Strong does not mean bulky, big, or even all that muscular. Swimming “strong” is the ability to nail shorter, harder sets. Simply put, a strong swimmer has a powerful stroke.
The unique swimmer’s body of Phelps, Lochte, and Yang is narrow hips, big back, wide shoulders. That doesn’t come from lifting weights as much as it comes from repetition. Those are muscles of function, not muscles of vanity.
Strong, powerful swimming means putting a lot of force into the pull phase of the stroke. Strong swimming will allow you to cut precious strokes off your total count, which will save you energy, which will allow you to gap the runners on the bike. You should do one half to one full strong set each week. This is the least important of the first three S’s (smooth, strong, sustainable).
Sets and Timing
Sets will be described in this format: 5 x 100 at 1:30. Translation: Do five 100-yard swims (default to freestyle unless otherwise noted) in one minute and thirty seconds. This means that, for this particular set, your timing would look like this:
1 – leave at 0:00
2 – leave at 1:30
3 – leave at 3:00
4 – leave at 4:30
5 – leave at 6:00
This type of timing means that as you get tired, your rest time decreases, forcing you to do the same amount of work with less recovery, which will help you get stronger. Beginner swimmers may struggle to find a happy time standard. You should be able to make 10 x 100 with plenty of rest in the time standard you choose.
Experimentation will be needed. By 100s eight and nine you may only be getting five seconds of rest. This is good. It will make you physically and mentally tougher.
Your 100 time standard then translates to all other distances. If you are doing your 100s on the 2:00, then your 200s will be on the 4:00, 300s on the 6:00, 400s on the 8:00, and 500s on the 10:00. Having this baseline will help you gauge progress and see where you when evaluating race times.
Please remember that open water swim times are normally slower than pool times. Current, waves and the press of other bodies slow you down.
Another option for beginners is to give yourself a set amount of rest between each effort. So you can do 10 x 100 with 20 seconds rest. This is a good place for beginners to start, since you cannot fail to meet a time standard and it might be less discouraging.
It’s a good idea to use active rest between sets. Active rest includes an easy 50- or 100-yard swim. Active rest is better than passive rest (hanging on the wall) because it speeds recovery.
To prepare for a 1.5K (1640 yards) swim your workouts should hover around the 1700-yard mark. Strong workouts might be slightly shorter and may include smooth work as active rest. Sustainable workouts will be slightly longer. Harder, main sets should go towards the front of the workout, after a warm-up of 200 to 500 yards.
Strong Set #1
10 x 100 – Sustainable time
Total: 1,000 yards
Note: You want to make the 100s comfortable for the first few, and by the end really be struggling. It is not uncommon to get only 3 seconds rest with a strong set. As stated above, that will make you mentally and physically tougher. This is a bread-and-butter type set. You can add smooth drills to it, but note that turns it from a strong set into a smooth set. This is not a problem as long as your goals match your work.
Strong Set #2
10-15 x 50 – Sustainable time
Note: This is one of two times 50s will be suggested. In general, do not fill workouts with 50s; they won’t truly prepare a swimmer for a mile. But as far as creating a deep anaerobic hole to climb out of, it’s hard to beat them. Plus, while a 100 might be intimidating to a beginner swimmer, 50s don’t seem so bad, but every single 50 should be as hard as possible.
Strong Set #3
10 x 100 – Build intensity over each 100
Total: 1000 yards
Note: In most pools, 100 yards is four laps. In this set, lap one should be about 75 percent intensity, lap two at 80 percent, lap three at 85 percent, lap four at 90 to 95 percent. Lap Four is the “chased-by-a-shark” lap. In the case of a long course (Olympic-sized, 50-meter pool) there should still be a line on the pool bottom marking halfway; change gears there.
Strong Set #4
10 x 50 – Breath count
Total: 500 yards
Anaerobic work makes you stronger. Choose a number of breaths per lap or breaths per fifty and swim hard while keeping to that goal. Don’t give up; you need less oxygen than you think. This set should be on a set amount of rest rather than a time standard.
Strong Set #5
200 x 50 – Ladder
1 x 50 – x time
1 x 100 – 2x time
1 x 150 – 3x time
1 x 200 – 4x time
1 x 150 – 3x time
1 x 100 – 2x time
1 x 50 – x time
Total: 800 yards
Note: Ladder sets seem longer than they are. The point is to finish the last 50 with the same intensity that you did the first 50. Ladders also teach pacing. It will not take long to find out that maybe you shouldn’t have hit the 100 quite so hard now that you’re halfway into the 200 and sucking wind.
Strong Set #6
5 x 100 – IM
Total: 500 yards
Note: This is an advanced set. IM stands for “individual medley”, which is one lap of each stroke in the following order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. Obviously, a swimmer must know all four strokes before attempting this set. Before you wave your hand proclaiming that you will never swim fly, back or breast in a race, you need to realize you will never put your bike on a trainer or ride that specific hill you keep struggling up in a race either.
These strokes make you strong. They make you use different muscles, and they make you struggle and hurt. It’s good for you. On top of this, being proficient with backstroke means that if you need a break or have a panic attack mid race, you can easily roll onto your back and swim that way for a few yards, catching your breath and settling yourself.
Triathlon-Specific Notes for Strong Swimming
A triathlete will use the skills they develop from strong sets primarily in the first 200 to 300 yards of a race. That mad dash to the first buoy, when the pack is still thick and there are elbows and feet everywhere. Strong swimmers will be able to get clear of the washing machine quickly without using up their entire store of energy, before settling in to a more sustainable stroke.
Remember, just because you are swimming all out, attacking the walls, and breaking off pieces, does not mean your stroke stops being smooth. The moment your stroke starts to fall apart take a step back. As will be discussed in the sustainable section, a swimmer’s ability to maintain correct technique throughout an entire race determines their position coming out of the water. Strong does not mean splashing mess. Smooth still comes first.