This post is adapted from Shannon Coates’ post from her personal blog found here. All quotes are used with permission.
What does it take to become a better swimmer for open water, aquathon and triathlon swims?
That’s the question Ironman World Championship Qualifier Shannon Coates asked when she wanted to improve her triathlon performance.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a runner,” she admits. “Immediately after becoming a triathlete, I realized that improving my swimming was not going to be easy.”
This is a familiar situation for many triathletes and “adult-learned” swimmers who want the athletic challenge of the entire race but get hampered by a lack of swimming expertise and experience.
While it’s been shown that improving your swim technique can increase overall triathlon performance, many athletes still find it difficult to focus on their swim training, especially during the offseason.
“Over the years, I trained with many different swim groups and coaches. I tried what seemed like everything possible to increase my speed in the water, yet experienced a lot of frustration for all my effort,” Shannon adds.
Thankfully, her frustration didn’t keep her out of the water. Instead, it led her to discover 3 keys to simplify her swim training, which has improved her open water swimming and overall triathlon performance over the past two seasons.
Here’s what she has to say to other athletes who feel frustrated with their swim.
Key #1: Dryland Training in Combination with Expert Coaching
Not all swim training happens in the water.
For Shannon, her training begins in the off-season using a Vasa SwimErg swim bench combined with expert coaching for open water swimming by Coach Eric Neilsen. In this case, the coaching was done primarily remotely, as Coach Eric and Shannon live in different states, far apart.
“Shortly after getting my Vasa SwimErg, I was introduced to Eric,” she says. “Through careful analysis of my Freestyle technique and swim training, he was able to identify that my swim-specific strength needed to improve.”
This type of dryland training can be a great benefit for both swimmers and triathletes alike.
It involves specific dryland weightlifting and strengthening exercises, often using a tool like the SwimErg, as well as access to an experienced swim coach, like Eric.
An effective swim coach will understand how to leverage indoor swim training to assess an athlete’s current strengths and reveal inefficiencies. Based on that, the coach will then be able to design a training program that is tailored to that specific athlete.
For Shannon, a natural runner, this meant developing more swim-specific and general upper body strength during her time in the gym or training on her Vasa swim bench. Coach Eric was able to carefully construct workouts that utilized the Vasa SwimErg to build power & strength in her back, lats, shoulders and triceps which translated into a stronger and more efficient Freestyle stroke.
“Under Eric’s watchful eye, I learned how to access my powerful lats and back muscles by practicing the high elbow catch,” she says. “That alone was a game changer.”
Through Eric’s remote coaching, she was able to sustain greater stroke power and achieve a personal best in her triathlon races.
“One major benefit of swim training at home has been the time-savings and the ability to maintain consistent quality swim workouts without needing to go to the pool or to the open water all the time.”
Key #2: Better Open Water Swim Training
Shannon also found another key to improving her performance was the time she spent practicing in the open water, training and perfecting the techniques she learned on the SwimErg.
“Increasing my training time in open water has resulted in being able to practice and perfect open water sighting technique,” she says.
“I have realized it’s best to sight in the open water and practice lifting my eyes out of the water ever so slightly, finding my marker and swimming along in a straight course.”
Aside from sighting, another issue that many swimmers face when it comes to water training is breathing with ease and efficiency without disrupting their long bodyline and momentum as they swim.
While it may be easier to practice breathing techniques during dryland training, many triathletes and swimmers struggle with their breath while in the water.
According to Eric, one of the biggest worries he hears from the athletes he trains is breathing.
“I’ve found people are worried about breathing. And if that’s true, then they can’t work on the rest of their stroke because they’re thinking about air,” Eric notes. “So, spend all the time you need learning to breathe easily and efficiently [in the water].”
For Eric, one of the “best case scenarios” for athletes looking to maximize their time is to use a SwimErg right next to the pool so you can go back and forth between the machine and the water.
“It provides profound tactile feedback that can be immediately translated to the pool. The Vasa Erg really helps those challenged by breathing or stroke-rate because you can breathe and keep your body in a straight line. Breathing while swimming in the water inherently creates an imbalance.”
For Shannon, the combined strategy of using the SwimErg along with open water training has given her the most confidence.
“More frequent open water swimming has also given me familiarity with the environment. I have found that getting consistent practice in the same environment I race in to be incredibly useful.”
Key #3: Learning to Love Swimming
“I’ve truly opened my heart to open water swimming and have realized the beauty of wild, open water.”
Loving the water may come easier to some athletes than others. For many triathletes, in particular, the swim leg of the race is something that they just “get through,” rather than learn to enjoy.
Even swimmers who are comfortable in the open water can experience burnout over time, leading to a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to training. The holidays, winter weather, and overall busyness of life in the offseason often contribute to inconsistent or low-quality swim training.
Many plan 3 or 4 swim sessions per week at the pool, only to actually complete 1 or 2. Too many weeks of swim-deficiency will not built the strong foundation needed to show up on race day feeling fit and confident.
In order to truly improve swim performance, a positive attitude can go a long way.
Eric often deals with athletes that struggle with their training. His advice: Focus on the bright spots.
“Focus on the positive things in life. Bring the good things forward. It’s that simple. Learn from things that weren’t as pleasant at the time, so you don’t repeat them. Everything you’ve done shapes who you are. Have a consistent can-do attitude by always staying mindful and considering all possibilities.”
When it comes to race day, a positive can-do attitude will also help calm performance fears.
“Fear of failure is what stops most people from trying new things,” Eric adds. “Play is a key concept. If you can actually laugh at your fear, it makes it so small. And, it disappears.”
Shannon agrees: “I’ve witnessed myself push past barriers and swim further faster. I’ve proven to myself I can do it and that deep belief in myself has made all the difference.”
For athletes like Shannon who want to improve their swim performance over time, there are 3 keys to success:
- Quality swim-specific and functional dryland training, ideally programmed by an expert swim coach
- Focused time spent training in the open water
- Learning to be comfortable and confident in the open water
It’s important for swimmers and triathletes to remember that to really improve your swim performance, it’s best to swim with others rather than going it alone.
Shannon credits much of her improvement as a swimmer to Eric’s training, the Vasa SwimErg, and the community of swimmers around her (Oregon Wild Swimming, The Merfolk, and River Huggers).
The more support you have for the journey, the more likely you are to succeed.