A necessary part of recording and checking your progress is to test yourself on a regular basis with benchmark sets in the pool. Tests could include Timed swims, measuring stroke counts, taking Golf scores, working out your critical swim speed or performing a Step test. Parameters should be kept identical down to the smallest detail. Ideally perform the test at the same time of day, same length pool and have a similar warm-up before the set. Testing on a fairly regular basis should be a key part of your training. Many triathletes know their VO2 max, most would know their resting HR and average speeds for their 10mile bike TT or a 5K run. However, we should also be familiar with our best efforts in the pool.
Measuring these improvements allows us to rebalance the levels of drills and fitness sessions in an overall training plan. When technique measurements are improving then we maybe able to relax some of the pure drills sets and add fitness sessions. If the fitness benchmarks are not improving then I might suggest relaxing off the fitness sets and adding some more drills sets.
If you feel you have not been improving then recording and keeping a set of meaningful data is essential. Your comparisons need to be personal – not just comparing against others, which do not provide a real constant. The general speed of the group in your Triathlon or Masters swim session may have moved on massively and to still be ‘stuck’ in lane 1 is not a failing on your part.
Recording your own set of tests, taking your own measurements and charting them monthly or per training cycle needs to be done otherwise you will have no idea of how you are progressing. It is only this kind of strict and accurate measuring that can really gauge whether or not you are improving. Comparing one open-water swim to another or even the same course from year to year is of very little use other then to be a rough guide. Currents, weather and variations to the actual course layout will have the distance change significantly and the potential time taken to vary massively.
If after charting your progress for several months and you note you really are not improving then questions can be asked. If you can honestly say that you feel your technique is holding together then maybe it is time to check how hard are you working. If you can ‘hang on’ to an even stroke count throughout a 400m swim then that is a great step forwards. The next step is to have the control and enough feel for the water to swim the same number of strokes per length regardless of speed. A decent male adult competitive swimmer in a 25m pool will swim 13-15 strokes per length regardless of their speed. They will still swim the same distance per stroke. Inefficiency will allow the stroke count to increase, not more speed. A higher stroke count will rarely equate to more speed only more tiredness.
Good technique gets you so far and needs to be good before moving onto more serious fitness swim sessions. There comes a time though when you need to work hard as well. Not to the extent your technique falls apart but you should be getting out fairly tired after the appropriate sets swum at the appropriate intensity. Speak to your coach about some of the usual swim tests that could be incorporated into your swim training.