istockphoto_3578116-stopwatchT-pace is a term used to describe the “Threshold Pace” for swim training for triathletes. Threshold is the term used for a pace that can be sustained for a minimum time or distance. It is typically used in conjunction with qualifying descriptions such as “Lactate Threshold”, “Anaerobic Threshold” or “Ventilatory threshold”.

Thankfully, the simple phrase “Threshold pace” can be easily identified without any of the expensive equipment needed for the other types of thresholds mentioned.

Why is it important to identify a triathlete’s threshold pace for swimming?

This pace serves two purposes. First of all, the test can be used to measure improvements from month to month, season to season or year to year. If you use the same testing protocol, you can directly compare the paces that result to see if you have either gotten faster or slower. Or at the beginning of the season, it’s used simply to establish your current baseline for training.

Secondly the test can be used to help establish training zones or paces for different types of swim training. You do the test, then using some simple math at about the 3rd grade level, you can set training zones for your swim practices.

So it sounds pretty simple, right ? Well like anything, there are always layers of intrigue that can be added depending on how deep you want to travel into the rabbit hole. But lets keep things simple right now, OK?

3 versions of the T-pace test
Choose the version that matches your current fitness or ability level. Now it should seem obvious that the test you choose will impact the results you get. A fit swimmer doing a 1000 yd time trial is going to get a different pace for that test than if she does the 3 x 100 yd time trial series. So it’s important to stick with one protocol, and as your fitness improves…use the longer test if your intention is to measure “T-pace”.

Test #1
1000 yard time trial
This test sounds daunting but as your fitness and swimming skill improve and mature, you’ll actually enjoy this.

How to do it:
Always warmup well with a minimum of 10 minutes of active swimming to tune in your stroke. More warmup timeis fine and many swimmers won’t feel prepared for a time trial until they’ve put in 2000 or more yards (20 or more minutes of swimming). After warmup, start your watch and swim 1000 yards as fast as you can at an even pace. Take your total time and divide it by 10 to get your average pace per 100 yards (or meters). This is your “T-pace”.

If you’re not sure if you’re ready for a 1000 yard time trial, just try it and see how it goes. The worse thing that can happen is you get tired. But guess what ? You’ll have your first “T-pace” measurement for your triathlon swim training!

Depending on your ability, it’s going to take you anywhere from 10-20 minutes with most people averaging 15-18 minutes. A fast high school or college swimmer should easily hit closer to 10 minutes and an “adult-onset” swimmer of average swim ability will come in around 20 minutes. If you are slower than 20 minutes, it suggests that you’ve got a lot of potential “low hanging fruit” in terms of technique improvements. Look for a good coach or film yourself on video and submit it to Sprint Triathlon Training’s “Swim Analysis Project” for feedback from a professional swim coach.

Test #2
3 x 300 T-pace test.
I first learned of this test from Swim Workouts in a Binder, and have since seen it many places. This is very similar to the 1000 yard test except that it has a built in measure to make sure you are pacing well.

How to do it:
Swim 3 trials of 300 yards each with 30 seconds rest in between. Each 300 yard swim should be within 15 seconds of each other. This ensures that you are not starting out too fast and fading for the third. If you’re pacing the 300s well, then just add the total time together for the 3 trials and divide by 9 to get your time per 100 yards/meters. This is your T-pace time for triathlon swimming.

This test is a little less daunting for some people than a straight 1000 yard test, but take the time to give this one a try as well if you can currently swim 300 yards wihtout struggle.

Test #3

3 x 100 T-pace test.
Again I first learned of this test from swim workouts in a binder. This test is appropriate for newer swimmers who don’t feel comfortable or whose technique prevents them from swimming 300 yards without severe deterioration in their form. This test would be the minimum distance I would suggest for trying to determine a training pace for triathlon swimming, and while the brevity does have it’s drawbacks, it’s still a starting point for testing. So if this matches your current ability (or maybe even sounds a little bit difficult? ) give it a shot!

How to do it:

Like the 3 x 300 yard test the 3 x 100 yard test requires that you swim each 100 as fast as possible while keeping your time per 100 within 5 seconds of each other. This is a test of pacing to make sure you’re not going out too fast. Add up your total time for the 100s and divide by 3. This is your T-pace. If this was your first test, congratulations!

Pros & Cons of using T-pace testing for Triathlon Swim Training

The major benefits of using these testing protocols are that it gives you a firm measure of where you are at right now with your swim technique and fitness.  There’s no hiding from a time trial.  it’s a race only against yourself.   Many triathletes, even experienced ones, avoid them like the plague, but it’s the only way to really know where you stand.

The key to performing them well and benefitting from them is to REMOVE ALL VALUE JUDGEMENT from the result.   It’s so important to remove any value judgement from your time.  it’s simply a process of collecting information about your CURRENT swimming ability !  Only when we know where we stand can we make plans for moving forward.   This goes for all types of testing, and in some senses, every set you do in the pool is a test of some sort.

So remove the pressure from yourself…honestly, most of your friends and family will have no clue what the test results mean and will just be impressed that you did it, (So milk it!!)

The drawback of using T-pace testing is that in setting training zones (Part 2 of this article), you’ll be assuming that your fitness is on a linear scale of the same dimension as every other triathlete.  Typically most coaches and books will use the T-pace test of choice, and then prescribe training zones by adding or subtracting a few seconds from the pace to prescribe practice sets.  By all means, this is better than just swimming as fast as you can, or following someone else’s training plan or workout.

But imagine a scenario where first year triathlete who has been swimming for only  six months does the same t-pace test as a post-high-school swim start who has taken up triathlons as an adult.   The novice swimmer is more likely to have a very narrow range of swim speeds within which they feel comfortable, and the experience swimmer is likely to have a very BIG range of swimming paces at which they can swim.   Setting aside the coaching philosophy of how to train to get faster, simply setting a swim set pace as “T-pace plus 5 seconds” is going to give each of these swimmers a very different experience.

You may have guessed it…there is a better way…part 3 of this series!

For now, however, these are 3 good tests that can be matched to your current fitness or speed.  There are obviously variations on these tests as well that can all fit in with a well balanced swim training program for triathletes and I’ll talk about those extensively in future articles and videos.   Until then, enjoy these sets and post your results!

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