In Praise Of Swimming!

A spate of recent article by coaches have made me feel that I need to write in defence of triathlon swimming. These articles made the common arguments that the swim is such a short part of the Triathlon that time spent training on it should be kept to a minimum. In addition they claim that it is simply to difficult to learn proper technique (one went so far as to say it was impossible for adults to acquire proficient swim strokes!) so don’t waste time on it. Finally, that land based strength training can provide breakthroughs in swimming for poor swimmers.

Whilst I will admit that there is some merit in all of these statements, I think it is such a pervasive view amongst triathletes that the swim is to be minimised and that strength can over come technique failings, that perhaps this group think needs a little challenging. So here we go, I’ll take the points in reverse order. 

If you can’t swim well, strength work isn’t  the answer!

This one is the easiest to argue against. Consider this. Up and down the country there are young boys and girls in swim clubs who would trounce any number of age group (indeed maybe even pro) triathletes at swimming any distance and any stroke. I very much doubt that those children of 13-15 years old would be able to out lift the same triathletes in the gym. They are faster because they have better technique. Strength is not the issue! It’s all about technique. 

Technique isn’t that hard to master!

In poor swimmers a large proportion of the energy used in swimming simply goes into staying afloat, some research suggests as much as 80%! So even improving just this basic part of the technique, the ability to float,  swimmers will immediately see huge improvements in swim ability.  Follow this by developing your balance in the water, how you roll whilst keeping your head still. Slowly move onto your timing, when you switch your hands over. Aim for front quadrant swimming. When these things are solid you will find that the other aspects, breathing, pull, kick are much easier to develop.

This aspect of swimming is not difficult to improve, it simply requires patience and a little trail and error.

Be prepared to start at the basics. Forget about your arms or your leg beat count. Worrying about these things when your body position and balance is poor, is like worrying about what colour the house curtains will be before you’ve laid the foundations!

Practice with some easy drills such as superman glide and torpedo glide to help you find your best body position. Then add some skate or long dog drills to help develop your balance and front quadrant switch over. It really doesn’t have to take that long. I have seen people go from non swimmers to proficient techniques in as little as 8 weeks, although I’m sure 12 is more common. Using online resources and books by companies such as Total Immersion or getting in touch with Racesnake will certainly help.

It might be small proportion of the race but there might be huge time gains!

Admittedly if your swimming close to 85- 90s/100m pace through a 70.3 or are getting close to 60mins for 3.8km then there may not be so much time to gain from swim improvements.. However, a great many athletes are no where near this pace and could be knocking minutes from a Standard or 70.3 time and tens of minutes of a 140.6.

These time gains are low hanging fruit- people spend hundreds of pounds on aero tech for the bike and ride gruelling 9-10hr weeks that may save a few minutes. Whilst the majority of IM guys who swim 3.8km in 80mins or more make little effort to improve their swim. Even though they could be getting a 15-20 minute time saving in this area.

Working on the basics of body position, balance and timing will not be physically tough and won’t need endless pool time, 2 hrs a week should be enough, it just needs patience and commitment and a vow not to plough up down the pool until the basics are solid. I have a sneaky suspicion that that last part might be the hardest part for many triathletes.

Swimming is underestimated as a training tool!

A quick chat with ex-elite athlete before writing this article Carol Bridge reminded me of an interesting point about elite triathletes. Namely that they swim a lot more than most amateurs seem to think. For example Carol herself swam 6-7 hrs a week, she ran 5hrs and cycled 8hrs. This was fairly common ratio amongst the world class squad she trained with.

Why so much swimming? Because it is a great non weight bearing aerobic exercise. It rests the legs whilst continuing to build aerobic endurance and manage weight. It is a little reported fact that swimming is as energy intense as running with the added benefit that it uses a far greater range of muscles. Especially the muscles involved in assisting elevated breathing and core muscles.  These things will aid all three disciplines, without adding stress to the joints and tendons that take a pounding in those hard run sets and long bikes.

Swimming is also an excellent training when managing those cursed lower leg  injuries. A few good weekly swimming sessions will keep you aerobically fit whilst you let those niggling injuries recover. This means less lost fitness through the off and pre season. Bonus!

What is a good technique?

Without seeing an athlete this is obviously hard to quantify, but most triathletes I see who cannot hold a  90s/100m or less pace (for a set of 10x100m on 60s  or a 1500m) have got work to do on the basics. They will protest that they are as efficient as time allows and that they just need to be ‘fitter’ or spend more time in the pool, but I assure you all of them will have significant improvements that could be made in the basics of their stroke. It just takes a little courage to go back to the fundamentals and start again.

But I just can’t stand it!

Ok, there are those who just hate ploughing through the chlorine, looking at that blue line. I have some sympathy. But if your in that group consider this. I learnt to swim, I nailed my body position, my body balance and my timing. I can swim well. Now I can get in the pool once a week  and cover maybe 3000m. When it comes to race day I will still be at the front of any sprint triathlon, put down a 1500m in under 21 mins and cover 3.8km in about 60 mins and come out fresh.

If you can swim well, you can in fact, cut the amount of swimming, do more cycling or running and still come out of the water 1st in your age group!

Annoying isn’t it 🙂

Hopefully that has given you at least a second thought about your approach to the swim discipline even if it’s never going to be your favourite leg.

Happy swimming!

For race programs to get you through all your triathlon adventures visit:

Training Peaks Store

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