Friday 8 February 2019

The importance of swimming

How important is swim training for triathletes?

In this post I want to talk about the importance of swim training. I'm not going to go into technical stuff about stroke analysis or how we break down the stroke when doing stroke correction or coaching, but I want to talk about why I think triathletes should swim a lot and the knock on effects that can have when doing a race.

When training for a triathlon, especially a long distance triathlon, it's far from uncommon to hear people say "I just want to get through the swim" or "I'll just about survive the swim". Similarly, when I talk to people who say they'd love to do a triathlon but the swim puts them off, this doesn't have to be and shouldn't be seen as a barrier, but just another element of the sport that an individual needs to train on as much as the other disciplines, and in many cases even moreso. 

The Ironman swim

When people sign up for an Ironman, it's a huge commitment to take on, with most training plans peaking at anything between 15 - 20+ hours per week. However, with up to 50% of the overall plan being dedicated to the bike training, that leaves less than 25% of the plan to be utilised for the swim and run. 

Concentrating on the swim for this post, if you look at the swim itself, it can have an absolutely profound impact on your race. You need to be absolutely confident that you can swim the distance and well within the cut offs. On race day there's going to be a fair amount of nerves, anxiety, fear and even excitement as you all get herded into the starting pens and the look of fear on some athletes faces being really noticeable. 
Then there's the swim itself, you jump off the pontoon for the rolling start and that's it, you're suddenly racing in an Iron distance event, the adrenalin kicks in and you set off like a torpedo. Kicking your legs, thrashing your arms while trying to find some clear water. Your rhythm and breathing goes out of the window and before you know it you look up expecting to be near the far buoy, but you've only gone 400m, not always in a straight line and you're gasping for air. At this point you've still got about 3.5km to swim. The affect that going anaerobic, even for a relatively short time during the swim, will catch up with you later in the race and will almost certainly slow you down as your body deals with the delayed reaction and accumulative fatigue. 

If you think about it in simple numbers, very few of us are going to become sub 1hr Ironman swimmers. However, with a dedication to training, pacing and efficiency, I'm convinced that many people are capable of around 1hr 10mins. However, if you look at the swimmers who say "I'll just aim for 1hr 45min" etc. That's an additional 35 mins swimming (of which there's a danger of trying to make it up on the bike), which is an extra 35 mins on their finish time, which at an average fuel expenditure of 100cal every 10 mins, is an additional nutritional deficit of 350cal, which you probably wont notice for the next 8, 9 or 10 hours, but it'll always be there. When you look at it in those terms, it's easy to see how important the swim is and how it can affect the rest of your race. 

Swim training

As triathletes it's no secret that we all love a gadget or something that we think is going to unlock that magic box and turn us into Lucy Charles or Harry Wiltshire overnight and whilst many of the training aids work, there's no substitute for just getting in the pool and swimming. Obviously, to make the most improvements you need to have a coach who can identify areas that are holding you back, then work on those rigorously and reap the rewards.

Swimming is unlike any of the other disciplines in triathlon, where simply doing more won't yield exponential improvements. ie, If you want to get faster at cycling you do more specific speed work and strength work along with the endurance work. Similarly with running, if you want to get faster you do more running to a structured plan and you'll make improvements. However, with swimming, if your head or body position isn't correct, or you've got "sinky legs" or a poor and inefficient kick etc, there's only so far you'll get before you stop making improvements. Swimming isn't really about strength, it's about efficiency and how effectively you slip through the water. We've got a swimmer in our club who is a very slim teenager, but she's the fastest in the club. She's not as strong as most of the adult athletes but she's thrashing us all in the pool. Swimming is about efficiency and making yourself as streamlined as possible in the water, which, when coupled together with an effective stroke can make a massive difference. 

Another great benefit of swimming is how good it is at improving aerobic fitness. Even the shortest distance triathlon is an aerobic event because you're going to be racing for at least an hour in most cases and if you're doing an Ironman it's going to be anything from 10, 11 12 hours up to 17 hours, so you need a massive aerobic engine that will get you through the race. Swimming is also non impact training, so it's not going to affect your run or bike training, in terms of fatigue or if you've got a niggling leg injury and it's a good idea to nip to the local pool as often as you can and do an ad hoc swim. It's all going to work on your fitness and your swim fitness will transfer to your running too, but not vice versa.

At the risk of going off on a tangent, I have a friend who is a pretty good runner and she did an Ironman in 2016. She knew she was a good runner, but lacked confidence in the water and on the bike, yet she concentrated on her running, which helped her achieve a sub 3.30 run on the day. However, if she'd trained for the other two disciplines in a more structured manner and knocked more time off her bike and her swim, which would have been perfectly achievable, she'd have qualified for Kona and the World Champs!

So next time you think you're just going to "get through" the swim, or you hate swimming etc, think about how much of an impact it could have on your overall race and the potential gains that can be made by embracing swim training and making improvements

If you'd like to speak more about your goals and ambitions and how I can help you on your triathlon journey, click on the link below which will take you to my coaching Facebook page, where I can be contacted through

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