10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.

How to Design an Ultramarathon Swim Workout

5 Comments

I am in training for a four day, four lake, 40 mile open water swim challenge in April. Due to factors beyond my control (i.e. I am not independently wealthy), I do 90% or more of my training for ultramarathon length open water swims in pools. That’s a lot of swimming in a small box of water. How do you design very long workouts for the pool?

An ultra length distance pool workout has to be satisfying for your mind and your body. Swimming seven miles straight in a pool is not going to make you happy. And simply multiplying your regular workouts by some factor is not good either: a 20 x 50 yard set is fine, but a 200 x 50 yard set (or a 20 x 500 yard set) is monotonous. In addition, swimming nothing but free (front crawl) for hours and hours is hard on your shoulders; I like to have some stroke work and drills in my workouts to give my shoulders a break.

When designing a very long workout, I keep two things in mind: structure and variety. Structure makes clear where you are in the workout. Variety keeps your mind engaged.

I love to swim pyramids. You increase the distance of each unit by even increments up to some point, and then you decrease back down. It’s useful to know that 100 + 200 + 300 + 400 + 500 + 600 + 700 + 800 + 900 = 4500. The last time I swam 10,000 yards, I did it like this:

100 free
200 pull
300 kick
400: 4 x 100 w/a moving stroke 25 (25 back, 75 free; 25 free, 25 back, 50 free; etc.)
500 free
600: 2 x (200 free + 100 back)
700 pull
800: 8×100 alternate IM and free
900: 300 swim, 300 kick, 300 swim
1000 swim
Repeat backward, starting with the 900 and decreasing down to the 100.

It was a great 10,000 yard workout; I always knew how far along I was, and the whole thing flew by. If you add a second 1000 free in the middle, you have a 11,000 yard or meter workout.

Pyramid of Khufu

Pyramids are inherently satisfying. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

If I can’t work out a nice pyramid for my distance, I like doing sets of some standard distance with variation within each set. So, a 12,000 yard/meter set could be 6 x 2000:

1st 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 kick
2nd 2000: 8 x 250 ladders (each 250: 100, rest 5 sec, 75, rest 5 sec, etc.)
3rd 2000: (6 x (200 free + 100 back)) + 200 free
4th 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 kick
5th 2000: 10 x broken 200s (each 200: 100, rest 10 sec, 50, rest 5 sec, 50)
6th 2000: 4 x 500 (each 500: 4 x (25 stroke + 100 free))

Or I do the beads-on-a-string workout, alternating sets of different sizes (big bead, little bead, big bead, little bead, etc.). Here is a 13,000 yard workout, made up of 2000 yard sets with 200 yard kick in between:

1st 2000: 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 pull
200 kick
2nd 2000: 6 x (200 free + 100 back) + 200 free
200 kick
3rd 2000: 8 x 250 ladders (each 100, 5 sec, 75, 5 sec, etc.)
200 kick
4th 2000: 20 x 100 alternating IMs and free
200 kick
5th 2000: 10 x broken 200s (each 200: 100, 10 sec, 50, 5 sec, 50)
200 kick
6th 2000: 500 pull, 500 swim, 500 pull, 500 swim

These last two workouts won’t give you the feeling of rolling downhill in the second half like a pyramid structure does, but you always know where you are in them. And you can play with fractions and percentages in your mind as you swim if you enjoy that kind of thing. I enjoy that kind of thing.

I’ve got a lot of swimming to do, and I’m always looking for new structures and sets. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “How to Design an Ultramarathon Swim Workout

  1. Thanks for sharing your workouts. Very useful. When I did my long swim last year (24 miles) my early-year pool training evolved into multiples of 2200 (1.25 mi). I was so happy to finally get to the open water.

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