A ladder workout in swimming is when you either increase or decrease the distance of your sets throughout the training session. For example, you could “climb up” a ladder by swimming 25 meters, then taking a quick rest, then swimming 50 meters, then taking a quick rest, and then swimming 75 meters. “Climbing down” the ladder would involve reducing the distance of each swimming set as you go along. Ladder workouts help you gradually build endurance without sacrificing speed or having fatigue affect your pacing or technique.
Begin With a Thorough Warm-up
Rather than jumping right into the ladder, begin your training session with a dynamic warm-up to wake up your neuromuscular system and increase your heart and breathing rates. Perform 300 meters of an easy swim with a stroke of your choice, then 100 meters of kicking from your back, 100 meters of individual medley swimming and then four sets of 25 meters where you build up speed. You should be breathing heavy at the end of your warm-up.
Structure Your Ladder
If you're a competitive swimmer, the total distance of your ladder workout should match the distance of your endurance event. If you swim for fitness or recreation, the total distance of your ladder workout should be equal to your personal target or goal distance. For example, if you compete in the 1,500-meter event, or simply want to eventually be able to swim 1,500 meters nonstop, you could do a ladder that consists of 500 meter, 400 meter, 300 meter, 200 meter and 100 meter sets. Multi-mile marathon swimmers looking to complete an overall distance of 5,500 meters may do ladder distances of up to 1,000 meters, with subsequent ladders decreasing by 100 meters so that in the end the sum total of the ladders equals 5,500 meters. When you climb up the ladder, your focus is on being able to push through discomfort and fatigue. When you descend the ladder, your focus is instead of finishing strong.
Rest Between Sets
Give your body a bit of recovery time in between each ladder. How long you should rest depends on the distance of your ladder, as well as your conditioning level. You’ll need more rest after you’ve finished with longer ladder distances and less rest after shorter ladders. Rest periods typically range between five seconds, often used after distances of 25 to 100 meters, and 30 seconds, which can be used after distances of 500 meters and beyond.
Pacing Your Ladders
Ladder training is effective for endurance swimmers because rather than one long distance set, you cover the same overall distance in faster intervals. Set a goal time for each ladder. The time you shoot for should be about 10 percent slower than the time you’d get if you were to sprint that distance. This type of interval mentality helps swimmers because they in turn break down their long distance swim event into a series of smaller swims.
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