Improve by 5 Percent

16th September 2015

Top swim coach Paul Newsome has created a 10-week programme designed to markedly increase your performance.

As a swim coach, one of the most common questions I face is how much improvement is possible in a given period of time,
subject to specific training – such as a change of stroke technique, or a dedicated programme.

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This is completely understandable, because people want to know the time they’ll be investing in training will produce worthwhile improvements. But how much improvement is actually possible? And more importantly, how can a swimmer follow a simple, progressive programme to deliver these results? A number of coaches might claim that an improvement in the region of 5-10% over an entire season is a realistic goal to aim for, but of course this depends upon the individual – specifically, their base training level and how beneficial the training programme set out for them is in helping them achieve their swimming goals. In the past few issues of H2Open we’ve discussed the benefits of training using Critical Swim Speed (CSS) as a base pace for the majority of your harder training sessions. CSS equates approximately to one’s 1,500m race pace, and training at, or around, this intensity for one or two dedicated sessions a week is extremely helpful for improving performance levels at distances of 400m and above.

CSS pace is calculated by performing 400m and 200m time trials, with the the resultant pace per 100m being the gauge of how well you’ll perform over longer distances. (To work out your CSS go to the CSS calculator at

The simple truth is that if you improve your CSS pace you improve your swimming performance. But beware, as time spent away from the water will see this pace rapidly drop off , too. Over here in Perth, Australia, we’ve been using Wetronomes and Finis Tempo Trainers for the past seven years to control the pace of the various lanes within our squad, and to ensure swimmers are pacing their CSS efforts correctly.

For example, Lane 2 might have a CSS pace of 1 minute 40 seconds per 100m, which breaks down as 25 seconds per 25 metres. By simply setting the tempo trainer to beep every 25 seconds, all the swimmer has to do is try to stay with the beeper at each turn and avoid the temptation to be too fast too early in the session; the best endurance swimmers are those who hold a consistent pace for a prolonged period.

Before the release of the Finis Tempo Trainer PRO though, we were restricted to making these target times precise to only 1 second per 25m or 4 seconds per 100m which, as you’ll know if you’ve trained at this level, is quite a jump.

The new PRO model in Mode # 1, though, allows increment adjustments of one hundredth of a second, which is really quite exciting, because this opens up the potential to make interval sessions marginally faster each week in the pursuit of ongoing, progressive development.

With this in mind I posed this challenge to our squad: could they reduce their CSS pace by up to 5% over a period of ten weeks if we focused specifi cally on this task? We began by testing 128 swimmers from our Perth-based squad in January 2012 for their CSS pace and then gave them specific CSS training sessions once a week for ten weeks, which formed part of their three to four weekly training sessions.

The swimmers ranged in ability from 12 to 20 minutes per km. All had been swimming with the squad for at least six months and had aspirations ranging from simply keeping fit and enjoying swimming to becoming Ironman champions. After the initial test the swimmers were divided into squads and lanes based on ability, such that each 50m lane would typically have 7 to 10 swimmers with a range in CSS pace between the fastest swimmer in the lane and the slowest, of no more than 5 seconds per 100m.

Each week, the CSS set within the main set of the relevant session included a ‘control’ set of 5 to 10 x 100m, with 1 beep recovery (based on ability). So, in the fi rst week,the fastest lane had to swim 10 x 100m intervals in precisely 1 minute16 seconds (19 seconds per 25m) and take 19 seconds rest between each interval, whereas lane 1 swam 5 x 100m on 2:00 (30s per 25m) with 30 seconds rest between each.

The idea of this first set was to get the swimmers accustomed to the pace, which became 0.5% faster per week over the course of the 10 week programme. This typically equated to a reduction in CSS time of just 1/10th to 2/10th of a second per 25m – hardly perceivable, but an improvement nonetheless, which, if maintained over 10 weeks would result in the 5% improvement we were seeking.

Thus, in week 2, the fastest lane’s CSS time was reduced to 1m15.6s per 100m, and their beep was set to sound every 18.9s, so they had 18.9s rest after each 100m.

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In week 3, the CSS time was now reduced to 1m15.24 per 100m and the beep set to sound every 18.8 seconds.

This process continued until week 10, when the CSS time was set at 1m12.6s, and the beep set to sound every 18.15s. The second part of the CSS set was always a total of 1,000m for all swimmers, but structured slightly differently each week (see box). The aim in this part was to hold CSS pace for longer intervals with shorter relative recoveries. In theory, a well-rested swimmer should be able to sustain their CSS pace for 1,500m. However, at the end of a training session, holding this pace for intervals of more than 300m gets increasingly difficult, even if it feels quite steady during the 100m intervals in the first set.

Good pacing is absolutely essential and one of the benefits of training at this very specific pace is that the lower perceived exertion required at the start of the set allows the swimmer to focus on maintaining excellent form throughout the session.