The swim is the most important leg for several reasons:
- It starts the race and, thus, sets the tone for how your race will unfold. If you feel anxiety from the time you get up until the time you hit T1, that’s a lot of wasted energy that you could instead put toward the race
- The more efficient of a swimmer you are, the faster you will exit the water. The faster you exit the water, the closer to the front of the race you are and, thus, also closer to the fastest overall triathletes. You will be challenged more and race faster, and place better, too
- The more efficient in the water you are, the less energy you spend swimming, which means you have more energy left for the bike and run legs
- You avoid much of the washing machine, leading to a calmer experience in the water and a better state of mind hitting T1
- The stronger of a swimmer you are, the less you are affected by suboptimal water conditions – surf, chop, current, cold temps, lack of visibility and more
- Knowing you are going to swim fast and strong puts you in a great mindset before the race even begins and gives you that killer instinct so necessary to exceed your race day expectations
And so on. Now, taking all this into account, why do athletes have such an aversion to training for the swim? And why do they also look at the swim as one long transition into the rest of the race rather than the critical aspect of the race it really is? The excuses are myriad:
- The pool I swim in is so far away
- My pool is only open at odd hours for lap swim and it’s not convenient
- There’s no Masters team and I hate swimming alone
- I’ve never been a strong swimmer, so why even try to become one
- I’ve doubled my swim volume and didn’t get materially faster so it’s not worth the time
- No matter how hard I try, I always come out in the same time
- Swimming sucks
Again, and so on. My question to triathletes who have an aversion to swimming is, “Then why in the heck do you even train for and compete in triathlon, race after race, year after year?” There’s a difference between completing a triathlon and being a triathlete. If you consider yourself a triathlete, then you give each discipline the time and attention it requires for you to be the best darn triathlete you can be – regardless of what your actual goals are (in other words, it’s not just about “being #1”, though that can most certainly be your motivation; it just doesn’t have to be).
So, what’s a floundering flounder to do?
The open water can either be an inviting place or a necessary evil to compete in triathlon, depending on your outlook. I competed in swimming from age 5 through a nationally-ranked collegiate career, putting in as much as 75-100k per week during peak training. When I transitioned to triathlon after NCAAs my senior year, I wanted the water conditions to be as awful as possible every race. I respect the power of water, but I also innately know how to leverage it. Standing on a beach waiting for the starting gun and watching 6-8-foot waves crashing to shore made me giddy with excitement. Yet, it caused other competitors to quake in their wetsuits. Their swim abilities were shaky enough that anything but the calmest and warmest of swims caused them moments of disgruntled panic.
One key to making your navigation in the ocean (or lake or river) easier and more enjoyable is learning as much as you can about the dynamics of the water. Here are some tips to help create a more positive experience for next season’s swim legs, whether they be in the ocean, a river or a lake.
Check the Conditions
Standing on the shore, take notice of the movement of the water. The better read you have on the water, the more prepared you will be to anticipate and work with its movement while swimming. How are the waves cutting across the swim course? For example, if you breathe to your right, will you be smacked in the face by the waves? Is there a current and, if so, will it help or hinder you? Is there a line on the course you can take that minimizes your exposure to a current you will swim against? The more you can understand the nature of the water, the more prepared you will be to either exploit it or minimize its impact to your swim performance.
Take a glance around the shoreline and pick a couple of notable landmarks (in different areas) that stand out, such as a church spire, a brightly colored building or a large tree. Pick landmarks that will help you navigate in straight lines around the swim course. If you only rely on a race course’s buoys or, worse, other swimmers’ sense of direction then you’re putting your trust in things that can steer you wrong. Better to stay in charge of your ability to properly navigate and take the straightest line you can from one turn buoy to the next. The tall fixed objects you choose on land will help keep you on course at all times, regardless of the conditions in the water and other variables. Be sure to lift your head and find them every 4-12 strokes, depending on how straight you typically swim. Another trick that served me very well was that while my head was in the water, I would draw an imaginary line from it to the landmark and pretend the two points were connected. Once I started doing this, I was amazed at how much less I actually had to pick my head up during a swim to ensure I was staying on course.
Before you begin swimming, take calming deep breaths. In through the nose, fill the belly and out through the mouth. You will feel your HR slow down and that sense of anxiety ebb away. Sure, you will still feel the nervous energy because you’re about to race. You’re in “fight or flight” mode. That’s natural. It’s the energy robbing anxiety that you want to eliminate as much as possible.
Sometimes, things do not go as planned. You might get kicked in the face or you might lose your goggles as you attempt to dive beneath a crashing wave. Being taken off your game is part of the game and it can happen at any time. If it occurs during the swim, try to avoid panicking. Rather than being gripped with fear, take control. Stop swimming. Tread water and take some soothing deep breaths. Allow yourself to realize you’re not drowning, but very much in control. Give yourself permission to hit the reset button, gain that sense of calm and then start swimming again. If there is a lifeguard on a paddleboard nearby, hold on to the board while you regain your composure. There’s no shame in this and by admitting this, you reduce the power this sort of occurrence may have over you.
The other part of this equation is, yes, more time in the pool. You can listen to some of my thoughts on this here on the ORION Training Systems YouTube Channel. The key is not just more time in the pool, but also more effective time in the pool.
One tip is to use pull buoys and paddles as a way to build upper body muscular endurance. Open water swimming is mainly reliant on the upper body and most of your energy is spent keeping you on top of the water first, and propelling you forward second. This takes a lot of endurance so your stroke and, thus, your speed do not break down. Pulling with paddles during key sets is a great way to promote the required muscular endurance so you can swim both faster and more efficiently.
Another tip is to take your long sets and break them up into smaller chunks. For example, instead of doing a 2,000 set as 4x500, instead complete 20x100 or 40x50. This accomplishes a couple of things. First, you will complete the 2,000 at a faster average speed per 100 because there are more frequent breaks. Second, you will hold your stroke together better and better ingrain positive stroke mechanics feedback to your brain. This is a critical step in swimming faster.
A third tip, swim more. This one is easy. Three days a week is not going to make you a better nor a faster swimmer. In the multi-week build up to your key race, upping your swim frequency to at least 4, if not 5, days per week is important. And these sessions need to be long. I’m not talking 30-minute sessions. Rather, make them 60-90minutes each. At first, you’ll probably hate it, if I’m being honest. But fairly quickly you will start to feel more powerful and efficient in the water. I’ve been a competitive swimmer, triathlete and cyclist, and there is not a feeling on this earth like that of powering through the water. If you haven’t felt this sensation, you’re really missing out on something unique and special. Spending more time in the water can help get you there.
Swim with a Masters team at least once per week. Every week, without fail. If you have this option available to you and you’re not taking advantage of it, you are shooting yourself in the foot. Full stop.
Lastly, change your mindset. The swim is a big deal! It absolutely and incontrovertibly impacts the success or lack thereof in your triathlon. There is no disputing this. So, given that this is fact – and since you’re reading this you now know this with your eyes wide open – why would you continue to downplay your attention to swim preparation?
Look, I get that a lot of you have a finite amount of time to spend training. As I like to say, “Life happens.” That’s OK. Winter is a PERFECT time to gravitate to the pool more. You could easily swim 5 times per week, reduce the volume of your biking and running, and be none the worse for it. The beauty of training for triathlon is the concept of general fitness – that the fitness you build in one sport bolsters your fitness in the other sports. By focusing more on the swim, you can reduce the frequency and volume of your bike and run time without negatively impacting your overall fitness and, just as importantly, without a material change to your overall training volume. Do this from January 1 to March 31, and then rebalance your training across the 3 disciplines. You’ll come out of those 3 months a much stronger, more confident swimmer.
If you invest in the mental and physical aspects of the swim, you will absolutely take a step forward not only in your swim leg performances but also in your overall race performances.