“Ultra Short Race Pace Training” (USRPT) is a swimmer’s application of the more general workout category you may have heard of called “High Intensity Interval Training” (HIIT). I’ve been training with and curiously reading about USRPT since shortly after I starting swimming with USMS in 2013. My experience is that many swimmers are wary of trying USRPT, or don’t stay with it long enough because it’s too different from their regular workouts. I’d like to encourage testing the USRPT waters because I’ve found it to be surprisingly beneficial for me and other swimmers I know who practice it, and the current research supports the incredible benefits of HIIT exercise.
This year’s March-April SWIMMER magazine reviews USRPT, and this article is to supplement that article with some examples of how to apply this workout technique. So let’s dip our toe in a bit!
The SWIMMER article reads “Sprinters are experiencing success with a training plan that calls for shorter swims.” This word “sprinter” may contribute to wariness about USRPT within middle and long-distance swimmers. But the creator of USRPT himself, Dr. Rushall, has found that traditional USRPT sets are actually more beneficial for middle distance and long distance swimmers, not true sprinters. In fact, in 2017 Dr. Rushall developed a new methodology for true sprinters and called it “Sprint-USRPT.” I won’t go into the details of the new “Sprint-USRPT” theory in this article (it is covered well in SWIMMER). But to quickly address it, Sprint-USRPT recommends maximal effort to be given over some chosen distance (Rushall says 25m or less). Each repetition is executed on sufficient recovery time so that the swimmer feels recovered, both physically and mentally.
To briefly summarize the USRPT concept (both “sprint” and “traditional”) and training rationale, it essentially comes down to the muscle specificity training principle. That is to say, the best way to get better at swimming fast is to train by swimming fast! USRPT purists argue that even doing swim drills and lifting weights (and other dryland activities) aren’t specific enough for the muscles to see realized gain in terms of swimming faster. While I don’t necessarily entirely agree with the purists, USRPT emphatically agrees with the core theory here: train fast to race fast. And the great part about USRPT is that you don’t have to train fast for long intervals, and you get rest breaks! Yet, the muscles learn what they need to during these shorter interval sets and rests.
The “traditional” USRPT sets (non-sprint-USRPT) consist of dividing your target race events into segments (25s, 50s, 75s or 100s at the longest), and swimming at the desired race pace for as many segments as possible on 15 to 25 seconds rest, depending on the distance of the segment. For example, if your desired race pace in the 500 yard freestyle is 5:00 and you choose to do a set of USRPT 50s, then your target time for each 50-yard segment is 30 seconds. So, 500 yards in 5 minutes means you are moving at 30 seconds per 50 yards. Rest time increases with segment distance. Twenty seconds of rest is appropriate for 50 yard segments. Thus, you would be doing 50 yard segments, with a target time of 30 seconds on an interval “send off” of 50 seconds.
If you don’t hit the target time (aka a “failure”) for one of the segment’s repetitions, then you sit out one repeat and try again. If you miss two repeats in a row or three total in one set, the set is terminated.
Below is an excerpt from Dr. Rushall’s training guides:
To clarify the above table, Rushall suggests training with 15m-25m, repetitions for 50m race distance. For the 100m race, he suggests 25m repetitions and rarely (occasionally) doing 50m repetitions. For the 200m races, train with 25m, 50m and rarely 75m repetitions. For the 400m and 800m, train rarely with 25m repetitions and more often with 50m and 75m repetitions. For the 1500m, train rarely with 50m repetitions and more frequently with 75m and 100m repetitions.
Rushall recommends doing 2 sets of quite a number of repetitions (20 to 30, depending on the repetition distance) to failure. To be clear, the sets are never intended to be swum entirely. Failure must be reached. If you are able to finish the set, the target time chosen is too easy.
To provide some concrete examples, below are a few USRPT sets that our SOMA Masters team and I do:
- Example 1: 2 sets (30 x 50 yard segments on :50) with a target time of 30 seconds per 50 yard repeat
- Example 2: 2 sets (25 x 75 yard segments on 1:10) with a target time of 47 seconds per 75 yard repeat
- Example 3: 2 sets (20 x 100 yard segments on 1:30) with a target time of 1:05 per 100 yard repeat
In both sets, if 2 failures (missed target time) happen back-to-back, or 3 total failures in the set, the set is terminated. There is a rest break between the 2 sets from anywhere of 5 -10 minutes. If termination happens (2 target times missed on back-to-back segments or 3 total segments in one set) on the first set, you proceed directly to the rest before starting the second set. If termination happens on the second set, your day is over. To follow Rushall’s USRPT training as it is designed, it is very important to sit out repetitions or terminate the set when you are unable to hit your desired target time. The theory is that training at anything less than race pace results in training your muscles to swim slower.
Skipping a repetition when missing the target time and terminating a set at failure seem to be the hardest parts for most experienced swimmers to do. I understand this because it seems counterintuitive in a workout to rest and not swim something, anything at all! But, according to the research, it’s important to the muscle and technique development that you stick with USRPT when you’re doing that type of workout. You can do another type of workout on another day!
With regard to the above sample sets, Example 1 (set of 50s) is the one that should primarily be used for training for the 200 free and 500 free. The other two sets of 75s and 100s are used for 1000/1650 free training, along with any longer distance events such as open water swims and ePostals. It’s incredible to believe, but USRPT works for very long distances too! I can attest, for the last few years, I have very, very rarely done anything longer than a 100 yard swim in most practices, and yet I’ve seen great improvements in finish times for much longer swim races. In my experience, USRPT works great even for training for longer stuff, including a 10K ePostal or open water swim! In fact, although I compete in many open water events each year, I very rarely train in the open water at all, having learned that speed is more easily learned and gained through pool sets (USRPT sets in particular).
To be clear, that doesn’t mean that training in the open water isn’t beneficial for many other reasons, especially for people new to open water swimming, to learn sighting, currents, and safety, for example, not to mention the pure enjoyment of being out in the open water. There are many techniques to develop when swimming in the open water. However, for those who wish to focus on swimming faster, research says the USRPT type of pool sets will yield the best improvements. Even most Olympic-level open water swimmers spend the majority of their training time in pools!
If you’re interested in swimming faster, inserting USRPT sets into your workout routine 2 to 3 times per week should yield very good results. Some people, like me, enjoy the “grinder” sets of USRPT-style training and the sense of satisfaction in making it just one repetition more than the last time the set was attempted. Some people might not like USRPT but find it’s worth the benefits to practice it intermittently. Others might find that after multiple tries, something about it starts to grow on them, like the feeling of accomplishment afterwards. Some might find USRPT too uncomfortable, repetitive or just plain boring, especially initially. I get that! If something is going to put you off of swimming or being active in general, of course don’t do it!
Naturally, everyone’s overarching goal should simply be to stay in the water and stay active and healthy. Ultimately, we should all train in a way that is sustainable for the long term, for each of us individually. But you might test the waters of USRPT a few times and give it a try, just to see. If done properly, you should see your fitness level and speed improve. Good luck and have fun!
(See page 32 of the March-April 2019 SWIMMER magazine for the very good article on USRPT titled “Even Less is Even More.” If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend reading it, as it contains a plethora of information on USRPT and other great information related to all aspects of swim training and coaching.
A lot of USRPT information is posted online by Dr. Rushall here: https://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/table.htm.
Also, check out the USMS forum thread on USRPT here: http://forums.usms.org/showthread.php?22783-Ultra-Short-Training-At-Race-Pace.)
**Important Note: If you have any questions about the safety of USRPT training for you, be sure to check with your physician first.**