For a good number of triathletes the swim is their weakness. I’ve found that this stems from the human nature of people simply not wanting to do what they’re not good at. Unless a person participated with a swim team as a youth, most triathletes have learned to swim as adults. Add in family, work, and other responsibilities that take away from training time and we find that the desire to spend what few training hours we have in the pool trying to teaching our bodies all the intricate movements associated with the swim becomes difficult to convince ourselves of. Going out for a run or a group ride ends up being more fun than spending an hour in the pool working on form and mechanics. So as the next race approaches and the triathlete’s swim stays stagnant, the reasoning starts to become “Oh, I’ll just survive the swim”, “The swim is just a way to get onto the bike” or “I’ll be wearing a wetsuit so that will help me save my legs for the bike”. While these excuses might give a person some pre-race comfort in this lack of preparation, their reasoning is full of holes.
If you’ve ever watch the broadcast of the Triathlon World Championship in Kona you’ll know that no one has ever been the first out of the water and won the race but, without fail, the commentators will always say “you can’t win the race in the swim, but you can certainly lose it”. For us mere mortals “win” means either hitting your goal race time or ending up on the podium.
If you’re to the point where you’re so frustrated with the swim that you find yourself starting to skip swim workouts and add in more runs and bikes then keep a few things in mind before you continue down this path and lose any swim fitness that you might have gained.
Swim workouts are about more than just muscular strength. They’re also about aerobic fitness specific to the swim. If you’ve reached the point mentioned above in your training then you’re probably used to getting in the pool and really struggling through your sets and finding that you’re out of breathe by the end, if you even make it to the end of the workout before quitting in frustration. Most of this has to do with improper technique, mechanics and body position where the correction of these items will lead you to being able to finish your workouts feeling better than you did previously.
So you decide that you’re going to “survive the swim” and end up exiting the swim already aerobically exhausted from fighting the water. How much do you think this is going to affect your bike and eventually your run? The answer is a whole heck of a lot. You could be the strongest cycling out on the course that day but with the amount of effort you just wasted in the swim I can promise that you won’t be putting in the fastest bike split time of the day. What this will lead to is pushing hard on the bike to try and make the bike split or hits the watts that you know you should make which will end up causing a disaster on the run of either having to walk or running a pace that is far below your goal.
All of this compounds on itself as the length of the swim gets longer. Now not only are we talking about the effect on our aerobic system but also the muscular fatigue that piles up on our upper body which we’re going to count on to hold good form on the bike and run. If you’ve done an Ironman of even a half Ironman then you know the fatigue that you have in your shoulders coming out of the swim just to hop on a bike, get into aero position for the next 56 or 112 miles. Upper body form here will make a huge difference on how your day goes, so not being able to support your upper body right from mile 1 on the bike will cause issues further down the line.
All of this is to say “Don’t neglect your swim”. If you’re struggling, then seek out assistance from a knowledgeable and experienced swimmer or coach and by all means be patient. Renowned coach Joe Friel gives the technique needed in the swim an 8 on a 10 scale where pedaling a bike might be a 4 and golf would be a 9 or a 10. In other words, swimming is highly technique oriented where you’re not going to pick up everything in a few months or ever a few years. Start from square 1, understand what and why you’re doing certain things in square 1, get it as close to perfect as possible and then move onto square 2. Most importantly, exit the pool after each workout thinking about at least one thing that you did right, even if that one thing is that you just finished the workout. During these early stages of learning to swim you one can put a lot of focus on what went wrong or how bad a swimmer you feel you are. These negative thoughts will not lead you down the road that you need to go. I had a music teacher once that would tell me to make a “positive sandwich” if I was having a particularly difficult day during my lesson. What this consisted of is naming one thing that went right that day, then admit to one thing that needs improvement and finally list one more thing that went right. This helps you leave your workout on a positive note but at the same time realizing that there are still things that need to be worked on.