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What Quickens Thine Heart?

(or Easy Speed)

Expanded from my response to a question in the www.H2OustonSwims.org discussion forum about using heart rates for training. First appeared in Runner Triathlete in 2005.

 Effort does not equal speed

Swimming speed is not always directly related to effort. Think of the recreational swimmer that thrashes about, tossing water in every direction, just a big splash moving slowly down the pool. This guy has a 200+ heart rate by the end of 25 yds. Lots of effort, not much speed. (See the article Splash and the XXLarge Jockstrap.)

Speed is more directly related to efficiency than to energy expenditure. Elite swimmers spend way less energy swimming any given speed than you do swimming that same speed. In fact, they probably spend way less energy even while swimming at significantly faster speeds.

Efficiency equals speed

Most swimmers have experience with trying to reduce stroke counts at various speeds below "normal" or habitual numbers of strokes per length. This helps the swimmer focus on making strokes more efficient.

A more direct method of working on efficiency is through heart rate (HR) awareness and control. Typical HR sets ask you to stay within a specific HR range to make sure work is done at the intensity required to effect some specific metabolic training adaptation. But at any given speed we can also use HR as a direct gauge of efficiency - the less efficient you are, the higher your HR will be. Conversely, the more efficient you are, the lower your HR will be.

Challenge thyself accordingly

Coupling speed with HR control gives us a natural, and challenging, focal point for use in efficiency training. Try seeing how fast you can swim short-rest repeats without letting your HR go above a specified HR.

Try swimming 10x100 challenging yourself to stay under a 140 HR. Take just enough time between repeats to check your heart rate. Do the first couple repeats easy enough to stay well below 140 HR. Then gradually increase tempo till you begin to hit 140. Then start focusing on one or more of the various aspects of technique that affect efficiency - increase DPS, improve streamline position, glide longer off each wall, involve more large muscles to spread the work across more muscle mass, relax unnecessary muscle tension, avoid unnecessary resistance etc. The idea is to slightly reduce HR. If you are successful, then you have "room" to increase the tempo again slightly. See how fast you can swim each repeat while staying under 140 HR. Not working harder, just swimming faster. 

Use the clock for speed feedback. Improved efficiency can be deceiving. If you are one of the majority of swimmers that consciously or unconsciously equates effort with speed then, when you swim more efficiently, your internal speedometer may erroneously tell your brain you have slowed down.

There is nothing magic about 140 HR. Learning can take place at a variety of HRs. Alternatively, you can choose a specific speed and then see how low a heart rate you can get down to while doing repeats at that speed.

This efficiency=speed concept takes some getting used to. Expect lots of trial and error. Try it first with moderate intensity sets till you get good at it. Then apply the concept at higher intensities and with more rest. v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2003-2006


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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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