By Jesse Kropelnicki


Swimming has so many moving parts. Does it really have to be that complicated?

Swimming tends to be the single biggest frustration amongst triathletes. Sometimes it feels as though if you didn’t swim your way out of the womb, then you might as well have been born a stone. Swimming is one of the few sports where you can get more and more fit and not see any improvement in speed. In fact, sometimes the fittest swimmers are the slowest swimmers! They have perfected the art of thrashing the water, but not of moving through it. So many athletes work so hard at swimming with just minimal gains that it is perfectly understandable when they start to let it drop down their training priority list until it ranks somewhere below Graston treatments. The swim becomes something to get through on the way to the bike and run on race day.


What if we were to take an approach that focuses more on the happiness of the athlete, combined with a bit of reverse periodization? Swimming has so many moving parts that it is a multivariable equation—in a dynamic setting. Unlike running, which has one anchor point (a point where the body is connected to something firm and defined), or cycling, which has five anchor points, swimming has none! It’s hard for athletes to understand themselves in this non-static environment. Most type-A triathletes approach their swim training like their bike and run training: they feel there must be a magic solution somewhere, or special tip that they haven’t heard yet. Our psyches tend not to handle this well, but the sad truth is that putting in more work doesn’t give you faster swimming. This leads to unhappiness. But what if we turned that on its head and created an environment where athletes could better understand their body’s relationship with the water and simply enjoy swimming first? That is going to create a happier swimmer— or at least a less unhappy swimmer. And a happy swimmer is more likely to be a consistent swimmer, who is more likely to become a fast swimmer.


It looks like trying to take the frustrations of swimming away as much as possible and focusing on what the athlete does well. Success has a tendency to breed success, so allow it to occur in swimming. A prime example is the love affair that so many triathletes have with the pull buoy. For years, we coaches have grown frustrated with athletes relying on this device, because instead of using it to focus the swim stroke on the catch and pull, they are using it for flotation. To keep their legs from sinking! But when we took it away, what happened? Maybe some slight improvements in body balance, but more so, we got a whole slew of unhappy swimmers who dread going to the pool. I say give them the buoy and whatever else excites them to get into the water! Put an athlete in a situation where they can be excited or at least not hate what they are doing, and you will have an athlete who will do that thing much better than they would otherwise.

Another example is fins. Athletes love how fast they can swim with them, and how they help keep the legs afloat. Take the fins away, and the athlete feels slow—extra slow because they lose motivation. I say give them the fins!

We can justify the pull buoy by saying that it helps to put the athlete into the same position that they will be in on race day in their wetsuit. Also consider the fact that the buoy creates more swim-specific stress in the upper body, and lowers the systemic stress of a swim. When you turn off the oxygen use of the legs, the heart-rate goes down significantly! We can justify fins by saying that they improve ankle flexibility and stroke-kick connection. But I’m going to say that the only justification we need is that these tools make the athlete a happier swimmer. That’s priority number one, and speed will follow.


Traditionally we have taken an approach to swimming that is little different from biking and running. Swim training followed a typical linear periodized progression with aerobic base training first and intensity later. What I have found is that reverse periodization makes a heck of a lot more sense, even if you use linear periodization for the bike and run. The beauty of reverse periodization is that it starts the athlete with short, crisp repeats when their fitness is low. These are an excellent opportunity to focus on good form, and athletes just tend to think that they are more fun.

As an athlete’s fitness improves, they will be able to maintain good form for longer intervals, eventually progressing to aerobic and race-specific repeats. The physiological rationale behind reverse periodization for swimming is that most triathletes have trained themselves to be very aerobic in the water: they “lack gears.” They have done this via chronic aerobic bike and run training as well as always squeezing the send-off interval in the water. By squeezing their push-off interval, they unintentionally end up with no rests, and a workout of continuous aerobic swimming. The reverse periodization approach forces these athletes to open their physiology back up and find gears early in the swim training.


There are a couple of valid reasons to pause before jumping right into this approach, although don’t discount it altogether even in these situations. First off, if an athlete sinks like a stone, then you may need to address this before working on fitness or speed. Any major balance issues or gross mechanical impediments that could lead to injury should be dealt with first because those issues prevent the athlete from making real progress. Once an athlete is swimming at the surface of the water and not doing any harm to themselves, they should feel comfortable in embracing this approach fully.

I’ll put forward for consideration another group of athletes who might not dive into this approach: very strong swimmers who have no negative feelings toward the pool and no reliance on any of its toys. I am not speaking of athletes whose swim would be described as “not a weakness,” but rather athletes who come from a swimming background and competed at relatively high levels. As long as their motivation levels remain high, there is no need to meet them halfway by allowing them to use pool toys. Balance will not be an issue for them, and they are very unlikely to have any injury-causing flaws in their stroke. These athletes can consider a more traditional periodized approach. While the reverse periodization may be very, very effective for these athletes, it also may not be necessary.


The number-one consideration in this protocol is the idea that a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer. Most triathletes have a history of identifying with a particular pool toy, be it a kick board, fins, snorkel, or a set of paddles. The pull buoy, of course, remains the traditional fan favorite. Whatever it is, an athlete should use it. If an athlete actually doesn’t like to use pool toys, then they shouldn’t get anywhere near them! Whatever gets them to the pool in a positive frame of mind is the adjustment that needs to be made. The psychosomatic impact of being happy on physical progress is a real thing!

Once in the pool with a big smile on their face, an athlete should run through about three phases of training within the reverse periodization. The first phase consists of extremely short intervals, no longer than 75 meters. These should be completed in a way that ensures high muscle tension, which may include a band, buoy, or paddles, and with a seemingly unnecessarily large rest interval, about half of the interval’s split. This will make sure that the intensity on these is extremely high and the energy system extremely anaerobic. This will also promote good body balance and crisp form. This phase may also be dovetailed with strength training in the gym if the athlete does not come from a swim background.

The second phase consists of slightly longer intervals with slightly less rest than the first phase. And we ease up on the muscle tension a bit. These intervals may run as high as 150 meters and be done on a rest interval that provides 15 to 30 seconds of rest after each. This will still be a strong effort, but the length of the interval and the shorter rest interval will make it feel like a bit more of a tempo effort than a best effort.

Lastly, the third phase increases the length of the interval again, and reduces its rest interval. These intervals may be as long as 600 meters, with about 5 to 15 seconds of rest between them. They are quite aerobic, as the shorter rest interval simply doesn’t allow the athlete to really rev their engine all that much. This phase also reduces the muscle tension and can be done without gear. The swimmer may want to keep one or two strength sessions per week, depending on their strength needs as well as how many days each week they are swimming.

The above is reverse periodization in a nutshell! Start with short, hard intervals, with a great deal of muscle tension and plenty of rest between each. Over time, increase the length of the interval, but squeeze the rest interval just enough to help to define the energy system that is being targeted, while removing some of the muscle tension.

Please note one thing that I mentioned above regarding rest intervals: It is often the case that we think our fastest swimming occurs as a result of these ever-tightening rest intervals. Be cautious of this mind-set. While it is certainly very rewarding to complete a swim set on a tight interval, such as 10 × 100 on 1:30 holding 1:25s, this is a very aerobic set. Because of the tight rest interval, the athlete doesn’t really have the capacity to swim at top speed. So if the intent of the workout is to work on aerobic development, then a tight interval is exactly what you want. But if the intention is to target the anaerobic system, then we want to promote an atmosphere where anaerobic energy can be used. To that end, keep the repeats short and sweet, with plenty of time between each, so as to decrease fatigue as much as possible before each one.

The beauty of periodization is that it starts the athlete with short, crisp repeats when their fitness is low. These are an excellent opportunity to focus on good form, and athletes just tend to think they are more fun.


Body position

  • As I mentioned above, you want to be on the top of the water if you are going to move through it efficiently. If this is a significant issue, then put it right to the top of the list of things to fix.


  • Whatever your swim stroke looks like, it should look good on a dance floor. What I mean is that it should have rhythm. You want to swim such that each stroke is the continuation of the one before it, not a new beginning. We also want to see a nice smooth connection between the kick and the stroke. You will often watch Olympic swimmers with a gallop to their stroke. They are creating a rhythm that works for them to give stroke continuity and connection with the kick. It is not critical to be a two-, four-, or six-beat kicker, as long as you have rhythm!


  • We oftentimes forget that we need strength in the swim. A great way to target the upper body is through TRX or swim cords on dry land. In the water of course, we have the ankle band, paddles and the pull buoy. One particular consideration is that most women without a swimming background will need to do gym-based strength work, as they will probably lack the upper-body strength to meet their fitness. Most men can meet their swim strength needs from swimming alone.

Recovery swims

  • When athletes are only swimming three or four days per week for a total of less than 15,000 meters per week, there is no need for recovery swims! They are already so far below the stress that “real” swimmers apply that they need to add swim-specific stress every chance they get!

Athletes, like anybody else, enjoy doing what they’re good at. Nothing is as motivating as success. Very little is as demotivating as a constant sense of failure.

Swimming is such a different animal than biking and running because there are so many variables that play a role in improvement. It is quite easy to become a fit swimmer, but becoming a fast swimmer is a very different story. In this difference lies the frustration. Our goal with this is to attempt to bypass the frustration, or at least diminish it, by creating an atmosphere of success. This can serve as the key motivating factor to make swimming an enjoyable and efficient part of an athlete’s day.