team logo
   article archive

The ABC's of Energy Systems
by Judy Bonning

For any Masters swimmer, understanding the three main energy systems is critical to swimming success. But even more important is incorporating them into a training regimen in proper quantities. In order for fitness swimmers, triathletes and competitors to derive maximum benefits from their swimming, all levels must be included to some degree on a regular basis. Fitness swimmers will experience a higher level of conditioning, while competitors and triathletes will gain an "edge" and swim faster in races.

Frequency of Training
A swimmer's number of weekly workouts has a significant impact on which energy systems are trained. Those who are able to squeeze in only two workouts each week should have a primary goal of maintaining their aerobic fitness level. If possible, these swimmers should add to their fitness level with another aerobic activity such as cycling or running.

With three or more training sessions per week, improving both the aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels is possible. At this frequency of training, a swimmer should be able to alternate sessions that emphasize the aerobic and anaerobic systems, or distance and sprint workouts.

The ambitious swimmer who trains seven days a week is encouraged to take off at least one day each week to relax both physically and mentally. Swimming every day, especially at intense efforts, can do more harm than good.

Typical Sets
There is an infinite number of sets, with the variables being number of repetitions, distance, rest interval, pace, stroke and type of set (swim, kick or pull). Many coaches who have been in the profession for decades claim never to have repeated the same workout. However, these same coaches may use test sets or common training sets that work a specific energy system or measure how an athlete is progressing. While suggestions for workouts are given in this article, remember that there are many ways to write workouts and that one may be creative in writing workouts and workout sets.

Training at the aerobic level is important early in a swim season or when starting a new workout program. Keep in mind that an aerobic base needs to be developed over eight to 12 weeks in order for a swimmer to feel "in shape." Beginners may be able to swim continuously for 10 to 15 minutes at a time and may wish to use fins to avoid stopping after short distances. The more experienced swimmer should design aerobic sets lasting 20 to 30 minutes. Whatever the ability, the sets should be swum at a steady aerobic pace with a relatively short rest interval.

The emphasis in swimming aerobic sets is on continuous effort with minimum rest breaks. The objective of an aerobic set is to raise the heart rate to a fairly high level and to maintain that pulse rate. Extended breaks in an aerobic swim reduce the pulse rate and decrease the aerobic benefits. If necessary, slow the pace to allow more continuous swimming. When swimming butterfly, change to stroke drills or freestyle rather than hanging on the wall for minutes at a time.

When designing aerobic sets for freestyle, use the following rest intervals as a guide. For IMs and strokes other than freestyle, add five to ten seconds to the rest interval.

Repetition Distance Rest Interval
50 5 to 10 secs.
100 10 to 15 secs.
200 15 to 30 secs.
500 25 to 40 secs
1000/1650 30 to 60 secs.

Here are two aerobic sets that total 1600 and 2000 yards, respectively. Of course, your distance and interval may vary, but make sure the set lasts in the 20 to 30-minute range.

Example #1

16 x 100 freestyle at a steady pace as follows: 4 x 100 on 1:45
4 x 100 on 1:40
4 x 100 on 1:35
4 x 100 on 1:30
For a swimmer able to hold 1:25 per 100, the rest will be from five to 20 seconds per 100, an appropriate rest interval for an aerobic set.

Example #2

Build into this set as the distances decrease, but remember to stay in the aerobic training level.
1 x 500 free on :30 to :45 rest
1 x 400 IM on :30 to :60 rest
1 x 300 free on :20 to :30 rest
1 x 200 IM on :20 to :30 rest
1 x 100 free
In other words, stay fairly comfortable and keep the breathing easy.

The anaerobic energy system is probably the most difficult energy system to train, both physically and mentally. Therefore, these intense sets should be attempted no more than twice per week. The biggest mistake made by swimmers training anaerobically is failing to swim at an all-out effort and warm down extensively after these fast repeats.

When swum properly, the anaerobic sets will cause the pulse rate to increase and lactate in the bloodstream to rise to very high levels. The duration of the fast swimming should not exceed 2:30 (approximate). If it exceeds this time limit, the swim is likely to become aerobic instead of anaerobic. Distances from 25 through 125 yards are commonly used for this form of training.

Although the following example sets are designed for improving performance in races 400 yards/meters or less, distance swimmers and triathletes will also benefit from speed training as well. Their speed sets may be 20 to 30 x 100 with :30 to :45 rest or perhaps 5 x 200 at a fast pace with recovery swimming after each 200.

Example #1

15 x 100/2:00 (if fastest 100 time is 1:20 or better), 2:15 (fastest 1:21 - 1:30) or 2:30 (fastest 1:31 - 1:45). Swim as five sets of 3 x 100, with the first 100 easy, the second 100 moderate and the third 100 all-out. All five all-out 100s should be within one to two seconds of each other.

Example #2

5 x 50 (choice of stroke) at an all-out pace, leaving every 5:00. After each fast 50, swim easy to accelerate the recovery process. If possible, begin each 50 with a dive from the starting blocks.

Most swimmers enjoy training at the anaerobic alactic level because the distances are short, the pace is fast and there is plenty of time to socialize between repeats. This type of training is especially important for sprinters, but triathletes may develop it to "get ahead of the pack" or to make a quick move around a competitor. Fitness swimmers may add it to their repertoire for variety and better overall conditioning.

Example #1

8 x 25 with 30 seconds rest after each 25.
Swim the first 12 1/2 yards at an all-out pace and the second 12 1/2 at an easy pace. The emphasis should be on moving off the wall as quickly as possible, pushing off in a streamlined position and using a strong kick to rise to the surface. Use a fast turnover for speed, but swim in a controlled manner. If swimming a butterfly set, switch to freestyle for the easy portions of the set. An alternative short course set is 8 x 25 swimming 12 1/2 easy and 12 1/2 fast to work on race finishes.

Example #2

In a 50 meter pool, swim 8 x 50s broken into 12 1/2 fast, 25 easy and 12 1/2 fast.
These 50s may be swum with a dive or pushoff start.

 back to top

Judy Bonning, is a past president of the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association and 1991 USMS Coach of the Year, and is head coach of the Coral Springs Masters in Coral Springs, Fla.

Taken from Swim magazine
December 1996