This article is meant to describe in detail the specifications about the above-anaerobic threshold workout design in triathlon swimming. This is the most important workout that serious triathletes perform correctly and often. If there’s one workout design you perform per week, then this is it. Specifics will be included such as workout design and what to expect while swimming.
Before I continue, I want to clearly state that this article is about hard workouts. These are some of the toughest workouts you can do in a pool, both mentally and physically. Will you be able to complete a triathlon just fine without reading this article or doing any of the workouts suggested here? The answer is absolutely yes. This is an article about how to get optimal performance (how fast can you possibly go), and is not a requirement for the weekend warrior to finish a local triathlon race. If you are a serious triathlete or a weekend warrior interested in learning what’s needed to become a serious triathlete, please read on.
Below are some definitions:
Aerobic Threshold: The point at which anaerobic energy (‘without oxygen’) pathways start to operate.
Anaerobic Threshold: The point at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the muscles.
The short form I use for this workout design I use is called the A3+ (the letter A, number three, the word “plus”). This terminology designates an effort level that is well above anaerobic threshold, with high effort over a medium time period (between 2 and 10 minutes) with a large amount of rest and recovery (between 30 seconds and a minute for every 1 minute swum). The total distance swum at this effort level should be relatively short. For beginners, the distance should be between 1000-2000 meters. For more experienced athletes and pros, the distance ranges only up to 1600-3600 meters. In training, I recommend the A3+ time periods to break down as follows: 2-3 minute efforts: 50% of all A3+ workouts, 4-6 minute efforts: 40% of all A3+ workouts, 8-10 minute efforts: 10% of all A3+ workouts. I never do an A3+ workout with intervals significantly above 10minutes. This is the precise mix I followed in my own training during the 2006-2007 season (my best open-water season ever).
To illustrate the numbers above, I will provide two examples. For a 2-3-minute effort, I would swim intervals of 200meters. To cover 2,000 meters and get appropriate rest, I would swim quantity-10-200s on a 4-minute sendoff time (getting a little more than 1 minute, 30 seconds rest between each 200meters). For beginners, the distance may need to be reduced to 150s or maybe even 100s in order to swim a distance that can be completed on or around 2minutes.
In a second example, for a 4-6 minute effort, I would swim intervals of 400meters. To cover the same 2,000 meters and get appropriate rest (the total distance of this set doesn’t change even if the swimming time-period changes), I would swim quantity-5 400s on an 8-minute sendoff time (getting about 3 minutes rest between each repeat). For beginners, this distance may need to be adjusted downwards in order to keep a net swimming time of about 5 minutes and rest of about 3 minutes.
Why is the set so short and rest so long? This is done in order to stress the anaerobic system and enhance neuromuscular development for swimming. Whenever your muscles move in an unfamiliar motion, they move much less efficiently compared to a familiar motion. This is a reason (of many!) why so many triathletes who discover swimming late in life have such a tough time improving in the sport. The A3+ design forces the body to break down and re-build muscle and nervous systems in a way that allows the muscles to fire more often and at a faster rate while swimming. You are telling your system: I’ve got to get more efficient at this!
In order to maintain effort levels well above anaerobic threshold, you consider the length of time you are working. It cannot be too long or too short. Too short is anything below 1 minute, 45 seconds, as a 1-minute-or-less is too short to isolate the anaerobic system over the raw strength and power systems. Too long is a time period over 10-minutes, as by this time you accumulate so much lactic acid in your body that you become physically incapable of maintaining the correct effort level.
The large rest interval is also required to keep your body performing above anaerobic threshold. You need enough rest for your system to flush out the lactic acid and lower your heart rate, which takes about 90 seconds. When you take significantly less rest, you build up lactic acid and break down muscle too quickly and cannot maintain your effort level long enough.
The discussion up to this point details the intent of this workout design. However, it does not address its operation. How hard is hard enough? How should you feel throughout the set? How should you control the pace? When should you stop? The short answer is that you should be working as hard as you possibly can. The set should feel absolutely terrible at or about the 4th repeat and should continue to feel worse for each repeat thereafter. The continual bombardment and removal of lactic acid will rip your muscles apart (in a good way!), and three to four repetitions is usually what it takes to initiate the failure process. This breakdown is important because it motivates your body to re-build your muscle and nervous systems to be more resistant to this kind of torture in the future.
This brings us to the topic of pacing. How much effort you put into pacing in individual repeats and from one repeat to the next are very important. Pacing in the swimming pool is very different from pacing on the track, even over events that take the same amount of time. As an example, I compared the 2008 Olympics results in the swimming/Men’s 200-meter-freestyle heats (top 8 finalist’s heat times) to the track/Men’s 800-meter run heats (winning time per heat). The total time taken for the athletes to complete these races was approximately the same at about 1 minute, 45 seconds.
Here are the results when I compared the first half versus the second half of each respective race. The 200 freestylers, on average, had a second half that was 1.41 seconds slower than the first half. The 800 track runners, on the other hand, averaged 0.67 seconds faster on the second half. Many runners get into the pool expecting to pace in the same fashion. As a result, they swim so slow in the first half of their sets that they are wasting time. Or, runners swim the first half of their sets way too fast, resulting in collapse long before the set is over. It will likely take several attempts to get the pacing right. If you break a 2-minute effort into quarters, you want the first quarter to be the fastest, the 2nd and 3rd quarters to be about the same and the 4th quarter to be slightly faster than the 2nd and 3rd but still slower than the 1st. Over the length of the set, you want to get progressively slower in each repeat. If you are 10 seconds slower from the first repeat to the last over 200meters, then you are doing okay. Greater than 10 seconds means you’ve probably worked too hard and swum a few repeats too many.
What is behind the discrepancy between splits and pacing on the track and the pool? The difference is momentum and medium (air vs. water). In running, it takes some time just to accelerate up to speed. By the time you reach that speed, relatively little is holding you back (air is much lighter than water). When you are running the back half of a track race, you have momentum going in your favor which helps offset an increase in fatigue. In contrast, your fastest moment in a swimming race is when you are flying through the air on the dive at the start. In addition, when you get slower in water, you get lower in the water, which makes it harder to maintain speed and can cause a downward spiral which makes you slower and slower. For this reason, it is much harder to maintain pace in the water and not optimal to “negative split” for most people (negative split = 2nd half faster than the 1st half of a race).
In the A3+ design, it is important to continue the muscle breakdown process through the failure process and to the brink of collapse, but not beyond. If you swim too far and let your stroke fall apart too much, it becomes impossible to work hard enough to generate the lactic acid flush and specific muscle breakdown/re-build that is the reason for doing the set in the first place. Your muscles continue to tear apart, but not in a specific direction. As a result, your system heals in a way that does not focus on the muscle fibers and direction that are optimal for you to swim faster. It is pain without the gain! I have a rule of thumb I recommend to clients when considering pacing and how to approach the A3+ set design.
If you are still fighting fatigue, or if you are worried that you cannot go on, then you are doing a great job and should keep going. If you know you’ve lost and are sure you cannot go on, then you have done a great job and should stop. If you are not worried, then you are doing a poor job and should work harder until you are worried.
To re-state my disclaimer from the 2nd paragraph, the A3+ design workout is not for the athlete who races just to cross the line. It is for the serious athlete who wants to see how fast their system is capable of swimming. I hope that you can use the insights of this article to implement your training regimen and improve as quickly as your system will allow. Having a perfect technique is very important, but it is not enough. The swimmers that improve the most are always the most prepared in every race and every workout. Until next time, happy training!
Coach Duane Dobkanize Dobko