While most triathletes are fairly comfortable with their running or biking, the swim seems to fill many of them with dread. In some ways, that’s understandable. After all, if you feel exhausted or ill on the run or bike, you simply stop and rest. Not so easy in the middle of an open water swim. In addition, swimming and running seem so much more natural than swimming. You are in a familiar environment (on land) and are completely comfortable with the techniques of both. In fact, you probably run and bike without giving a whole lot of thought to what your legs, hips and shoulders are doing.
Not so with swimming. For many of us, swimming is an uncomfortable, unfamiliar and scary endeavor. We are in an alien environment and using our bodies in ways they weren’t designed for. It’s no wonder the swim causes the most angst among aspiring triathletes.
To prepare effectively for the swim, however, isn’t difficult, but it will take time and commitment. It can’t be learned overnight and won’t become second nature in even a few weeks. However, with diligent practice anyone can improve their swimming prowess and become a more successful triathlete.
The training program we recommend consists of three elements:
Volume, intensity and reinforcement
Open water experience
The development of effective and efficient technique is the most critical element of our training programs. Correct swimming technique will enable you to swim farther, faster and with less effort. It will give you confidence in the water and allow you to conserve energy for the later stages of the race. With poor technique, you are likely to be exhausted before the bike leg even begins.
Technique development should focus on body position, balance, correct breathing, and efficient propulsion. Once these are mastered, the triathlon specific techniques of sighting and “active resting” can be added. These techniques are best developed in the pool, and ideally, with an experienced coach who can provide feedback and suggestions for improvement.
These techniques won’t become second nature, however, unless you put in enough distance to ingrain them into your muscle memory. Simply put, to be an effective swimmer you have to swim. A lot. Too many triathletes think that their run and bike training will be sufficient to develop the endurance necessary for the swim. Unfortunately, the body tends to develop endurance in very specific ways and there really isn’t any way to get around putting in your laps in the pool (or the local lake, river or sea). A mix of pool and open water swimming is a great way to build this foundation. Your pool sessions offer the chance for high intensity interval training over specific distances, while your open water swims can focus on long distance and continuous swimming.
Finally, while the first two steps can be easily done in a pool, swimming an open water race or triathlon is very different from racing in a pool. It’s incredibly important for any triathlete to get in some practice actually swimming in the open water. This training should focus on sighting, swimming in a straight line, getting used to waves and current and simply becoming accustomed to swimming where you might not be able to see the bottom. In addition, if you plan on racing in a wetsuit, it’s imperative that you get used to how that will affect your stroke, buoyancy and comfort. Regular open water sessions are critical to making you a stronger, faster swimmer.
Combining these three elements as the foundation of your swim training should be an important part of preparing for any triathlon – from a sprint to an Ironman. Spending time in the pool, working on technique, getting used to open water and simply putting in the mileage will make you a better swimmer and will help you improve your overall race times.
Article by Bill Kooser