Many triathletes find the swim portion of the triathlon to be the most daunting. The number of times I hear that the swim is an impediment to athletes trying a triathlon is too many to count. And the number of triathletes that lack confidence about their swim is just as many. So, I decided to write this post about a logical progression to get from being scared of the swim, to being able to conquer the swim! This post is relevant for the non-swimmer who wants to get into triathlon, or for the swimmer who has failed to progress in the sport since they started.
The steps to better swimming:
1. Get over your fear of triathlon swims
2. Learn to swim and/or improve your technique
3. Get faster
Read on for a more detailed explanation of the above and click on the links for videos.
1. Get over your fear of the triathlon swim
If you've never done a triathlon before, here are a few things you need to know about the triathlon swim that might make it seem a bit less scary:
- You can wear a wetsuit (unless the water/air temp is too hot that it would be dangerous to your health - very rare occurrence) and a wetsuit gives you a natural buoyancy. So, if your excuse is that you sink when you swim, well, that’s not going to happen because of the wetsuit. Not only that, but a wetsuit keeps you warm. so, the water temperature isn’t an excuse either!
- You don’t have to do front crawl the whole time. Yes, you can do backstroke, you can do breaststroke, you can run along the bottom of the lake if it’s shallow. You can even grab on to a lifeboat as long as the lifeboat is not moving forward and you don’t use it to propel yourself forward.
- You don’t have to start with a huge group if you don't want to. Usually a triathlon is broken into “waves” so you are in groups of people in your age group. You can choose to either start 30s or so after your age group is signalled to start their race or you can even sign up to start in the very last wave of the event.
2. Learn to swim and/or improve your technique
So, now that you've registered for your triathlon (maybe one of the many Multisport Canada Events :) - what do you do?
Join a Learn to Swim program offered by the City of Toronto
Get private swim lessons
Do it yourself!
Start with buoyancy drills! Basically, just practice floating! Float on your back, on your side, on your stomach. Always try to keep your feet, hips and head at the surface of the water. Practice treading water in the deep end. Practice vertical kicking.
Do this for the whole 30 minutes every 2-3 days for 1-3 weeks.
Next, work on breathing drills. Blow bubbles with your head in the water, kick with a board and blow bubbles with your face in the water. Next, practice some freestyle strokes with a board.
Add this (20mins) to your buoyancy drills (10mins) every 2-3 days for 1-3 weeks.
Next, master your kick: Kick on your back with your board over your knees, make little splashes with your toes when you kick, kick with a pull buoy/band between your thighs to prevent yourself from kicking with your knees, do some lower back stretches and hip openers to loosen those hips.
Add this (20mins) to your breathing (5mins) and buoyancy drills (5mins) every 2-3 days for 1-3 weeks.
Master your body position and streamline: Progress your kicking drills to the 6-kick switch drill progressing to 3 strokes of swimming between each 6 kicks (3-6-3-6 drill). Think about being as long as possible when you are moving through the water. Keep the top of your head pointed in the direction you area heading. Limit any side to side movementDrive the rotation with the hips.
Add this (20mins) to your other kicking drills (5mins) and buoyancy drills (5mins) every 2-3 days for 1-3 weeks.
Work on your feel for the water: Sculling on your front, sculling on your back head and feet first!
Add this (20mins) to your other kicking drills (5mins) and body position drills (5mins) every 2-3 days for 1-3 weeks.
Add the arms! (finally): Do some catch-up freestyle with a board for assistance with hand entry and front quadrant style swimming (more ideal for distance swimmers). Practice swimming 1 length of front crawl/freestyle at a time, each with a different focus: 1 length focused on heels and head position, 1 length thinking about being as long as possible, 1 length thinking about keeping the opposite arm out in front when you breath and 1 length thinking about arms entering shoulder width apart, 1 length thinking about keeping your hand below your elbow at all times - don’t slap the water with your elbow when you enter, 1 length thinking about pushing the water toward your feet.
Add this(20mins) to your other kicking drills (5mins) and other drills (5mins) every 2-3 days for 1-3 weeks.
3. So, you've got near perfect technique, but now you want to get fast, so what do you do?
Join a Swim Team (Such as Masters or Triathlon swim teams with good and attentive coaches. This will help you get faster, no question)
Train smart on your own
To elaborate on the "train smart on your own" I will remind you that:
- You need to continue to work on technique with the swim. As soon as you feel your technique fall apart, your practice is over or you need to take some extra rest before your next length/set.
- You need to vary your training. Speed work, critical swim speed work, endurance work, pull and paddles work, technique, and race simulation are crucial. You can't swim at the same speed all the time. You need to swim faster at times and slower at times. How much emphasis on faster or slower swimming depends on the race you are training for.
- Work on your weak spots. If your kick isn't very good then focus on improving your hip and ankle mobility. If you aren't strong, then do some swim chord work. If your elbow drops during your pull, then focus on that.
- You need to swim in the open water. Pool swimming is quite different from open water swimming, so if you want to be successful in the triathlon swim, you've got to practice it.
I've given you the tools for a good progression for a triathlete swimmer, now it's your choice to use them!
I coach Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday at Regent Park Pool year round for the Toronto Triathlon Club. I also coach open water swims in July and August for the Toronto Triathlon Club. Find out more information about the club and their swims here.