I’ll go out on a limb and say that swim training is a very underrated aspect of a lot of athletes programs and that most swim techniques we are taught are a waste of time.
Swimming is underrated due to the fact that since the swim is the shortest part of the day by a country mile that many think it really doesn’t matter.
But matter it does and in a very big way.
And I believe most swimming drills are a complete waste of time because they focus on developing a stroke that is really only good for swimming in a perfectly controlled environment that is the swim pool. Plus most of us just don’t have the time required to undo and relearn specific motor patterns and then be able to hold those motor patterns through increasing intensity. Check out this website for inground fibreglass pools in many shapes, sizes and colours.
I’ll admit, I’m definitely not the prettiest swimmer there is and I muscle my way through the water. But the thing I have learnt though is to be as effective as possible in the open water and that swim fitness matters.
Understanding the little financial concept “compounding effect” will help you out in your triathlon training and racing. See just like putting money away consistently yields a nice compounding effect, the same happens in triathlon. Fatigue compounds throughout the day. A little too much fatigue early in the day can become so much later on that puts you on a ‘death march’ to the finish and your performance suffers greatly.
So the fatigue you create from the swim will affect both your bike and especially your run. The longer you can delay the onset of fatigue the faster you’re going to go.
Training your swim matters. But how you train it matters even more. Training for a triathlon swim is not the same as training for a swim race in a perfectly controlled environment of a single lane to yourself with a black line to follow.
Most athletes go to a swim squad. Usually for social reasons, less boring and that someone can watch over their stroke and help make technical improvements. You’ll be given drill after drill to ‘perfect’ your high elbow and develop a nice long glide that you see the top swimmers do and then somehow add power and speed to that without it all falling apart at the seams.
Even if you do become proficient with the nice long glide and have developed the ability to add speed and power to it. What happens to that stoke when thrown in the mass start chaos that is a triathlon race start? Swimming in the pool without interference is completely different to dealing with swell, chop, currents, fists and flailing arms.
That nice beautifully placed hand entry and long glide goes to pieces. The stroke stalls and you end up using a lot more energy due to the constant acceleration and deceleration of your arms. And if you haven’t put the time into developing your swim fitness, there is no engine to help you deal with this. You end up getting out of the water gapping at air like a fish out of water.
As I said above. My swim aint pretty But it has so far been effective to get me up at the top end of my age group over all. My best Ironman swim time isn’t super quick at 54:30 and my half best is better at 25:13 (I’ll get to how I achieved that later).
What I focused on and still focus on was getting both strong and fit in the water. Below I want to give you some ideas on how to develop an effective triathlon swim stroke that won’t break down in the open water mass start triathlon swim chaos.
I recommend swimming frequently and especially so if you’re a weak swimmer. Swim skills are lost quickly and swimming frequently preserves these hard won skills. Three swims per week will maintain what you have got but four to five lower volume swims will give you the frequency to not only develop great swim fitness but better open water swimming skills.
If swimming is a limiter of yours, placing your swim first thing in the morning before another session will give you better quality as you’re fresher. However that is perfect in theory but may not work with your life circumstances or pool time availability. Just putting it out there so you know.
Use tools effectively. I love TYR Catalyst hand paddles in extra small (translucent green) for most swimmers. If you’re a sub 55 IM swimmer than you can use the small (yellow) ones. Using these paddles is great for developing strength but also capping your heart rate while working hard. This stops you from being smashed aerobically which takes longer to recover from.
A big pull buoy is another great tool. No it is not cheating. It allows you to learn a correct position and as importantly you don’t have to think about holding that position. You get to focus on developing a better open water stroke without having to kick franticly to hold the correct position. Still kick with the pull buoy in. The pull buoy also simulates your body position in a wetsuit.
The weaker your swim, the shorter your interval repeats should be. If your stroke falls apart early then there is no point swimming long efforts. You get the same aerobic training effect from 80x25m as you do from swimming 2k straight. But the 80×25 with short rests allows you to develop a much better motor patterns and an ability to hold form. Fatigue in swimming is a huge factor so break it up into manageable chunks. A big session smash fest ingraining sub optimal motor patterns is not in your best interest if you want to improve. Keep it short, focus intently and you’ll develop a solid open water technique in no time.
At first keep the total volume of swimming per session down while you work on using the new tools and developing a new and more effective open water swim technique.
The goal is to develop a shorter and faster stroke that is able to be applied continuously no matter what the swim conditions are. Your focus should be on developing a powerful front end. Ie. Hand entry, catch and pull. You want quick acceleration. A high turn over so there is no lag time. Removing lag time in an open water situation minimises the chances of disruptions from external influences.
This takes a little bit of time to develop but will end up reducing your energy expenditure from swimming which I have mentioned is key to improvements in our bike and run performances.
Get rid of the perfectly and carefully placed hand entry into the water. Focus on getting your hand in quick. Drive it in there powerfully to develop momentum which will save you energy from not needing to stop start stop start. Rest of arm follows the hand. This is the set up for a nice quick and strong catch.
Without gliding and keeping constant pressure on the water, keep your arms moving. It’s a continuous rhythm. You have pressure on your fingertips, now you want to pull back straight and powerfully. To develop power through this phase practice some head up water polo type swimming. A fast hand entry followed by a powerful pull develops a continuous stroke. This minimises disruptions such as chop, competitors, currents and swell.
Back to the 25:13 half ironman swim result. That was a huge breakthrough swim for me and I also had to stop and put my goggles back on and bridge back to the group after I copped a beauty to the head. Charlotte and I were living in Canada at the time. It was summer but for some reason the pools had shut. So our only option was swimming in the lake. We swam five days a week in that lake in various conditions from mill pond to foot high chop, but we kept to our pool sets. We were fortunate enough to be lent some swim cans from a local coach. We used a jet ski and GPS to drop them at 25m, 50m and 200m off the pier.
That is swimming I miss… In hindsight this was a perfect opportunity and we were very lucky, but I believe IF we have the ability to swim open water at least once per week then we should make the most of it. Don’t be afraid of keep the efforts short and repeated. You might not have swim cans, a jet ski and gps (well most people have GPS today thanks to Garmin) but you can use land marks or simply use your watch.
I was so comfortable in open water swim conditions and was able to keep a good stroke in the hustle and bustle. I got a good time but I also achieved an awesome result.
Develop your swim strength and understand the importance of your swim fitness and watch the rest of your results soar.
Be Bold, Make it Happen
Kristian “making you a better triathlete” Manietta