All the staff here at Swim Smooth are triathletes or open water swimmers. We understand the different preparation required to race in open water versus the pool and the need to balance out your training between the three disciplines.
If you are new to triathlon, here are some important pointers to maximise your performance in the water during your triathlon season:
Your Individual Stroke Technique
One of the differences between being a pure swimmer and a triathlete is that your training time is split between the three disciplines so you have time less available form swimming. As a ‘time poor’ triathlete it’s very important to understand what you need to work on for your individual stroke so you make the best you of your available time in the water.
If you have a coach at your pool or club, seek out their help and get some advice on your stroke and how to go about improving it. Also, it’s worthwhile asking what is naturally good about your stroke too (be brave!) as this will help you simplify things. There are all manner of drills and techniques you can work on with your swimming and it can be quite overwhelming – try and simplify things down to your individual needs wherever possible and you’ll make much quicker progress.
Training As Well As Technique
As a distance swimmer, one of the biggest mistakes you can make with your swimming preparation is to solely focus on your technique, swimming only 50 or 100m at a time. Becoming a ‘technique hermit’ is bad for your swimming because as a distance swimmer you need to be able to maintain your technique over longer distances. By only ever swimming short drill sets you tend to develop a technique that overloads the smaller muscle groups of the shoulder which quickly tire beyond 100m.
Drill work is a great for your swimming but also incorporate continuous swims of 200m, 400m and even 800m into your sessions so that you develop a stroke that you can maintain over longer race distances. You may find this results in a slightly shorter stroke that is more rhythmical to you, such strokes are often more efficient over longer distances.
Include A Distance Focused Swim Once A week
Many pure swimmers come from a sprint (50/100m) or middle distance (200/400m) background and so masters swim groups often focus on short fast sets with lots of recovery. However, triathlon is a true distance event in that you will be racing for at least an hour and as such you need a distance focus to your swim training. We recommend that once a week you put in a longer distance swim at steady pace. If you’re doing Sprint or Olympic distance then building up to 1500m of steady swimming will build the necessary endurance for your race. You can swim this continuously or if you prefer break it down into a set with short recoveries – e.g. 3x500m with 30 seconds rest between each 500m.
If you are training for Ironman then you have a 3800m swim ahead of you in the race and because of the longer distance, your weekly long swim arguably becomes the most important session of your swim week. If you can, build up your long swim so you reach 4000m a few weeks before the race and you’ll be all set for a fantastic Ironman swim leg.
If you train with a club or masters group that never does any longer distance sets it’s well worth missing one of the club sessions, replacing it with a session of your own focusing on steady distance pace.
Developing Your Pacing Skills
As a distance swimmer your ability to pace your swimming correctly is critical. With any swim that you do, be it in training or a race, it’s extremely easy to start off quickly and then slow dramatically after 100m or 200m. In a race situation you might not realise this is happening because everybody else is starting too fast around you and doing the same thing!
When you swim your sets in training, keep an eye on the times you swim for each repetition. If you can, also monitor your splits within each set – so if you’re swimming 200m, monitor each 25 or 50m split. Not all of us are analytical or numbers people but asking a coach or friend to check this regularly is very worthwhile to develop your pacing skills and so improve your performances in races.
If you are interested in investing in a gadget to improve this area of your swimming then we would highly recommend a Wetronome to you. You can program it to a certain time per length and then place it under your swim cap where it will beep to you at the time you should be turning each lap. It’s fascinating how easy it is to get ahead of the beep over the first 25 or 50m and then how the beep catches up with you as you slow down. It’s a bit like the red-line they show on the Olympic swimming coverage!
Practise Open Water Skills (even during the winter)
If we told you that by focusing on a particular drill or training method you would take several minutes off your triathlon swim split, you’d jump at the chance right? Well, you really can save several minutes by optimising your drafting and navigation skills for open water swimming.
When you swim behind, or to the side and slightly behind another swimmer you save up to 25% of your energy expenditure – or put another way, swim much faster for the same effort. This sounds easy but is actually very skilful to perfect as you have to swim very close to other swimmers to get maximum benefit. If you are not used to doing this it can be slightly unsettling at first – you need to practise this in the pool with some friends or with your training squad:
Your ability to swim straight in open water is also critical as it’s easy to lose large chunks of time by swimming off course. We’ve recently been equipping some triathletes with GPS tracking devices and seeing how straight they swim in open water – the answer is not very straight at all! It’s easy to lose anywhere between one and ten minutes by swimming off course. Our twin blog posts on this subject make fascinating reading:
The key is to practise your sighting skills in the pool so that come the race you are entirely comfortable raising you head slightly to look forwards without excess effort or ruining the rhythm of your stroke. The easier and more natural sighting feels the straighter you will end up swimming!
Quick tip: Don’t try and sight forward and breathe at the same time – this will mean lifting your head too far above the surface which will sink your legs. Instead, time your sighting to happen just before you’re going to take a breath. Lift your eyes out of the water by pressing down lightly on the water with your lead arm (in this example your right arm). Only lift up enough to get your eyes just out of the water:
Your left arm will have now started recovering over the water, as it does so, turn your head to the right with your body to breathe. As you do so, let your head drop down in the water to a normal breathing position.
Putting It All Together
After reading the above you’re probably thinking “OK, how do I fit all that in?”. If we were designing your swim training, and you were swimming three times per week, we’d structure it something like this:
Session 1: A stroke technique focused warm-up followed by threshold pace work at race pace. See CSS Training
Session 2: A longer steady paced swim building up to race distance. We might split this into a set with short recoveries with a focus on good pacing.
Session 3: A stroke technique focused warm-up followed by a fun open water skills session in the pool with some friends. This would include group drafting work and sighting skills. (This is great fun and in the Swim Smooth squads in Perth is the most popular session of the week!)
improve your swimming with Swim Smooth!
Swim Smooth is an innovate swimming coaching company famed for its straightforward approach to stroke correction. Visit our website for plenty more fascinating articles to improve your swimming. Don’t miss our amazing new DVD Catch Masterclass featuring incredible underwater video of champion swimmers in action. Also see our other swimming DVDs, training plans and training tools in our swim shop. Last but not least don’t miss our animated swimmer “Mr Smooth” showing you a great freestyle stroke in super-high detail. Unmissable! :
Article © Swim Smooth 2011