Diana Nyad’s 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida has generated positive publicity and adoration for the 64-year-old endurance athlete. By any measure this is an incredible feat and puts the 2.4 mile swim portion of Ironman triathlons in perspective. When training for triathlons some swim the 2.4 miles straight through while other concentrate on drills such as intervals, kick training, etc. So what is the best way to prepare to swim over great distances?
If you are a triathlete or distance swimmer, you have likely been told you should never swim “straight,” meaning jump into the pool and swim for 45 minutes to an hour without stopping. According to swim trainer Kevin Koskella this is a very inefficient way to improve swim speed.
For one, swimming straight without rest or a focused plan is not very productive. Instead of doing 2500 yards at an easy pace, it would be better physiologically and more productive to break those 2500 yards into a workout with a 400 yard warm-up, 10×200 yards at race pace main set, and then a 100 yard cool down.
With the intensity and rest you will stress your system more than swimming long and steady. This is similar to running intervals or at different paces to improve your running speed. Another benefit to having a targeted plan is you learn to swim with better form. The rest between sets gives you time to recover so you are fresh for your next set of drills.
Swimming straight for an hour can be a taxing experience. While having a strategic swim plan outlined to include stroke technique and speed drills should be the focus of the majority of your swim sessions, straight swims do have their advantages.
Straight swims can develop mental stamina. There are no rests in open water swims and triathlon, no walls to hang on to and no chats with friends. If you are going to have to face it in a race, experiencing it in practice is the best way to prepare yourself. Even though it can be boring swimming 4000-5000 yards without stopping, it does prepare both your muscles and your brain for what you will experience in a race. This mental stamina carries over into other aspects of your exercise life as well.
Long swims can be relaxing. Sometimes it’s nice to have a break from drills and scripted workouts. Just get into the water and enjoy the experience. I find continual and steady swims after a long day at the office or following a particularly hard work out to be very therapeutic.
Steady swims are a good way to measure your endurance. After a long and steady swim you may not come away with a feeling that you are getting faster, but you will have the knowledge of when your form begins to break down. This gives you the opportunity to work on correcting your form while taxing your system which will lead to improved fitness and endurance.