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Triathlete Blog

Here We Go Again

By February 23, 2015July 21st, 2015No Comments

One of my athletes recently attended a talk given by a local coach (certified, of course).  The gist of it covered why investing time into swimming was a bad investment in triathlon.  They went so far as to say it was a waste of time.

Here we go again….

We’ve heard this argument before: it doesn’t make sense to put time into swimming when swimming is, on paper, such a small part of the triathlon.  Mathematically speaking, this is true.  At the half iron distance, let’s say the average participant takes roughly 6 hours to complete the race.  Assume a 40 minute swim and we’re looking at ~10 percent of the total time being spent swimming.

Based on that, putting less time into swimming does make sense.  Yet if only performance was a neatly packaged always balanced out equation of on paper formulas.   In practice, I have rarely seen it work out that well.

Here’s why:

As I’ve said it before, triathlon is a swim-bike-run.  Not a Swim. STOP. Bike. STOP. Run. The best athletes seamlessly weave together their skills, fitness and smarts to put together the fastest swim-bike-run.  Many times the fastest swimmer does not win the race – the fastest triathlete does.  Why?  Because they excel at triathlon, which again is a swim-bike-run.  One event.

Yet there are coaches out there who don’t like to swim.  Or, they’re not good at swimming.  Or, in the name of saving you, the athlete, oodles of time/money/energy or in the spirit of clever marketing, they say you don’t need to swim.

Music to the ears of many triathletes.

(I’ll suggest that many coaches out there do not know how to write swim workouts which is a big part of the triathlete swim problem.  But that is a topic for another day.)

My reply to all of that above?

Let me know how that works out for you.

Now, I get it – swimming is costly in many ways.  First you have to either belong to a gym or a masters team.  That costs money.  Then, you have to drive to the pool, walk into the pool, into the gym, put your stuff in a locker, get dressed, walk out on to the deck, sit on the side of the pool while chanting COLD COLD COLD and finally 20 to 40  minutes later you are actually in the pool — swimming.  Reverse that at the end of the workout (but substitute “chanting” with “sitting in the hot tub commiserating about how cold the water was).

Yet this inconvenience, time and discomfort – heck, let’s call it investment, goes a long way.  And it doesn’t have to last forever.  A few solid months in the winter of swimming consistently is worth it.  It’s a great way to build up workload without a lot of wear and tear on the body.  It also improves your feel, fitness and form which makes you more economical.  Improved swim economy is free speed in all 3 sports!  Yes, if you can improve your swim fitness and economy, even just a little bit, it will pay off in terms of faster biking and running.  In other words, faster triathloning.

Read more here:

Or here:

There’s a nice summary of how swimming effort improves bike performance.  If your swim fitness and skill is so poor that you are struggling mentally and physically at 100 percent effort simply to finish or deal with rough water/contact from other competitors, then arguing that swimming less because the swim is such a small part of the event just doesn’t make sense.  Because the swim has just set up the rest of your event.  You are now out of the water exhausted in every sense – physically, mentally, emotionally.  Good luck with the bike-run.

Swimming is also a great way to facilitate active recovery which, in turn, improves performance in other sports.  Here’s a quick summary:

Many of my athletes do “recovery” swims on long run days to loosen up, stretch out and actively recover.  If the long run was a steady/endurance pace, we even throw in some fast/all out 25s to balance things out hormonally.

Not convinced?  In the book Pacing, author Kevin Thompson describes how the highly resistive nature of water in swimming creates a higher metabolic cost.  As fatigue builds, form tends to deteriorate which leads to more drag, less streamline, in other words – more fighting the water which, in turn, leads to an even higher metabolic cost.  In terms of triathlon, the less efficient or technically sound you are in the swim, the more energy you use in swimming.  As you can imagine, the longer the race, the larger the implications!

How much is the swim costing you? Thompson cites research suggesting that swimming 750 meters creates a 17.5 percent decrease in cycling efficiency.   That’s without make any statements about the fitness or efficiency of the swimmers.  Let’s assume that the best swimmer is losing 17.5 percent efficiency.  Imagine what that number is for the less skilled!

I would also argue that stronger, fitter and more skilled swimmers are better able to find a draft and hold it.  Why does this matter?  Again, Thompson offers up research showing how swimming behind another athlete for 400 meters will increase your swim speed up to nearly 4 percent and improve your cycling efficiency by nearly 5 percent.  Cycling power output is also increased after drafting on the swim.  You need to fitness, skills and experience to be able to draft – and you get that by way of … more swimming.

More important than any of that, though, is that as a coach it is my professional obligation to prepare athletes to arrive at an event physically, psychologically and emotionally ready for a triathlon.  This includes having the basic fitness, skills and confidence to complete each event.  Many beginner to intermediate triathletes lack the confidence, skills and strength to deal with the unpredictable and dynamic nature of open water; chops, waves, limited visibility, currents, other competitors.  Convincing them that less swimming is more, to me, feels irresponsible.  Call me crazy but I feel much safer sending an athlete into a race feeling confident, prepared and skilled rather than knowing I saved them a bunch of time!

Back to the original story.  When my athlete told this coach they were swimming 4000 yard workouts, the coach told them it was a waste of time.  Naturally, the athlete came back to me and asked what do you think?  My response was simple: do you enjoy it?  The answer: yes.  Then, why not  swim 4000 yard workouts?  If it’s making you fitter, faster AND it’s fun why isn’t that a wise investment?  You see, for many of us, swimming with masters is a highly enjoyable experience.  I look forward to swimming because I get to swim with others who share the same passion for pushing themselves.  We see a hard set.  We make a plan.  We achieve what seems impossible.  I leave the pool feeling socially and emotionally charged up.  In other words, it makes me happy.  “Technically” I may not need to swim that far, but as long as I have time for it, enjoy it and recover from it, well, why not?

So, what do I suggest?  Aim to incorporate swimming 3 to 4 times a week.  Even better, try 5.  Each swim doesn’t need to be an hour but at least once a week you should swim 60 to 90 minutes (if you are technically sound and start with decent swim fitness).  Other swims can be shorter with an emphasis on technique and fast.  If you enjoy swimming and you have time for more swimming – at this time of year I tell my athletes to swim more!  And if you don’t enjoy swimming?  Well, save yourself a ton of time and consider taking up duathlon.  Remember, folks, it’s a swim-bike-run that makes up a triathlon.

Note: there will be outliers who do not need or simply cannot swim more.  Most of my ex-collegiate swimmers need very little stimulus to maintain their swim speed.  And athletes who travel with full-time jobs and a family often do not have time to get to the pool (and in that case, stretch cords may help!).  But for those with the time and desire for swim progress, get thyself to the pool as often as you can!

As an “adult-onset” swimmer who now can hold her own in the fast-ish lane (and enjoys it), I encourage you (coach or athlete) to embrace the same passion for swimming.  It will pay off!  Convincing athletes that when it comes to swimming less is more is like telling someone to strengthen their core they should do 5 minute abs.  If only it were that easy!  I recognize the attractiveness of the idea that you can do more by doing less.  But for so many triathletes, their swim skill and confidence is so poor that less is just NOT the answer!  Let’s get triathletes excited about the swim – not waiting for it to be cancelled.  Learn to analyze their form in person or in video to prescribe individualized technique that actually makes them faster.  Write meaningful, engaging and challenging workouts – with all toys, all strokes and including use of the pace clock!  Above all, prepare your athletes to feel confident, skilled and fit for their triathlon.  A little extra time in each sport to do that will go a long way.  Especially with swimming since, after all, it does come first and sets the tone for the rest of their day!

Next up, why you don’t need to run over 3 hours to prepare for the Ironman marathon.

Here we go again…