Zone 1 Swimming... Why Not?

By Scott Fliegelman, Executive Director & Head Coach of FastForward Sports: Why do so many triathletes heed his or her coaches' frequent advice to spend up to 60% of bike and run training time in Zone 1, but we hardly ever do so the same when we don the Speedo?

Many FastForward athletes rely on the camaraderie and coaching that comes along with official F4 group workouts in order to train for the bike and run. The energy is high, there is just the right amount of accountability and the 'step by step' instruction and support from the coach is really nice. For mostly these same reasons, I've done 98% of my swimming over the past 6 years with a Masters Swim class.

"Masters" refers more to us 19-and-over swimmers, rather than the presumed advanced ability level. A coach stands on the pool deck and provides assorted warm up/ main/ and cool down sets, while the swimmers seed themselves by ability, experience, and speed by lanes. The positives, as the aforementioned suggests, include some level of camaraderie (usually reserved for those few moments when resting on the wall), the scripted workout, and the occasional motivational or technique oriented words from the coach. The negatives include frequently poor lane etiquette (another story for another time), random workouts that likely are not in sync with your training/ racing schedule, and most importantly that nearly the entire workout is spent in Zone 2 or much higher.

For purposes of this triathlon- related article, Zone 4 represents swimming that is faster than Sprint distance (750m), Zone 3 comprises the range between Olympic (1500m) pace at the bottom and Sprint at the top, Zone 2 represents Ironman (2.4 mile) pace - Half Ironman (1.2 mile) pace, and Zone 1, ideally is anything slower than the pace at which you might "race" for 2.4 miles (a highly 'conversational' effort on the run or bike... a tad difficult in the water, but the idea is the same). If Zone 1 exercise is so important for developing muscle endurance, mitochondrial development, and aerobic/ fat-burning fitness, then why do most of us skip it in favor of upper-zone work such as; 10 x 100 at LT, or 4 x 200 sets on a descending interval, or even the occasional 15 minute time trial?

Well here's a starter list:

  • Zone 1 is boring, while the above sets are exciting!
  • Some of us are physically incapable of swimming more than 25 yards before reaching max heart rate. This is likely due to:
    • Body types
    • Poor technique
    • Poor breathing skills
    • Swimming too 'fast'
    • Lack of flotation
  • Competition with fellow swimmers
  • Lack of time per swim session/ per week
  • Masters- oriented sets that are designed primarily around LT/ Zone 3 swimming.

For 6 years I'd been caught in this vicious cycle of knowing I needed more 'slow' swimming, but relying on Masters for the motivation to even get in the pool in the first place. As fate would have it, after my DNF at IM CDA last June, I decided to commit to doing The 24 Hours of Triathlon- Solo on September 1st and 2nd, which would likely require swimming 16 x 800 meters in less than a 12 hour span (no swimming at night).

With this daunting task hanging over me in mid-July, only 6 weeks from the race, I decided to change my usual swim routine from 3 x week Masters, to 2 x Masters plus 1 x long/ slow/ Zone 1 swim at the 50-meter pool. My first session was 3 x 20 minutes with 90-seconds rest when I could drink and get down a few calories as I'd need to do during the 24 Hour race. As I fall into the category of "dense" body type and therefore have poor flotation, I used a 'pull buoy' that kept my hips up and lessened the need to kick (similar to the effect of a wetsuit), resulting in a lower HR and breathing rate. I also alternated sets with/ without hand paddles, so that I could build strength and technique but not so much that I risked shoulder injuries. I swam slowly enough that I was able to breath in a 2-2-3 pattern that included breathing to the left and right, minimizing impact on the neck and back muscles on my preferred side.

The 2nd week I increased to 4 x 20 minutes, then the third week to 5 x 800 meters to better replicate the demands of the race. I was adapting nicely to this long/ slow training stimulus, but the unexpected surprise came in week # 4 when I joined my regular Masters class, and swam my fastest ever times for 100 and 50 yards, both coming late in the workout after 2500 yards of Zone 2+ swimming.

For many years now, I've been preaching to F4 runners and cyclists the need to build an aerobic "platform" before adding carefully measured doses of anaerobic work, and now finally the light bulb had gone off for me as well... but this time in the water... an environment in which I'd developed almost zero aerobic base over the past few years.

Further proof that I'd stumbled onto something so simple yet critical came at last August's 5430 Long Course Triathlon, where I swam a minute faster than the year before, but with a heart rate 10 bpm lower, and I exited the water feeling fantastic then charged onto the bike fresher than ever!

Weekly Zone 1 swims will now be a staple on my training schedule going forward, and F4 TRI athletes are already enjoying a healthy dose during their early season training.

Here are a few keys if you want to try to work them in yourself:

  • Swim alone- Any level of competition will get in the way.
  • Use a pull buoy if you need a little help with flotation.
    • Note- counter the likely dependency on this device by substituting a Masters class with a Drills day... again on your own.
  • Practice breathing to both sides- When you can breathe every third stroke and not get out of breath, then you know you are going slow enough.
  • Use the time to relax and enjoy some peace and quite.