The vast amount of triathletes I’ve come to know seem to love biking and running…or could even be considered addicted to the sport. When I ask about their swimming tactics, I’ve heard all sorts of comments like, “it’s the shortest part of the race, I can survive it” or “I’ll make up time on the bike and win on the run.” I’ve even heard people say, “I’ll go kayak to kayak!” It’s no secret; you cannot win the race on the swim. However, you can severely put yourself in a hole, waste valuable energy and miss out on a world championship slot. At TRIBAL Multi-Sport, we believe a well-rounded athlete is the ultimate weapon. This means swim training is equally valued to biking, running and strength training.
Being submersed in water is an alien environment to humans. Sadly, we haven’t evolved in that way. When humans swim we have to get 80-90% naked (based on swim attire choice), struggle to breath through an improvised blowhole and somehow develop precise situational awareness through plastic eye protectors. During a triathlon, it’s the only time you’ll feel like you’re in a contact sport, constantly bombarded by flailing limbs and bodies. For those who avoid swim training, heart rate will spike and brain waves will move from a confident “I got this” to hectic “I’m going to die” in a matter of seconds. So my question is, why do athletes think they can spend so little time perfecting their open water tactics when it takes the most precision to master and can be possibly life threatening? Beyond that it’s definitely the most inefficient transfer of energy you’ll encounter all the day! Why not master it? Think about it! You’re expending a ton of energy fighting for your life, because if you don’t swim…you’ll sink (and die)…Hint: You should be taking the swim a little more serious based on that alone. Furthermore, do you enjoy watching your competition get a leg-up from the start, forcing you to play immediate catch up? Hopefully, by now you’ll take these next hints seriously as they can add tremendous value to your season.
- Get your stroke analyzed on video (by a coach with proven success), then jump back into the pool, and repeat! It’s common for a coach to stand on deck and bark orders but it’s very hard for a coach to properly relay stroke correction without spending a lot of time saying the same thing over and over…and over. Most of us are visual learners and for that reason alone, you need to see what you are “feeling” and create an environment for instant feedback. Video analysis is the easiest way to do this but a coach must also have the foresight to explain certain terms and preface that with a description of the “ideal” form. The best way for that to happen is with resistance bands (AKA dry land work). If you can feel how your mind controls certain movements and muscular contractions in a controlled environment, it’s easier to feel them in the water. When using resistance bands it’s easy to emulate early vertical forearm, ideal shoulder mobility and front quadrant power (those are the terms I was talking about). I prefer to outline concepts and overall “picture” of what a “good swimmer” looks like before having athletes in the water. A smart athlete will see positive gains since pure aerobic fitness won’t make you faster. It’s just as important that athletes reduce drag, adding tremendous value to their propulsive mechanisms (I don’t mean using fins). It’s most definitely a form before speed environment.
- Spend time focusing less on speed, especially during warm up. Just like running and biking, you wouldn’t hit the road at 100% without preparing your body and mind. Blood needs to be directed, muscles need activation and the mind needs to be tuned for precise motor control. For longer sessions I always like to see around 700 to 1,000 yards dedicated to warm-up with at least 500 yards focused on drills. Drills will force your mind to fully engage as you struggle for balance, oxygen and forward progress. Drills are designed to slow you down, forcing a certain amount of extreme. In order to find comfort in the normal realm of your stroke, it’s important to reach the extremes, hence kick on side drill, one arm drill, Will you ever race kicking on your side? No, however a kick on side drill will force you to an extreme, forcing adaptation while enabling your mind to better synchronize your movements. Stroke drills aren’t going to make you a more powerful swimmer during their execution but they will fine-tune your regular stroke, engaging synchronized muscle recruitment, because in swimming, timing is everything. I can always tell if someone would be a quality ballroom dancer based on how they move through the water. If you think about it in those terms, it’s easy to understand how fluid, properly timed movements can effortlessly propel you through the water. Rather than envisioning a poorly performed robot on the dance floor where you can’t help but watch the brutal, hilarious jerking movements.
- Learn all swim strokes and execute flip turns at all times. Before you send me arguments about not having to do flip turns in open water and that you’ll never swim butterfly during your Olympic triathlon – hear me out. Have you ever seen athletes execute hill repeats on the bike or run? Have you seen marathoners run short, fast track intervals? Would you ever try and run your fastest mile on a quarter-mile out and back or would you use a track? These questions all relate to my point. You can’t optimize strength or speed if you don’t take advantage of your environment. Swimming free-style with paddles is known to add strength, right? So will swimming butterfly! If you break apart each stroke, they share many of same concepts (early vertical forearm, body position, streamline, core activation). Adding additional stress to your foundational stroke (freestyle) adds value. It’s because, just like hill repeats on the run, swimming requires additional stimulus to develop additional strength. Consider stroke work in swimming as you would hill-repeats, big gear work or even gym work. Most athletes shy away from what doesn’t come natural and believe me; learning butterfly, breast-stoke and backstroke require a whole new bag of conceptual tricks. So why even spend time on them? Have you ever seen a great swimmer who can’t execute all swim strokes and efficient flip turns? Have you found that most poor swimmers have a negative attitude toward these concepts? I’m not trying to point any fingers but I truly believe you’re limiting progress if you limit your swim training to free-style only. Not only do mixed stokes offer additional motor control, breathing patterns and situational awareness, they offer a new level of aerobic fitness, core strength and mental toughness. Athletes will often NOT flip turn because they know they have to hold their breath, might get some water up their nose and it’s an extra step. Personally, as an athlete looking for any means to add toughness and development…you’re darn right I learned to flip turn. I get it, you’ve already woken up early, gotten half naked in front of your friends and have been spending the last 30 minutes gasping for air but adopting an open mind to this advice will pay off. Of course it’s easy for me to tell you about these aspects, however you should know I’ve personally seen huge benefits from these tips and so have others. Triathlon is a race against the clock and every second counts. Every moment you spend making yourself mentally smarter, tougher and physically stronger is value added. Is swimming a 100 Individual Medley with flip turns hard? Hell yes! Does it add additional stress on the mind and body? Hell yes! Will it translate to a better overall freestyle stroke and further your development as a swimmer in the pool and in open water? Hell yes! Argue if you must, but in the grand scheme of things if you haven’t given it a shot and at least tried it for a while, you’re probably avoiding it because it’s harder. In endurance sports the more time you spend suffering in training, the less likely you are to tap-out when the going gets tough. Add some diversity to your swimming and remove self-imposed limitations.
For most triathletes, swimming is the red headed stepchild of triathlon, and I hope to change this for a few of you. These recommendations are common practice among pure swimmers and required at the lowest levels of competitive swimming. I challenge you to adapt this mentality when you jump in the water, put on a helmet and tie those shoes; swim like a swimmer, bike like a cyclist and run like a runner. You’re a triathlete but only on race day. Until then you must become a master within each modality, leaving no stone un-turned, taking each challenge head on.