Triathletes are often looked at in awe, “You did a triathlon? You must be really fit” or “…and you do that over three days, right?”. When speaking to someone about trying a triathlon, whether they verbalise it or not, there’s one thought going through their heads… “I could do a triathlon, it’s just the swimming that I’d struggle with”.
Firstly, let me just put your mind at ease by saying that many triathletes also struggle with the swim portion. The only difference between you and them is that you haven’t completed a triathlon yet. Even if you’re reading this thinking “but I have already completed a triathlon”, keep on reading for some tips to chase that personal best.
Learn to swim (again)
When did you learn to swim? Was it as a child or are you just learning now?
Either way, unless you have been swimming since you learnt, it’s likely you have forgotten a few things. One of the best ways to kick-start your triathlon swimming performance is to get a few weeks of lessons to refresh. Mastering the basics gives you an excellent foundation moving forward with your training.
Technique – Body position
Imagine two people in a swimming pool: one swimming, and the other walking along the bottom of the pool. This highlights how important body position is.
If you have ‘sinky legs’ then they will be causing a lot of drag and making it harder for you to swim. Play around with your body position in the water, push your hips up to the surface and see how that feels. Try pointing your goggles up at the wall in front of you and down to the ground to see what happens to your body position. You’ll be surprised how much this changes things.
Technique – Legs
Some leg kicks are helpful additions as both a good way of fixing body position and a method of propulsion. To make sure your kicks are propelling you forward and maintaining your body position, they should be small and fast. That is not to say if you thrash your legs as fast as you can you will beat your personal best, possibly quite the opposite.
Aim for a kicking rhythm that you can maintain, but that doesn’t noticeably tire you while swimming. Any additional energy expenditure through excessive kicking will tire you for the later stages of the race.
Technique – Arms
If you look at the top triathlon swimmers in the world, they often tend to have a very fast stroke rate (number of strokes per minute) with a swinging arm motion. What stroke rate is best for you? That’s up to you to figure out.
Again, find a rate that feels comfortable and practice it. If you complete all of your training at 60 strokes per minute and on race day go off the line at 80-90 (think Alistair Brownlee), you’re going to struggle.
Technique – Breathing
This comes back to point 1: Learn the basics and learn them well.
Can you breathe to both sides with equal comfort? What happens if, come race day, the sun is shining (unlikely in the UK I know!) and the only side you can breathe to has you staring right at the blinding sun every time? What about if the course markers are on the opposite side that you breathe to?
Yes, you could just deal with it, but you could also prepare yourself for all eventualities. Plus, if you train on breathing every 3 strokes, when the going gets tough you have got that extra gear (of breathing every 2 strokes) to get you to the end.
Can’t quite manage to breathe every 3 strokes but still want some of the above benefits? Bilateral breathing refers literally to breathing to both sides; it says nothing about every 3 strokes. Try a sequence (while breathing every 2) of left, left, right, right.
Practice race pace (and faster) work
Going back to point 4 about stroke rate, practice what you plan on doing on race day. Say you want to complete the 750m of a sprint triathlon in around 13 minutes, then you need to average a pace of 1:45 / 100m. Can you swim 100m in 1:45 during training?
You don’t need to do much, but pacing during swimming is difficult enough without knowing what race pace ‘feels like’. Do some race pace work to practice the feeling for race day. This will also provide fitness benefits above what going to the pool and ‘just swimming’ can.
Slow it down
In contrast to the previous point, I am now going to suggest you slow it down. Your race, that is, rather than the training.
A triathlon is not a swimming race when you get out of the water. Be it the pool or an open water venue, you still have two more sports to complete. A better swimming performance may be swimming the same speed as a previous event (if you have competed before) but with a reduction in energy expenditure.
Mix up the training
As mentioned earlier, ‘just swimming’ isn’t enough. Too often people will go to the pool, get in and swim for their allotted time. While this may provide good aerobic benefits, eventually the gains will slow to a stop.
Regarding getting the best ‘bang for buck’, interval training is the best way to go. As a non-weight bearing exercise (the opposite of running) there is significantly less injury risk with completing fast intervals in the pool. If your race pace is 1:45 / 100m for 750m, see if you can complete 10 x 100m faster than that. With sufficient recovery after each repetition, that technique should not break down over the set. Try and complete each 100m in 1:30 / 100m. If that’s too easy or difficult, adjust accordingly.
Join a club
There’s no better way to mix up your training than to have a coach tell you what to do!
For the more advanced swimmers (people who have a good understanding of how to swim) this may provide a good way to improve fitness. Additionally, the social aspect is an added bonus which will help with motivation and enjoyment of the sport.
If you are struggling to break past a plateau in your performance, then joining a club could be the way through that. Whether it’s the supportive environment of having other swimmers around or having a coach on poolside keeping you honest, a club can help give you that extra boost.
Do something you enjoy
If you hate doing drills, don’t do them all the time. If you love doing 10 x 50m as hard as you can and seeing how much you can push yourself then use it as a reward! I recently fell out of love with open water swimming because I was only ever doing it in races where I was required to swim as fast as I could.
This was until I completed a standalone swim ‘race’. Standing in full panic mode on the start line I was regretting my decision to sign up for this. When I got out there and was able just to enjoy being in the open water, I promptly fell back in love with open water swimming.
If you have decided not to go to the pool because the set you have to do is not enjoyable then change it. Some swimming is better than no swimming! Remember this is not your job, you do it for fun and the challenge. When it stops being fun, change something.
These tips are intended to start with the basics and progress from there, making sure your technique is correct before getting into the nitty-gritty of correct training. Swimming lessons will provide the opportunity to work on this with advice on how you can hone your swimming ability. Get out there and start on the road to becoming a better swimmer!
Bespoke swimming tuition by Swimming Nature, UK’s leading premium provider, is available in all London clubs and selected clubs outside of London. Call 03445 040506 to arrange your free trial.