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Spruce Up Your Swim With Time-Trial Workouts

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published May 9, 2012
  • Updated Dec 17, 2012 at 1:10 PM UTC

Swim time-trial workouts look more like a real triathlon swim leg than a set of 50-meter sprints and can enhance your performance come race day.

You are training for a long-distance triathlon later this spring. You know your swim training is going well because your times in your 50-meter sprint sets keep coming down. This is a sure sign your performance potential for the swim leg of your upcoming race is headed in the right direction, right? Not necessarily. While any type of improvement in workouts is usually a good sign, improved performance in short sprints is not always a reliable indicator of increasing performance potential in a long open-water swim. For real evidence, you should regularly perform workouts in the pool that look more like a real triathlon swim leg than a set of 50-meter sprints.

That’s where time-trial workouts come in. A time-trial swim workout serves the dual function of giving you a race-specific training stimulus and letting you know whether the rest of your training is actually serving to increase your race-specific fitness. The idea is to do one such workout every two to four weeks. If you see a satisfactory degree of improvement, you know your training is on track. If your level of improvement is disappointing, or if you fail to improve at all, you know your swim training needs to change.

Always do your swim time-trial workouts when you are well recovered from recent swim sessions. Warm up with at least 200 meters of easy lap swimming plus a few short (25-meter) sprints to prime the nervous system. Swim the designated distance as fast as you can (but evenly paced), record your time and cool down.

The length of your time trials depends on the distance of your next triathlon. However, I recommend increasing the distance of your time trials from one session to the next, starting at 800 meters and building from there. If you’re training for a sprint triathlon, you need not progress beyond 1,000 meters, whereas if you’re training for an Iron-distance event, your longest time trial should about two miles.

Why not make all of your time trials about two miles if you’re training for an Iron-distance race? First, your performance in time trials of gradually increasing distance will tell you as much about your race-specific swim-fitness development as a sequence of long time trials. You just have to interpret the data somewhat differently. Naturally, you should not expect to swim at a faster pace in a 1,500-meter time trial you do today than you swam in a 1,000-meter time trial performed three weeks earlier. However, you should be able to hold nearly the same pace over the longer distance. Secondly, in the early stages of training for an Iron-distance triathlon, most of us lack the endurance to perform decently in a long-swim time trial. You would overtax yourself only to learn what you already know.

Another reason to start with shorter time trials is that the progression from shorter to longer time trials fits with the way your overall swim training should progress. The goal of your training is to extend speed over distance. You achieve this objective by focusing on faster efforts exceeding race pace early in the training process and then gradually extending the efforts and slowing the pace toward race pace. Thus, the early period of your training for an Iron-distance triathlon should look similar to peak training for a sprint triathlon. So it makes sense to make your first swim time trial equal in distance to a sprint triathlon swim leg.

As mentioned above, if your degree of improvement from one time trial to the next is disappointing, you should modify your swim training to address the problem. The specific modification you make should depend on the specific limiter you identify (that is, the apparent cause of your disappointing performance). If you found the pace of your time trial manageable but you bonked toward the end, you were probably limited by your endurance and should increase the distance of your longest swim-training efforts.

If you started to feel uncomfortable at the pace you felt you should be able to sustain early in your time trial, then one of two factors is probably limiting you: insufficient speed or lack of specific endurance (or fatigue resistance at race intensity). If your sprint performance has been satisfactory in your other swim workouts, then lack of specific endurance is probably the issue and you should add some longer (200-400-meter) intervals to your subsequent training. If you have generally neglected sprint work, then lack of speed is probably holding you back and you need to add some shorter (25- to 100-meter), maximum-intensity intervals to your subsequent training.

The tables below present suggested swim time-trial workout progressions for each of four triathlon race distances.

Suggested time-trial workout schedule for a sprint triathlon

8 weeks before race 800 meters
6 weeks before race 800 meters
4 weeks before race 1000 meters
2 weeks before race 1000 meters


Suggested time-trial workout schedule for an Olympic-distance triathlon

11 weeks before race 800 meters
8 weeks before race 1000 meters
5 weeks before race 1200 meters
2 weeks before race 1500 meters


Suggested time-trial workout schedule for a half-Ironman triathlon

14 weeks before race 800 meters
11 weeks before race 1000 meters
8 weeks before race 1500 meters
5 weeks before race 1 mile
2 weeks before race 1.2 miles


Suggested time-trial workout schedule for an Ironman-distance triathlon

17 weeks before race 800 meters
14 weeks before race 1000 meters
11 weeks before race 1500 meters
8 weeks before race 1 mile
5 weeks before race 1.2 miles
2 weeks before race 2 miles


Take-home message

A time-trial swim workout serves the dual function of giving you a race-specific training stimulus and letting you know whether the rest of your training is actually serving to increase your race-specific fitness.

Do one such workout every two to four weeks. If you see a satisfactory degree of improvement, you know your training is on track. If your level of improvement is disappointing, or if you fail to improve at all, you know your swim training needs to change.

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