Year-Round Swimming Fitness – Part 1

16th September 2015

Pool swimming over the winter doesn’t have to be a season of repetitive lengths and counting tiles, says swimming coach Dan Bullock. Here in the first of a three-part series, he explains how to maintain your technique and fitness while you can’t swim outside.


For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the open water season will now be at an end. Whether that’s true in your part of the world or not, it’s an unavoidable fact that, whenever your offseason, you will probably have to move your training to the pool. It’s also true that you have to train through the off-season if you want to perform well next time you hit the water.

Even if you’re training with a club, it’s still a good idea to structure your weekly and monthly training into cycles. Developing a training plan is never a bad thing when it comes to swimming – you can use it to check your progress, schedule in family events or business trips and focus in on key events. Following different phases of training at different times will also allow the body to adapt to a suitable overload of training and build towards getting fitter, stronger and faster.

Since open water swimming races are generally 400m or more, training is focused on endurance rather than speed. Yet it would be unwise to ignore swim technique and efficiency, since drag and poor form in the water are going to be the biggest limiters on progress.

While the majority of your off-season training will be in the pool, that shouldn’t limit you to hundreds of repetitive lengths up and down. There are many sessions and scenarios we can create to help you stay focused on open water competitions, despite your surroundings [see the box below for how to structure a session].

Year-Round Swimming Fitness - Part 12

Within your pool sessions you can also incorporate regular testing so you can gauge your progress more scientifically than comparing a certain race year-on-year, where conditions differ and race courses may be longer or shorter.

I usually put in a few benchmarks for swimmers to help them evaluate: these guides provide markers as to whether more fitness can be accommodated or if more technique should be incorporated.

If progress is not being made, knowing what each session brings to your plan allows for analysis and changes can be made. Perhaps the volume of fitness training you are doing isn’t suitable and needs to increase or decrease, be made easier or harder.

During a particular training phase you may, for example, have one session per week dedicated to technique. If you are not making progress then maybe we would adjust the weekly schedule to promote two sessions that included a lot more technique or at least what I refer to as technical-endurance sessions. These are long swims at a speed that enables you to maintain good technique. We also punctuate the swims with frequent reminders about good technique between lengths, at the start of the length and maybe at the end. Using the lane rope is very useful as a technical zone: as you hit the red section focus on working a few skills, breaking up the monotony of the lengths.

As to how many sessions you do or plan to undertake, this depends a little on what you plan to race, your background as an athlete, family, work and social commitments. For example, if you plan to swim the Channel next year then you really need to explore with your family and your boss if this is the right time. Are you ready for the high demands on your time needed to build up to swimming the 21 miles needed to get you to France?

I’ve just finished working with Jason Bradbury from the Gadget Show who was planning to swim the Irish Channel as part of The Swim. As he was swimming 200m front crawl in 6 minutes 10 seconds back in May, we had some work to do. Fortunately Jason’s background as a martial arts competitor gave him good fit tness and the skills to learn front-crawl technique quite quickly.

A weekly mix of a pure technique lesson, one 3.5km fittness session in the pool and a 3km open water swim – similar in nature to a traditional fit tness session (warm-up, subset, main-set, cool-down) – and a long steady swim in the sea soon brought his 200m time down to a vastly improved 3 minutes 45 seconds. This approach gave him the fit tness and swim effi ciency to last three rounds of the one-hourper- swimmer relay swim across the Irish Channel.

This is just one scenario. Many will be able to immediately add more fit tness or join a Masters team and progress rapidly with the coached sessions. If, for example, you struggle to swim 400m continuously at the moment and plan on completing the one-mile Great North Swim next summer, this coming autumn would be spent with swim technique as the focus.

Alternatively, if you choose to swim on your own you can focus specifit cally on what you need. Long-distance front crawl is slowly creeping into Masters’ team programmes but usually the emphasis is on all four strokes and speed work. Adding the other strokes will reduce the risk of overuse injuries and improve your feel for the water, but if your weekly time is limited you may need to be a little more focused.

Year-Round Swimming Fitness - Part 13