days allows you to put more effort into other days and therefore swim faster than if you try to swim hard every day.
  • Swimming slowly at the beginning of a swim session gives you more scope to increase pace or sprint at the end.
  • Swimming slowly is the safest way to add volume to your training while minimising the risk of injury or exhaustion.

We would however caution about swimming slowly all the time. We do hear comments such as: “I’ve lost all my speed since I started training for long distance.” We therefore recommend including a critical swim speed training set once per week and sprinkling in some sprints from time to time. The key is to learn to swim at different paces, to know what those feel like and be able to choose at what effort level you want to swim. If you are a long distance swimmer you will benefit more by doing the majority of your training at a comfortable aerobic pace rather than always pushing yourself, which usually means swimming at or around your anaerobic threshold.
Look out for an article celebrating slow swimming in the April/May 2016 issue of H2Open Magazine.