How to Train for Distance Swimming
Updated: May 8, 2019
When you watch the competitive swimmers race in 400, 800 or 1500m swims at competition, they have trained around 70km per week over many years to swim that well. A distance swimmer will swim about 10 sessions a week in the water at 7km a session.
So how are we going to swim in Open Water where the shortest race is usually 1500m, and the longest 20km, when we only train 3 - 4 times a week and usually 3km - 4km per session? The answer is we can still swim them well given our reduced workload if we train using the same warm ups/skills/main sets etc the same as the swimmers doing 70km a week - just condensed down to 3km to 4km sessions. We will also swim our races at a lower level of intensity as we wont have the same depth of fitness on which to draw - so instead of say swimming a 1500m at 80% we will swim it at 65%. Our swimming results will still be very good and we will swim at our maximum speed for the distance we are racing, given our age/training.
Distance swimming has a strong focus on what is called threshold training. When you swim a 5km Open Water Swim, there is no real need to swim at varying pace, it will just tire you out and once you fatigue, you will slow down, and your stroke will deteriorate. The best way to swim a distance swim is to swim at your maximum pace over the distance, that will enable you to hold the same pace the entire race, without fatigue. Taking it back to a 1500m swim by a competitive swimmer, that is 15 x 100s, they will swim the first 100m 2 seconds faster than the second 100m, then the second 100m is one second faster than the third 100m, then they swim the same time for the next 11 x 100m and throw everything into the last 100m, which is usually about 1 - 2 seconds faster again than the previous 11 x 100s. That is how to swim a distance swim. If you swim the first 100m/200m too fast, you will fatigue, and you will not be able to hold that same pace over the remainder of the swim, you will slow down. When you fatigue, your stroke also deteriorates, and it all gets very ugly quickly. The trick is to know the pace to hold so that this does not happen, and you swim at your optimum pace - which will give you your best time. This optimum pace is called your threshold pace.
Your threshold pace is THE key to distance swimming. As we progress through the season, and we start to build up our threshold training, this will make sense and you will be able to see how you can hold a stable speed over a long distance, giving you best results.
Best results is not only how fast you swim, it also means how much you enjoy your swim. When you can get out after a distance swim, and feel good about how you performed without your arms having turned to lead early and the swim being more about survival than enjoyment, you will be much happier with your race.
In the training sessions that follow, you will see my personal times alongside the training sessions that I am doing. It is important to record your times and the dates that you swim them, to monitor your progress. As you get fitter, you will see your threshold time start to reduce, and the interval time that you can work your main threshold will also reduce.