XTerra Series V: Swim training sanity

The Richmond XTerra swim requires agility and a bit of running.

The Richmond XTerra swim requires agility and a bit of running.

In part IV of my XTerra series I discussed ways to decipher why your swim might be sub-par. In this follow-up article, I discuss how to simplify your swim training, as well as race strategies for overcoming a poor swim.

Stop the swim insanity

Here it is, my honest opinion: swim workouts make no f%&king sense. Seriously, for a sport where athletes are almost hypoxic, they share like to create a mental challenge with their hieroglyphics. Putting aside the sheer complexity of the workouts sometimes, the integration of so many motor skills and energy systems not only seems contradictory at times.  So while these types of potpourri sessions tend to keep people occupied and stave off boredom, they may actually be counterproductive.

In general, human physiology is both eloquent and fairly complex. It is well established that while the three energy systems are all functioning simultaneously, they do not necessarily cooperate with each. Case in point, during high-intensity exercise, high levels of H ions (i.e., acidity) not only inhibits the aerobic system, but also inhibits sprint power output and coordination. Moreover, depending on the training objectives, metabolic vs muscle motor unit recruitment vs technique development, rest periods may be vastly different to avoid excessive fatigue. In short, many swim workouts are falling short in nearly all, if not all these areas. Often the rationale made is fun, or volume-time efficacy; neither of these are good reasons for cramming everything you can into a workout. If you’d like read more on why more rationale training makes sense, check out my article from last year’s School of Thought swim clinic at the University of Tennessee. You can also checkout some of my workouts at the end of this article.

Overcoming a slow swim

Training to get faster is great, but eventually we all need to race with what we have. Moreover, sometimes, even good race prep cannot always guarantee a good swim. Clearly, expecting to be slow is a poor mindset, but being realistic about your potential can help you prepare mentally, as well as strategically for the bike and the run. Your race day strategy begins by understanding how to pace based on your strengths and weaknesses. You can find tips for pacing in this article. Other tips include:

  • Previewing as much of the course as possible. Having an idea where to pass is critical in the mountain bike. It helps you save energy, or avoid dangerous passes. Technical swims, like the James River, ocean swims, or strong currents make a swim preview essential. I gained a lot of confidence last year by previewing and breaking down, or chunking, the swim. I knew where I needed to swim hard, and where I could recover more.
  • Test all your equipment, including your wetsuit, a few times before the race. Personally, I hate wearing a wetsuit because its uncomfortable. However, a couple test swims not only improves your comfort, it allows you to see how much faster it is, which is a psychological help on race day.
  • Dial in your transition. A lot is made about practicing transitions, which is helpful. However, more gains can be made if you just stop screwing around in T1, and get your ass on the bike. This includes forgoing the stupid tradition of trying to get your shoes on while on the bike. Unlike road shoes, which are impossible and dangerous to run in, MTB shoes are designed for running. I am highly skeptical that much, if any gains are made by having your shoes clipped in before you mount. For starters, the surface is usually much worse, and transition is often tight and congested. I have blasted by many athletes right out of transition as they fiddle with their shoes!
  • Start racing immediately. Look, this isn’t an IronmanMost XTerra swims take less than 30 min, so there’s no need to be feasting at the start of the bike, ESPECIALLY if you mid-pack or further behind. You can often make up a lot of spots in the first couple miles by hammering right out of T1.
  • Use a compact, race style CamelBak that hold 50 oz or less and start drinking early! Not only can you blast out of T1 and still get your drink, you can continue to drink on the trail without taking your hands of the bar.
  • Stick to you plan! Unless something goes drastically wrong, its best to stick with what you planned, making only incremental changes. This isn’t warfare. Rarely does throwing your whole strategy out makes things better.

I could probably list out several more tips, but this is a good start. Remember, a poor swim may be frustrating, but its not the end of your race. Having a good race plan and a strong, concerted effort will get you steady improvement in your results. The best time to improve your swim is now, before the season, because once you start racing, your strengths in the bike and/or run are what will deliver you home!

Swim Workouts

Applied technique

Objective: Warm-up and drill to build greater awareness of technique, then apply it to race pace (RP) blocks in rested and fatigued conditions.

25 yard pool

  • 300 arm skins
  • 4×50 (25 fist/25 long pull) 10 sec rest
  • 3×100 Long and strong pull (snorkel) 20 sec rest
  • 250 RP 82 SPM
  • 3X100 pull (paddle) 50 sec rest
  • 100 back
  • 250 RP 82 SPM
  • 100 back
  • 100 easy free


Objective: Build anaerobic (AnC) and aerobic capacities (AC) using short sets with equal rest, and moderate distance set’s at varying paces.

25 yard pool

  • 500 WU
  • 6X50 fast with 50 kick recovery
  • 2X100 back
  • 4X250 (100 slow, 100 RP, 50 fast) w/20 sec rec
  • 100 pull
  • 50 back
  • 50 free


Objective: Similar to the 250’s session, I am looking to work on both AnC and AC, however, I also included some technique/drill work in the warm-up, and a mix of paddle work and alternate strokes to unload the shoulders. This workout is broken into four 500 meter segments.

25 meter pool

  • 500 WU
  • (500) 5X AnC 50 sprint, 50 kick recovery
  • (500) 2X250 (100 slow, 100 race pace, 50 max) 20 sec rest
  • (500) Mix: 4X50 pull, 200 Breast/back, 150 free


Objective: An in-season workout focusing on both AnC and AC. Note that the AnC work includes long rests, followed by an easy 100 back to unload the shoulders. The ladder develops both physical and mental stamina.

25 yard pool

  • 600 WU
  • 100 back
  • 6X50 sprint 1:15 rest
  • 100 back
  • 100 RP 16 s rest
  • 150 RP 25 s rest
  • 200 – 50 slow/50 fast
  • 250 – RP 30 s rest
  • 200 – 50 slow/50 fast
  • 150 RP 20 s rest
  • 100 Max 20 s rest
  • 100 back
  • 150 free

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