How to Keep Getting Faster in the Pool

>> Tuesday, March 14, 2017

My swimming is still going OK, but I'm not getting much faster. When I started swimming last fall after a year off, I got faster quicker using the CSS swim method. (I've talked about that a lot, and here's a post from last November that describes it more in depth - it's basically the idea that you train just under your threshold pace with short breaks to gain the most swim fitness.)

I first started training with some CSS swim workouts (not for EVERY workout) a few years ago, and a common workout of 200 repeats with short rest would average 3:10. Well, I got that down under 3:00 after a few months, and I think down near 2:50 a bit later. In recent months, when I started swimming again, here was my progression in a shorter version of that workout: 6x200 with 20 sec rest:

- Dec: 3:02.78
- Jan: 2:59.83
- Feb: 2:59.10
- Mar: 2:58.39

I felt like I KILLED that workout last week to only gain a 0.70 sec advantage over 200 yards (0.35 sec/100). I also did a ladder workout last week that was actually 15 seconds slower than the same workout 2 months ago. The workout is 100, 200, 300, 400, 300, 200, 100 with 20 sec rest:


1:28, 1:31 = 3:00.72
1:28, 1:30, 1:29 = 4:28.94
1:30, 1:32, 1:30, 1:29 = 6:02.32
1:28, 1:33, 1:29 = 4:32.25
1:30, 1:31 = 3:02.06

23:59.94 for hard effort, or JUST under 1:30 pace. (1:29.996/100)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


1:29, 1:31 = 3:01.04
1:28, 1:30, 1:31 = 4:30.28
1:28, 1:31, 1:31, 1:27 = 5:59.26
1:26, 1:30, 1:29 = 4:26.46
1:27, 1:29 = 2:57.07

23:44.22 for 1600 of effort, or 1:29.01/100 ave!

[Notice especially that the longer intervals have gotten slower. Dang.]

Obviously, I'll make the most gains when I START swimming again after a big break, but I'd still like to see my progress KEEP get better. Here's what has happened the 2 times I've implemented the CSS swim method:

I make big gains right away, and then it starts to level off.


If I mix up the training methods after I see their biggest gain (dotted lines),
then I may be able to keep improving more over a shorter period of time.

I'm 100% sure that this is a thing that every coach (or even half-way decent athlete) knows about. Totally positive. But I'm not sure what to do with it. I don't know of other swim "methods" to incorporate. I might start doing more hard swims with longer rests (which is what CSS swimming says NOT to do). I might also try longer straight-through swims (but my shoulder might not allow that). We'll see what I do with this theory.

Thoughts from you? I'm open!

Bottom line: I just need to keep swimming!

(Again, click here for more about CSS swimming, and follow some links on that link for even more.)


Carolina John 11:33 AM, March 14, 2017  

Indeed! The biggest training methods to impact swim speed are form and volume. Both can be helped by joining a US Masters swim team, which I highly recommend. The coaches on deck will give you form adjustments, and the workouts tend to be harder, longer, and more efficient than I tend to get on my own. That makes it easy to start getting in 50k a month in the pool, and that's when those 1:2x/100 times will get down to 1:0x/100.

Keith 2:00 PM, March 14, 2017  

Mixing it up is good. Keeps you from getting bored if nothing else. Have you ever had a video analysis of your swim? There are probably some subtle things to fix that would get you going faster in the water. What limits you now? Do you run out of air or do your muscles get tired? That might determine what you need to work on.

Stephen 2:34 PM, March 14, 2017  

Form is big but once you can start swimming you will progress your form by putting in the volume. No need to dewll on drills.
Swimming is like all other aerobic sports. No one method of designing workouts is going to make you Michael Phelps. You have to change it up. Apply your running knowledge to designing your swim workouts if you don't want to get a coach. One day tempo, next time longer stuff, then shorter harder intervals. You can even mix it up in the same workout (if you are swimming far enough in one workout).

Steve Stenzel 7:00 AM, March 15, 2017  

Thanks for the feedback everyone!

John, with having the boys every morning, I can’t get to a Master class, although I know that would be super helpful. Maybe one of these years.

Keith, I had someone look at my form YEARS ago, but I’ve never been videoed. Good thought. And I’m not sure what my limits are now - depending on the workout, it might be air or it might be muscles getting tired. I’ll keep that question in mind as I’m in the pool.

And Stephen, when I started CSS swimming a few years ago, I first LOVED that it was helping me to get faster, but I later realized that it was also just helping me get into the pool. Which sort of proves your point that I just needed to be putting in more volume. And I try to do what you final point is: I’ll do longer intervals one day, short ones later, then maybe a ladder after that.

I think what all of these comments have reminded me of is that I just need to hit the pool as often as I can. I’m at 2x/week right now because of my sore shoulder, but I think I can get it to 3x/week soon. We’ll see. Thanks for the feedback!!!

Anonymous,  9:50 PM, March 15, 2017  

Form is great to get looked at, if you have the ability to have someone do that. Otherwise, and this is opposite everyone else, do some shorter intervals, and lots of them. In my swim days the worst workouts were 10x100 on the 1:10. The first few you would have some rest to get your breath, the next few you would have enough rest to JUST stop huffing and puffing, and the last few were pretty much a fight to get in under 1:10. But the next practice after we would switch to 200s, or 400s, and always do them a little easier and sometimes faster than before.

Anonymous,  11:18 PM, March 15, 2017  

Doing a lot of short intervals is great... if you're a high school swimmer wanting to to the 100 free. Short intervals are important, but so is developing your engine for a 1/2 mile open water swim. The same methodology of running can be applied to swimming. You don't do a track workout every day to get fast for a 5-10k. A good mix is the best. And no, you don't need to crank out an interval or ladder set every day you hop in the pool.

Steve Stenzel 3:20 PM, March 16, 2017  

Anon, I agree that I need a mix, which is what I'm trying to do (500s, 200s, 100s, ladders, etc). But I don't agree with your analogy with track workouts. I've seen masters swim classes, and they still do shorter sets like I'm doing. Swim training is very different than running. I'm only training for sprint tris: 400-600 yd swims or so. Rarely (if ever) would a swim coach throw in some sort of 2000 yard straight-through swim. Every good swimmer and every swim coach has ALWAYS told me to cut the long swims for lots of shorter intervals like I do now. 100% of them. I do an easier swim every once and a while if I'm not "feeing it" that day (like once every 3 months), but otherwise I disagree with your last sentence: every swim SHOULD be an interval or ladder set of some sort.

Steve Stenzel 3:21 PM, March 16, 2017  

Oh, that thought above was for the 2nd anonymous comment. Anon #1, I won't do too many 100s, but I totally see and get your point. :)

Audrey 1:11 PM, March 23, 2017  

Advice from a year-round swimmer since age 8: it sounds to me like you need more diversity in your workouts, both stroke-wise and activity-wise. I don't know if you can only do freestyle, but try to throw in some other strokes if you have those in your repertoire. I'll throw in 2x50 back on 1:00 after doing a set of 100s on 1:30-1:40, for example, before repeating through the set 2-3 times (and will change the intervals on the 100s for each set). If you can only do freestyle, try mixing in kick (with and without fins) with a board, on your side, on your back, or vertical kicking, as well as breast or fly kick if you can do those. You'd be surprised how hard it is to swim after vertical kicking continuously for 5 min with your elbows out of the water!

Also, I generally agree with the above comments regarding diversifying your workout: you need to do speedwork and endurance work (and tempo sets) if you want to improve. It looks to me like your ladders and 100/200 repeats are a lot of the latter and less of the former two. So for greater muscle confusion and progress, I would work on mixing in some speed with your endurance. Example main set, adjusting distances and intervals as necessary:

Do this set 3 times through:
4 x 50 descend (each one is faster than the last), pick an interval with 10-15 seconds rest (I do 1:00)
5 x 100 free on 1:30-1:40 (an interval with 0-10 seconds rest)
2 x 75 back on 1:30
4 x 25 free sprint on :40

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