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Swim Ladder Workout From Janet Evans

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This World Class Workout is a complex "ladder" swim set that comes from four-time Olympic gold-medalist and current world record holder Janet Evans.

Owning several of the top fastest performances of all time in her respective events (400m freestyle, 400m IM, 800m freestyle, 1500m freestyle), Janet achieved her accomplishments due in no small part to years of dedication and the completion of monstrous sets requiring superhuman physical conditioning.

Her contribution this month is important because it is an endurance-building workout that’s also designed to help a swimmer develop the "back-half" of their race.

Too often, training long distance develops endurance, but at the expense of speed and pacing consistency. Triathletes especially may focus their swim training solely on completing a mile-long swim without being fatigued for the bike and run legs that follow. However, if these swimmers want to be competitive, it is important for them to be able to finish the last half of their swim strongly and not succumb to a slower pace and fading energy.

Warm up as you see fit, anywhere from 800 to 2500 meters of easy swimming, kicking, and pulling with a buoy and paddles. A short warm-up set of 8x50’s @ 10 seconds' rest can elevate your heart rate and prepare you for the sustained activity soon to follow.

Janet Evans’ World Class Workout

1 x 500 @ 6:15
2 x 400 @ 5:00
3 x 300 @ 3:45
4 x 200 @ 2:30
5 x 100 @ 1:15

TOTAL: 3500 m

The basic ladder structure of 500, 400, 300, 200, 100 is reconfigured by the amount of repeats within each set — so while you are decreasing the distance swum within each set, you are increasing the amount of times you swim that particular "repeat" distance. As a result, while each set allows you a slightly shorter repeat between each break, you are forced to swim that distance an extra time.

Janet’s example is meant for seasoned swimmers who can maintain a base interval of 1:15 per 100m freestyle. Not many people can do this for the 3500m duration of this set, so modifications are recommended.

If you only have access to a "yards" pool (rather than meters), you can attempt this interval in yards, though it may still be challenging. A 1:30-base will look like this:

1 x 500 @ 7:30
2 x 400 @ 6:00
3 x 300 @ 4:30
4 x 200 @ 3:00
5 x 100 @ 1:30

Throughout the set, it is most important to make the interval and force yourself to stay on pace. The first 500 should be comfortable but challenging, at approximately 85% effort. You should not have more than 10-15 seconds' rest before launching into the next set of 2x400’s.

For this second leg, concentrate on keeping your pace per 100 the same as you did on the 500, but try swimming slightly faster on the second 400 repeat. You may not have as much rest as you did after the 500, but keep in mind that you are dropping the distance you are swimming so your interval, though consistent in base, will seem shorter. That’s part of the challenge.

The 300’s are the middle leg of the set, and possibly the most difficult. Not quite endurance repeats (like the 500 and 400), but not short enough to be akin to sprint repeats (200,100), this set is the turning point for how successful you can be overall in this workout. The pace should be equal if not a bit faster than the first two legs you just did, though your effort should be at about 90%.

It is the longest leg of the set at 900m, and if you can make the intervals you are home free, but it might be touch-and-go between each 300 so be prepared to swim through with barely a break.

The 4x200’s will be your first foray into short repeats. Though the interval base is the same, it will be tougher to finish 4 x 200’s in a row after what came before. Swim to make the interval but be cautious not to shorten your stroke and get sloppy.

Swimmers often tend to change their technique when they shift into overdrive, especially if they feel fatigued. Keep your strokes long and powerful, but increase the effort to 95% if you can.

The last 5x100’s are your chance to be explosive and fast at the end of two intense miles of pace training. While you may have felt like you were sprinting at 95% effort on the 200’s, your times should have been at long-distance race pace at that point in the set, assuming your endurance needs work (that is what this set is designed to develop).

For the 100’s, you may have to force yourself to sprint at 100% effort just to make the interval or keep your previous pace. But the repeats are short; you should have a few seconds' rest after each one, and there are only 500m in the set as opposed to the previous sets’ 800m or 900m.

Getting through this workout and successfully making the intervals is a challenge enough in itself. Once you are able to master it, you should see a significant improvement in the back half of your races.

As a triathlete, you may also notice less fatigue at the end of your swim accompanied by a more powerful exit and transition into the bike leg.

An even more challenging approach to the above workout is to decrease the base-100 interval as you descend down the ladder. For instance:

1 x 500 @ 6:15 (1:15 base)
2 x 400 @ 4:50 (1:12.5 base)
3 x 300 @ 3:35 (1:12 base)
4 x 200 @ 2:20 (1:10 base)
5 x 100 @ 1:08 (1:08 base)

Obviously, this hardcore approach puts more emphasis on descending your interval throughout the set under the assumption that your endurance is already at peak levels.

The challenge here is not simply making the set and maintaining the same pace times throughout, but challenging yourself to swim at threshold and actually dropping your time (not just increasing your exertion effort to maintain it).

For novices that yearn for a taste of elite-level challenges, a more realistic approach to this workout may look like this in a 25-yard pool:

1 x 250 @ 25 secs rest (250 yards)
2 x 200 @ 20 secs rest (400 yards)
3 x 150 @ 15 secs rest (450 yards)
4 x 100 @ 10 secs rest (400 yards)
5 x 50 @ 5 secs rest (250 yards)

TOTAL: 1750 yards

In general, ladder sets are favored by endurance swimmers because they avoid the monotony of typical endurance training where the same distance may be repeated several times (3 x 1500m’s, for instance).

Janet Evans' example is effective in that it’s not only a ladder in the typical sense (500, 400, 300, 200, 100), but it adds an extra layer of complexity and challenge by increasing the amount of repeats as you are descending down the ladder.

It clearly worked wonders for her career; perhaps it can do wonders for you.

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