How Suzanne Improved Her Speed
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on May 13th, 2010

Suzanne Atkinson is a long-time cycling and triathlon coach, and relatively-new TI Coach, having completed a week of training with me the first week of March. While swimming had taken a back seat to cycling and triathlon in her  adult-athlete persona, she swam competitively, specializing in butterfly, prior to her teens. Practicing TI has led to a dramatic shift, not only in her technique, but in her understanding of every aspect of improvement.

Suzanne Streamlines in Skate Position (Lesson Two of Easy Freestyle)

Suzanne posted a report on the TI Discussion Forum of how she improved her PR for 500 Free by 25 seconds over just a few weeks.  Her experience, and insights she gained from it,  could be invaluable to any swimmer or triathlete who has shared the frustration Suzanne described of “just staring at the pace clock wondering how you could get faster.”  Read what Suzanne learned here.

Suzanne’s measured and analytical approach to swimming faster is nothing like the nearly universal instinct to just try harder. It also highlights several foundations of TI thinking about swim training.

  • Aim for improvement (not “getting the yards in”) in every practice.
  • Achieve improvement by targeting a specific flaw or weakness and develop a strategy to fix it.
  • Focus on process [what sensations tell me I’m stroking effectively] — not outcomes [what does the pace clock say].
  • Design your sets to provide meaningful and measurable feedback.

What Suzanne’s experience illustrates is:

1) The nervous system can adapt with striking rapidity – in contrast to the glacial pace of aerobic system adaptation.
2) A neural focus makes every aspect of training tangible and concrete  — again in contrast to the fuzziness and abstraction of aerobic-training focus and adaptation.
3) The human brain responds incredibly well to this kind of stimulus. And it clearly works as a way to swim faster.

My Version of Suzanne’s 500 Set

Inspired by Suzanne’s example, I decided to start yesterday’s practice with a similar set:

Swim 5 x 500 (on interval of 8:00 to 8:30) with increasing tempo.
#1 Tempo:1.30  Time: 7:36
#2 Tempo:1.30  Time: 7:26
#3 Tempo:1.20  Time: 7:10
#4 Tempo:1.10  Time: 6:56
#5 Tempo:1.00  Time: 6:45


On #1, at a tempo of 1.3 sec/stroke, I held 14 SPL quite easily, with a few lengths at 13 SPL. This ease led me to swim another at the same tempo, feeling I could reduce my SPL – increase my efficiency — with another at 1.30. This would give me a better foundation from which to increase tempo later in the set.

On #2 I held 13 SPL on about 10 lengths (the odd ones, interestingly) and 14 SPL on the rest. Saving 7 strokes overall (7 x 1.3 sec) converted into swimming 10 seconds faster.
On #3 I held a consistent 14 SPL @1.20. I added about 10 strokes overall (from 270 to 280), but the faster tempo converted into swimming 16 seconds faster.
On #4, I held a consistent 15 SPL (after first 3 laps at 14) @1.10. I took more strokes to complete 500 yards yet swam 14 seconds faster because of my increased tempo.
On #5, I started with 3 lengths at 16 SPL, then swam 3 to 4 at 17 SPL, before returning to 16 SPL (by timing my turns better) for the final 300 yards. I dropped my time by another 11 seconds.

This set gave me some ideas about how to further improve my training pace for 500s.
1) Since I kept my SPL relatively consistent as I increased tempo from 1.30 to 1.20, I’ll train in the range where it take more focus to stay efficient — 1.20 and below.

2) In the range between 1.20 and 1.10, I’ll try to hold 14 SPL more consistently as tempo increases. I’ll work in small increments – i.e. 1.19, 1.18, 1.17. I expect as I increase tempo, the first time I try a new combination (e.g. 1.16 and 14 SPL) I’ll probably add a stroke here and there, but as my nervous system adapts, I’ll get better at holding 14SPL.
2) In the range from 1.10 to 1.00 I’ll probably shorten my repeats to find a repeat distance at which I can maintain 15 SPL with a semi-brisk tempo. Will it be 100 yd repeats – or 250 yd repeats? Empirical experience will tell and I’ll simply adjust to that happens. If I can gradually lengthen the repeats at which I can maintain 15 SPL @ 1.00, eventually I’m confident I can hold that combination for straight 500s.

When I do, my 500 repeat times will be 6:15 to 6:20.

3 Responses to “How Suzanne Improved Her Speed”

  1. Awesome! I’ve learned more just reading your post. 😉

  2. Alan says:

    Me too! I’d had another practice set for tonight but now am intrigued by your post. Will give it some play time . Suzanne, keep inspiring!

  3. […] le direzioni ma con un certo criterio. Ho trovato questo articolo dal blog di Terry Laughlin con uno schema di allenamento sui 500 metri. In sostanza descrive come Suzanne Atkinson, triathlon […]

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