Longtime swimmers are accustom to spending hours in the water refining their swim strokes.
However, many triathletes with little to no previous swim training may find their time in the water much more challenging.
While biking and running are also technical sports, swimming requires movements and stroke mechanics that are unnatural for some, which is why the swimming portion of the triathlon may be the most frustrating for many athletes.
Adding to the pressure can be the fear of (or ill-ease about) open water. With timing also a factor, swimming often becomes a “survival” component of the race.
It’s naive to think ” just get through the swim so I can start my race” and focus on biking and running. That approach won’t give you the best results and definitely will not be the most enjoyable. In fact, the key to successfully completing a triathlon has a lot more to do with swim training than many athletes realize.
Why Triathletes Struggle With Swim Training
Swimming in a triathlon is different than competitive pool swimming, or even recreational swimming for exercise.
For one, most triathletes will compete in the open water.
The mental and physical challenges of swimming in open water while surrounded by hundreds of other nervous athletes can make the experience much more daunting than swimming laps in a pool.
Even when incorporating specific open water race simulation drills during pool workouts, athletes may find themselves unprepared for the “combat swimming” environment of a triathlon.
Triathletes with a limited swimming background may also struggle to maintain a proper stroke technique while navigating a crowded space, surrounded by other athletes all vying to reach the finish.An efficient Freestyle swimming technique is key to a faster swim time without exhausting yourself in the process. Click To Tweet
According to one study, the maximum efficiency of uncoached lap swimmers averages just 3%, with 97% of their energy being diverted into general movements through the water. But energy consumption can be a problem for even the most experienced swimmers.
One of the world’s best distance swimmers, Olympic Champion Katie Ledecky, averages less than 10% energy efficiency.
The trouble for triathletes is that they’re not just competing in one event. Multiple events mean multiple opportunities for energy inefficiency.
When too much energy is wasted in the water, an inefficient swim technique will lead to fatigue and less optimal results for the length of the entire race.
Uncoached or under-trained swimmers are also at greater risk for shoulder injury and pain, as well as hip pain (if hips are sunken into the water and not elevated, for example), which can affect the other events of the race.
Other issues that might plague swimmers include:
- Poor pacing
- Improper breathing and swallowing water
- Contact with and slowdowns caused by other racers
- Sighting to stay on course (no lanes to guide you forward)
Any or all of these issues may cause triathletes to lose time, energy and focus during the swimming leg of the race.
While being the fastest swimmer might not outright win the race for you, a slow swim time can certainly hurt the outcome.
How Swim Training Improves Triathlon Performance
Part of the reason that many triathletes dislike swimming is that the task seems daunting.
In addition to training for three distinct events during both the on and off-season, athletes must also balance work and life outside of training hours.
Training time can be a major challenge, especially for time-starved triathletes. Finding time to run – not just in the gym, but also on the open pavement in racing conditions – must also be combined with time training on the bike (in similar conditions) as well as in the pool.
Ideally, triathletes would train in open water and sometimes in a pack with other swimmers. However, it is more likely for those who cannot access the open water conveniently to swim in a pool. The conditions in the pool will not be comparable to the conditions of the race swim.
So how do triathletes train for a part of the race that is not only difficult technically, but also hard to make time for during regular training sessions?
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Find a swim coach who understands the triathlon swim
It’s important for triathletes to find coaches who understand the challenges, both technical and mental, that athletes face during a triathlon swim.
If a swim coach is not available in person, athletes could also consider using remote swim coaching to improve their strokes.
If no coach is to be found, learn from some popular videos on swim technique & training, such as this series on gaining a faster freestyle swim.
2. Focus on form
According to three-time Olympic medalist Gary Hall Sr., the key to success for triathletes is proper form, particularly in the kick and the catch.
“As a triathlete, one of the biggest dilemmas, given the limited amount of swim training time you have, is how much time and effort you should spend trying to improve your kick,” Hall Sr. says.
3. Start with short reps with better form
For triathletes struggling with swim form, one coach recommends addressing it “25m at a time.” By doing shorter reps with better form, you can dramatically improve your swim speeds without having to waste energy.
By practicing proper form (with the aid of a coach), you can maximize your time in the water for better performance. Here’s how one busy Ironman athlete prepared mentally and physically for a better swim.
4. Add dryland training
Since training time can be a factor for many athletes, it’s important to supplement swim-specific training into your gym time, too. Dryland training can be an effective tool for triathletes who struggle to build up swim muscles – particularly in the shoulders, arms, wrists, and upper back – that might not be used as heavily in other triathlon events.
Dryland training tools can be helpful for triathletes who don’t have as much time to get to the pool or to open water to train. The Vasa SwimErg, for example, is designed to mimic swim movements naturally, which can help maintain form during dryland training. Many competitive pool and open water swimmers understand how choosing the right dryland training tools will make all the difference in achieving the best results.
Other forms of dryland training that triathletes might find helpful include yoga and weightlifting.
5. Prepare mentally
Whether this is the first competition for a triathlete or the hundredth, it’s important to remember that there is a mental component to swimming while surrounded by others in the open water.
Keep in mind that the conditions of the day may impact your form, so the more time you can spend pre-event on your stroke and kick, the better your day-of-performance will be, regardless of the weather or competition.
Training for a triathlon is not easy.
Those with little to no swim training (or even for those experienced in swimming) may find the open water to be a challenge on race day.
That’s why it’s essential for athletes to prepare physically and mentally with consistent, quality swim training so that they can be calm and confident once it comes time to hit the water.
Proper swim training will not only give you a better overall performance, but it will also help you maintain your mental and physical strength for the entire length of the race.
For athletes who really want to do well, swim-specific training will help overcome the many challenges and fears that swimmers face both in and out of the water on race day.