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Timed Swims and Fun Ways to Use Them

But, Coach, it can’t be time for a timed swim again. Didn’t we just do one? Can’t we skip it just this once, Coach? Coach? Why do we do these, anyway? Coach, my dog ate my goggles. And, gee, Coach, my shoulder’s been feeling a little funny today. Coach?

Sound familiar? Most swimmers would rather do a 90-minute butterfly set than a 15-minute timed swim, but there are lots of payoffs to testing yourself on a regular basis, and the testing process can be fun if you approach it with a good head.

For starters, timed swims can help you
1. Determine your baseline, aerobic speed
2. Chart your progress
3. Build your confidence and endurance
4. Break through mental barriers and physical thresholds
5. Design workouts that make you faster and stronger
6. Build spirit and toughness as a team (or individual swimmer)

What is a timed swim, anyway? It’s a chance to swim, uninterrupted and on your own side of the lane, for a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes, but for anywhere up to an hour. Usually the stroke is freestyle, but there’s no rule that says you can’t swim other strokes — or mix them in with freestyle if you need a break. Yes, you can stop and rest at the walls if you need to, but the idea is to find a pace that you can sustain for the duration of the swim. Probably the most common timed swims are T-15s or T-30s, where you swim for 15 (or 30) minutes. If you’re lucky, you have someone (a coach, lifeguard, or teammate) to time and/or count laps for you, but often you have to do this yourself with a watch or pace clock.

Another common time trial is to swim 1000 or 1500 yards and see how long it takes you. Another test would be to swim 3 X 300, with just 30 seconds rest between each 300, and trying to keep the time for each 300 within 5 seconds of the others. If you’re totally freaked by the idea of swimming for 15 minutes straight, start with a timed 500 and you’ll soon be able to build confidence and increase your distance. Try to get your pulse rate right after each timed swim (take you pulse at the neck for 6 seconds and multiply by 10), and keep a record of your pulse and time. If you repeat the time trial each month, you’ll soon have a good record of your fitness and progress.

Your mind and your body will go through all kinds of transitions during a timed swim. The trick is to calmly observe what’s happening, divide the time or distance into stages, and stay positive. Think of what you’ve accomplished, not what’s left to go. Your muscles may scream in the first few minutes, but this usually passes and you are likely to get a burst of energy somewhere near the two-thirds point. Expect a little mental and physical pain to happen, and just enjoy the ride. It’s fun to compare notes with your teammates when it’s all over. And it will, eventually, be over.

So what kinds of cool stuff can you do with your final number, besides proudly painting it on your chest and biceps? The big thing is that it gives you a baseline pace or threshold speed, called your T-pace. Let’s make this easy and say you swam 1000 yards in 15 minutes. That means your average speed per 100 was 1.5 minutes. This is a T-pace of 1:30 per 100 or :45 per 50. If you’re into zone-based training, your T-pace marks the beginning of Zone 4. It’s at the borderline between that comfortable Aerobic Zone and the not-so-comfortable Anaerobic Zone. That’s what makes your T-pace such an important number for designing workouts.

On certain days or on certain sets, you want to stay within your Aerobic Zone and build what’s called aerobic endurance. This is the ability to just keep going and going at a comfortable, sustainable pace. During these workouts you might be working on form and technique, or doing long sets or long intervals where you swim at T-pace plus 5 to 10 seconds.

On other days or in other sets, you may want to focus on what’s called muscular endurance, the ability of muscles to maintain a relatively tough load for a prolonged time. You’re teaching your muscles to deal with fatigue and lactic acid. In a muscular-endurance set, the work intervals are usually kind of long and the recovery intervals are short… usually one fourth to one third of the duration of the work interval. You would swim a muscular-endurance set at your T-pace minus 1 or 2 seconds. For example, let’s say the set is 6 X 200 and your T-pace is 1:30 per 100. You would therefore try to swim each 200 in 2:55 to 2:58. Your rest interval would be 1/4 of that, or roughly 45 seconds. If you were swimming 10 X 100 as a muscular-endurance set, you would aim for about 1:28 on each 100. Your rest interval would be l/4 of that, or roughly 22 seconds. So you’d do these 10 X 100 on a 1:50 or even on a 2:00 sendoff.

Now for the fun stuff, the sets that make your lungs heave and your chest pound. The sets where you don’t have enough energy to say anything between intervals, let alone discuss your prom plans. What was Coach thinking when she gave you this set TODAY of all days? These are anaerobic-endurance sets, the ones that help you learn to resist fatigue at very high levels of effort and high turnover. If you can learn to handle these sets, you’ll perform well in short-distance events (and look great at the prom once you dry your hair). How do you know when you’ve bumped into an anaerobic-endurance set? The work interval will last 1 to 6 minutes or so, and the recovery will be almost as long as the work interval. Let’s look at that 10 X 100 set again, this time as an anaerobic-endurance set.

If your T-pace is 1:30, on this set you want to swim each 100 in T-pace minus 5 to 10 seconds… or 1:20 to 1:25. Ouch. You’ll need lots of rest to accomplish that. Take it. Your sendoff could be 2:30, 2:45, or even 3:00 if you feel you need it in order to make your goal times. This is a tough set, and you don’t want to attempt something like this early in the season, or too often in your training schedule. But it will get you ready to race.

Want even more pain… and another way to use your T-pace? Beyond the Anaerobic-Endurance Zone lies something called the Power Zone. And may The Force be with you when you venture Out There. This is Planet Explosive Force and The Rings of Speed. Fire your rockets for short bursts and take lots of time to refuel before refiring. Let’s try 10 X 25 all-out attacks. Aim for T-pace minus however much capillary turbulence your spaceship can handle. (If your T-pace was 1:30 per 100, it’s 22.5 for a 25, so you’re aiming for well under 20 seconds on this set). But give yourself at least 30 seconds rest after each 25. Try to launch any such attacks early in the workout (after sufficient exploratory and warmup orbits, of course), when you’re rested and fresh and your muscles and nervous system are most responsive to commands from headquarters.

In order to do these fun workouts, you first need to do a timed swim to get your baseline T-pace. So get your stopwatch and counter and get busy. Have fun. Go swim!