Swimming for triathletes
Why is swimming a problem?
The swim always generates more comments than any other part of a triathlon – whether it’s the water being cold, dark, too crowded, too choppy or being kicked, the list is endless.
Many triathletes don’t have a swimming background, so lack the technique and confidence that years of club swimming from an early age brings to others. However, as well as gaining more experience and time in the water, I’ve found that with an understanding of both the technique and training methods, most triathletes can effectively improve their swim times and enjoy the experience.
Triathletes are a very competitive breed, in general life as well as in triathlons, and often seek out information to help improve themselves. Unfortunately, much of this information is contradictory and can often do more harm than good.
Triathlon is a sport - not a swim, bike and run!
In triathlon races today, it’s almost impossible to win a race just by being a good swimmer, but races can often be lost by having a poor swim. It's essential for a triathlete to understand that swimming in a triathlon and therefore swim training, is NOT the same as a swimmer would do.
A swimmer's race is, in triathlon terms, very short. Consequently, their training and swim technique is different. Also, the swimmers themselves are very likely to be in a different age group; i.e. much younger, or have been swimming since being young, and consequently have a much better range of movement.
Being aware of the appropriate triathlon swim technique gives the triathlete the confidence to know what to do and how to implement it in the water, especially when supported by hands-on coaching.
Focus on what's important
Firstly, I always aim to discourage a triathlete from trying to emulate a video of a good swimmer – Sun Yang, Michael Phelps, etc. The way they swim is probably going to be impossible to follow! Triathletes (and many coaches) need to be aware that what they see a swimmer doing above the water is immaterial; it is what happens under the water that is important as this is the only part that is propelling the swimmer.
It then becomes more comfortable for the triathlete to focus on what is important and it becomes accepted that the older triathlete needs to adopt a technique that works with their (probably) limited flexibility, even though strength may not be a problem.
To develop a more rhythmical and efficient stroke, breathing, streamlining and propulsion are the primary areas of focus.
- developing a good swim stroke requires good mental focus (with little physical effort), and this is much easier to apply when relaxed and comfortable. If breathing is not relaxed, then swimming becomes difficult.
- being streamlined (also often referred to as alignment) is essential to maximise propulsion. The more streamlined the body, the less frontal contact with the water and so the faster the body can be propelled.
- for many triathletes, the focus in effort needs to switch from the front (where propulsion is minimal) to the rear. Propulsion can only be optimised when there is minimal drag, and so requires proper streamlining and when all the energy in the propulsive stroke is directed in a straight line backwards.
By understanding how to swim effectively, a triathlete can often make dramatic changes to their performance. It’s essential to realise that swimming for triathlon has to be approached differently to that for purely competitive swimming and the importance of having a coach who understands the needs of a triathlete can't be underestimated.