Triple XTERRA world champion and Ironman 70.3 world champion Julie Dibens is one of the fastest swimmers in triathlon. She shows you how to gear up for a good season of swimming.

In winter, you’re probably taking a break from the pool before easing back into training with easy swims and drill work. If triathlon swimming with Julie Dibensyou’re like most triathletes, you’ll increase your total yardage in the off-season but back off from hard work.

But before the race season arrives, you need to up the intensity of your swimming: sorry, but it needs to be done. You need to get out of the comfort zone and into the hurt box. It’s all about laying down the groundwork for racing. I always think you need at least six weeks to get used to this kind of training; the good news is that if you work hard, you’ll see improvements quickly.

Check your level

It’s easy to fall into the trap of not working hard enough, but it’s just as easy to make the mistake of working too hard. You may think time is limited so you need to bash it out every time you go to the pool. Not true – all this leads to is an inability to work really hard when you need to.

So don’t be afraid to go easy – but don’t use that as an excuse to slack off every time you go swimming. I suggest that if you’re swimming three times a week, you should do one threshold session, one aerobic endurance session and then a session where you work on both technique and speed, perhaps taking every fourth week easier to recover.

I’ll go through each of these three types of session in order.

Threshold session

In early spring, I’ll do a lot of threshold sessions. In these sessions, your main set should be at least the distance you’ll swim on race day. So 1500m if you’re training for Olympic-distance events. I base these swims on pace rather than heart rate, simply becuase I find it annoying to swim wearing a heart-rate monitor.

To work out the pace you’re aiming for, work back from your goal race swim time and figure out from that what your 100m race pace time is. So for example, if you are aiming to do 1500m in 25mins on race day, that works out at 1:40mins for 100m. This is what you’d want to hold for your main set. The more experience you get, the better idea you’ll have of what times you can hold. if the first 100m feels really tough, then you’re more than likely going too fast early on. Equally, if you end up swimming the last 100m way faster than the rest, then you are probably being too reserved early on. Either way, you need to adjust your pace in your next sesion. Whatever pace you’re trying to hold, you need to make sure you stay controlled and don’t lose your technique.

You do need to work hard on threshold days – to my mind, it’s how you make the biggest improvement. It’s hard to do this kind of swimming by yourself, so I strongly encourage you to do these sessions with a friend or club. It’s amazing how you can get dragged along by others in the lane.

I have key sessions I revisit regularly to keep an eye on my progress, and I make them relevant to the race that I’m focusing on. For example, after a warm up my favourite main sets are:

  • Five lots of 300m off 4min intervals. So, I’ll swim 300m in 3:30-3:40mins, and then wait for 20-30secs until the end of the 4min interval before going off again on the next one.
  • Or I’ll swim 500m, 400m, 300m, 200m, 100m with 20secs rest in between each one, starting out at my 1500m race pace. Sometimes I’ll miss off the 500m interval and start at 400m instead, and after doing the 100m interval I’ll go back up the pyramid.

Aerobic endurance sessiontriathlon swimming with Julie Dibens

To complement your threshold work, do one aerobic endurance session a week. The key with endurance work is staying at an aerobic pace – you don’t want these to become threshold sessions. On an intensity scale of one to 10, you’re looking for about five.

Although the intensity is low, the duration is long; you should swim about twice your race distance or more. The idea is that you are teaching yourself to swim for longer as easily as you can while still holding a solid pace.

I’ll do my endurance work as longer repetitions: 800m or 1,000m, or a big block of 100s with just five to 10 seconds’ rest between each.

The first time you do a particular aerobic endurance session, you might feel like you’re working hard to keep the same pace throughout because your muscles and aerobic system aren’t used to it. But as you get fitter your level of exertion will start to feel more even.

Technique and speed session

No matter what time of year it is, technique work is always good. I have a dedicated technique day every week – usually when I am tired, towards the end of the week – where I’ll mix various drills with a short speed session.

Going into the technique for specific swimming drills would take a whole artcle in itself but you should concentrate on ones that suit the areas you need to work on. Some of my favourites are the fist drill, where you simply swim with clenched fists to encourage you tokeep your elbows higher than your hands as you pull through the water; head-up swimming, which is great for sighting in open water; and sculling.

I combine my technique work with a speed session to develop my top-end swimming pace. It’s important to work on your sprint speed, because it can get you out of the chaos at the start of an open-water race and help you get onto the feet of someone you can draft off.

In addition, if you can push your top-end speed up then your 1500m race pace will feel start to feel easier.

Julie Dibens’ sample sessions

Threshold session

Training for a super-sprint race, where the swim leg is 400m, your main set would be a broken 400m with minimal rest between each section, such as:

  • 200m followed by 15secs rest
  • 100m followed by 10secs rest
  • 2 x 50m with 5secs rest in between

Add up your total time; it should be close to your 400m time.

If you’re training for a longer distance race, you could increaes the length of this type of session by including a long warm-up of about 1,000m followed by some short sprints to get you fired up. Then do your broken 400m and follow this with an aerobic set of 5 x 200m, hodling a comfortable pace and keeping good technique.

Aerobic endurance session

A great endurance session for an experienced age-grouper training for an Olympic distance triathlon would be:

  • Warm up over 400m
  • 30 x 100m at an aerobic pace with just five to 10secs between each one
  • Cool down

Technique/speed session

Aim to include a combined technique and speed session in your swim training schedule once every week.

  • Warm up with relaxed freestyle
  • 8 x 50m drill
  • 200m swim, thinking about the drill
  • Repeat this three or four times with different drills, but keep the same theme throughout the drills
  • 3 x 25m sprinting followed by 25m easy
  • Repeat this x 4
  • Cool down

This article first appeared in Triathlon Plus magazine. Interview: Nicola Joyce. Photos: Chris Simkiss