Zone 1 Swimming… Duh!

16 08 2007

Why do so many triathletes heed our 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 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:).  I’m quite comfortable riding and running alone for hours, but for the same reasons stated above, have 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 post 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 post, 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 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 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 that you are welcome to add to:

  • 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
  • Zone 1 is boring, while the above sets are exciting!
  • 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 in June, I decided to commit to doing The 24 Hours of Triathlon– Solo on September 1st and 2nd, which will likely require swimming 15 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 and 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 use a ‘pull buoy’ that keeps my hips up and lessens the need to kick (similar to the effect of a wetsuit), resulting in a lower HR and breathing rate. I also alternate sets with/ without hand paddles, so that I build strength and technique but not so much that I risk shoulder injuries. I am going slow enough that I am able to breath in a 2-2-3 pattern that includes 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 a 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 has 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 this past Sunday at the 5430 Long Course Triathlon, where I swam a minute faster than last year, but with a heart rate 5-10 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 may expect the same next season:)

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 breath 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.

Thanks for submitting a comment with your own thoughts, experiences, and further suggestions!





5 responses

16 08 2007


There was a lot of information in this blog. For those of us that would like to take your advice, would you advise 2-times/week of Master’s swim and once/week of Zone 1 swimming? And the Zone 1 swimming would be simply long slow 20-minute sets, 3-4 of them?



16 08 2007
FastForward Sports

My current feeling for most triathletes interested in swimming 3 x week are 1 x Masters, 1 x Drill focus, and 1 x Zone 1 focus w/ 3 x 15 or 20 minutes with a 90 second break in between. SF

19 08 2007

Great info Scott! I too found gains from long, easy swims and including drills.

20 08 2007

Thanks for the great article. I think I finally hit a point in the last month where I could swim for ~1 hour breathing every 3rd stroke and it feels so much better. When I checked in with myself before, I found that I was holding my breath so that I could make it to every 3. Needles to say, I was getting very tired and not really building a great aerobic base. After reading this I don’t feel quite as guilty about using the pull buoy either 😀

31 08 2007

great post.

what’s your thoughts on throwing a swim MP3 into the mix?

i mean, i hear you on the time alone in your thoughts, but, we’re triathletes, there’s always a long run or ride for that too!

also, is the problem with masters? or, is the problem with the sets we are being given at masters. because, i wouldn’t mind swimming at an F4 session once a week, where we all get in the water, and swim 3×20 easy.

the benefit of this, would be that you would have like people in your lane. there’s nothing worse than being interrupted in a long set: ‘excuse me (now jumping up and down and yelling) EXCUSE ME — do you mind if we split the lane? i’m going to do kick drills!

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