Every athlete wants to finish a triathlon faster, but which discipline should you focus on to achieve a better overall performance – running, cycling or swimming?
For the majority of triathletes, more training time is often spent improving cycling speed or developing a more efficient running stride.
But swim training may actually be the key to unlocking a better race time.
In fact, recent studies show that improving your swim technique – even for events with a shorter swimming distance – can significantly improve overall performance for both cycling and running.
Here’s what to know.
How Swim Training Impacts Triathlon Performance
One study by the University of Western Australia attempted to research the effects of swimming intensity on triathlon performance.
They found that there was a correlation between swimming exertion (in this case, overexertion) and subsequent cycling and running time.
For the triathletes who participated, poor swimming technique and improper positioning were shown to increase exhaustion and decrease swim times, which impacted run and cycling times.
The study concluded by noting that elite triathletes should “consider a training program with an importance placed on swimming equally to that of both cycling and running.”
But what does that mean for non-elite triathletes?
It means that proper swim training is an essential component of a better race, no matter if you’re an elite athlete or competing for fun.
If you’re going to focus on improving your triathlon time, you have to give equal weight to swim training, even if you don’t have a strong swimmer’s background.
The 3 Elements of a Better Triathlon Swim
When asked about the most difficult leg of the triathlon for most athletes, Ironman competitor Sumi Kim said that for most people, swimming can be intimidating.
“But in most cases, swimming is the relatively shorter portion of the race, so it’s ‘easier’” she adds.
What this often means is that less time is spent focusing on proper swim techniques, body and hand positioning, and swim-specific strength training than is spent on running or cycling performance.
Many competitors will focus on the other legs and rely on “powering through” the swim to maintain a steady time.
But as the previously noted study shows, swimming harder doesn’t equal a better triathlon time.The key to triathlon performance isn’t swimming harder, it’s swimming better. Click To Tweet
For athletes that don’t already have an elite swimmer’s training background (and even for those that do), this will most likely require the oversight of a swim coach.
Additionally, adding in specific swim training on both dryland and in open water can also improve your triathlon swim time.
World champion Ironman qualifier Shannon Coates struggled for many years to improve her Ironman swim.
“Over the years, I trained with many different swim groups and coaches,” she says. “I tried what seemed like everything possible to increase my speed in the water, yet experienced a lot of frustration for all my effort.”
She found that a combination of dryland training with the Vasa Swim Erg, being coached by an expert (Eric Neilsen), and taking the time for open water swims have all contributed to a better performance.
These three elements – dryland training, coaching and open water training – can help all triathletes improve their performance, too.
Training for a Smarter Swim and a Better Race Time
Improving your swim performance is all about conserving energy so you can use it when you need it the most.
Triathlete Kristin Lie was able to reduce the amount of energy she needed getting out of the water, for example, which in turn helped improve her energy expenditure on the bike.
“Before it felt like I needed 20 Calories and now [I only need] 1 Calorie,” she says. “I immediately have power on the bike and can deliver my performance.”
Quality swim training will assist you in saving energy by putting your body in energy saving positions and creating a smoother glide in the water.
For instance, learning how to blend the power phase of your stroke into the recovery in a stretch, catch, and pull” stroke sequence can help reduce drag and conserve energy.
In fact, Masters Swimming World Record Holder and coach Karlyn Pipes recommends focusing on five techniques for a quality swim:
- Hand placement
- Fingertip orientation
- Wrist awareness
- Power techniques
- Exit and recovery techniques
Mastering these elements will create a stronger, better and faster swim.
Time Management and Training for Busy Triathletes
But the real question is this: How do busy athletes find the time to study these five techniques when they’re also training for two other disciplines?
For many, fitting in running and biking can be enough of a challenge without the added struggle of scheduling time in the pool or finding open water, especially when daily life and work demands are high.
But, as Shannon Coates suggests, triathletes can incorporate dryland training to help supplement time spent in the water so that you can improve your swim technique even when you can’t get to the pool.
Dryland training, like on the Vasa SwimErg, for example, allows you to maintain the proper positioning and orientation while still building strength.
For world champion Ironman athlete Lisbeth Kenyon, dryland training tools, like the Vasa SwimErg, were fundamental to her success as a swimmer and a new mom.
As she puts it, “It’s not about being superhuman. It’s not about squeezing every second out of every day. It’s about being realistic and honest with yourself […] If you have 20 minutes of downtime, hop on your Vasa SwimErg. Find the pauses in life and make the most of them.”
Other types of dryland training, like yoga, can easily be incorporated alongside your other discipline training to save time.
This type of training enables busy athletes from all walks of life to put the same amount of effort into each leg of the race without sacrificing the quality of any discipline.
When you can get to the water, though, it’s important to have another experienced swimmer, or a swim coach, watch your technique.
Lisbeth credits a swim coach with her improved swim techniques, adding, “Get a good coach who can minimize the sessions that don’t optimize you.”
Having a good swim coach at your back will let you see exactly how to improve your swim stroke for the best performance.
The better your swim performance, the better your triathlon performance will be.
Triathletes should focus on training for every discipline equally.
Many triathletes tend to focus on one or two legs of the race, and most often those two are running and biking.
But studies show that swim training – proper swim training, with emphasis on techniques that reduce drag and conserve energy – can actually do the most to improve overall race time.
So whether or not you have a swimmer’s background, it will be essential to focus the same amount of energy training for a quality swim as it is for the rest of your disciplines.
If in doubt, do what Shannon Coates suggests: Hire a coach, take advantage of dryland training, and make time to get to the water.