Long-time pool swimmers are very technique driven and are used to spending hours looking at the black line on the bottom of the pool. Many recreational triathletes, by contrast, came to swimming in their later years and are not always as familiar and comfortable in a group swim setting. They don't want to "get in the way" and will sometimes go to to lengths to simply swim laps on their own to avoid group workouts.
Casey Arendt is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach, Olympic- and half-distance triathlete, time trial cyclist and life-long swim specialist who runs Go the Distance Coaching based in Austin, Texas. Here, she discusses some of these differences between pool swimmers and triathletes, along with tips on how triathletes can become better swimmers and learn to embrace what is often their weakest discipline.
Prepare for Longer Distances2 of 7
Yes, there are long distance specialists in swimming, but, by and large, most swim meet distances are short, anaerobic events lasting only 30 seconds to two minutes. Triathlon swims, even a sprint distance, will certainly take longer than one to two minutes and athletes need to train to be comfortable for such distances.
Arendt does recommend that triathletes join a group or masters swim setting to learn proper etiquette and pacing, especially during the off-season. She also stresses the social aspect of training in such groups, as well as the extra tips and knowledge these pool experts can give.
Doing a 60 to 75 minute pool workout (even if modified) does help prepare a triathlete to wrap their brain around longer distance swimming and build more confidence around a sport that is often consumed by anxiety.
Practice in Open Water or Simulate Race Conditions in a Pool3 of 7
"You don't want to try anything new on race day, so it's incredibly important to simulate open water conditions at least once per week leading up to your race," Arendt says.
Sure, a crowded pool or masters workout can seem chaotic, but it's also very organized. Swimmers who compete in a pool get their own lane and conditions are generally very stable. Besides that, the water is clear, you can see the other end of the pool and there's even a black line on the bottom guiding your path. Heck, you even get to hang on to the wall and rest at the other end if you need to.
Open water swimming? Not so much. The water is often murky, choppy and unpredictable. Add hundreds of other bodies with awkward wetsuits, and it's no wonder that this portion of the triathlon creates the most stress. Ironically, it's also the part we practice the least.
Arendt does recommend an open water swim session at least once per week, in addition to your pool swims. Put yourself in those uncomfortable situations (safely, of course), and practice sighting and breathing in different conditions. If you don't have access to open water, you can simulate the mass-start scenario in a pool by putting four to five people in the same lane, swimming with your head up or swimming without goggles. You are essentially staging those anxiety-ridden moments in a safe environment.
Adapt Stroke Technique to the Flexibility of the Athlete4 of 7
Swim coaches will tell you that technique is everything in swimming, and they're not wrong. There is certainly a science to the perfect stroke to achieve both power and finesse. This requires a ton of flexibility, and pool swimmers, in general, have an enviable range of motion in their shoulders (allowing for more extension) and in their ankles (for both balance and a propulsive kick).
Triathletes on the other hand are notoriously inflexible, especially if you come from a running background. Our body is "closed up" with most of our training because of the disproportionate amount of time we spend in the bike and run positions. This stiffness can certainly limit our abilities in the water, but there are a couple of solutions.
First, we can work on flexibility by doing ankle stretches, functional training, yoga and other forms of flexibility work to open the body. Not only does it help your swimming, it's a valuable injury prevention too as well. Secondly, triathletes may have to adapt their stroke slightly to account for both inflexibility and open water race conditions. Instead of the catch phase of the stroke starting at the surface of the water, Arendt teaches a catch 12 to 16 inches below since shoulder flexibility is an issue for many triathletes. This will make the catch happen easier and faster, which may also help increase stroke rate for people who struggle with quick turnover. Of course, there's an individual sweet spot there, too. When conditions are choppy, you may need to adjust and increase your stroke rate to muscle through the rough conditions and keep moving forward.
Learn How to Pace Properly for Your Distance and Use Different Energy Systems5 of 7
If you've ever trained for a marathon, you know that weekly run workouts consist of a mixture of short, fast track work, mid-tempo pace runs and long endurance runs at a low heart rate. The same is true for swim training.
Masters swimmers and lifelong pool swimmers are geniuses at pacing in the water. If a set calls for a descend with each rep, they know how to nail it by starting slow and gradually picking up their pace throughout.
Triathletes on the other hand are pretty notorious for having one speed in the water... And that speed is whatever it takes to get them to the bike. Always swimming the same speed is great for recreational swimmers, but learning to pace properly is imperative for triathletes, especially as your race distances get longer. If you go out at full-speed in a 2.4-mile swim, you'll be exhausted by the end and no one wants to start a 112-mile bike ride completely spent. Conversely, you'll be chasing the cut-off times all day if you go out and swim as slow as possible. Group swimming and masters workouts are recommended to use the pace clock and learn "the feel" of these different effort levels.
Arendt's workouts include a variety of sets that work both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems. She says that long course triathletes may not need as much of the fast 25s and such, but they still teach valuable pacing and breathing lessons and improve your overall aerobic capacity. Plus, the variety just makes the workout less monotonous.
She also cautions triathletes against doing all of their swims in open water because you never really learn how to pace effectively. Yes, you are building your distance and aerobic engine, but mixing it up with coached pool swims is optimum.
Act Like a Swimmer, Not a Triathlete6 of 7
To this day, after many years as a coach, Arendt is shocked by the amount of times a triathlete will come to her for a lesson or video session and start the conversation by saying. "I hate swimming," or "I'm terrible in the water." Talk about a fatalistic self-fulfilling prophecy! "Unfortunately," she says, "This self-talk writes their script, and it's very difficult to coach somebody out of that mindset even if they see significant improvements in the water."
Swimming is the hardest discipline for many. It takes a lot of effort to drive to the pool—often at ungodly hours in the morning—put on a suit and hop in cold water, especially when you don't feel confident. However, the only way to improve is through consistency and positive self-talk. When you're in the water, you're a swimmer. The more you swim, the more you will build the confidence and finesse to look and act like a swimmer.
Takeaways7 of 7
- Invest in a swim coach or masters coach—especially in the offseason when you have more time to work on drills, technique and body positioning. Have yourself videotaped in the water. Sometimes seeing really is believing. Arendt actually uses audio headphones with some of her clients so she can give corrections while they're swimming and feel the difference in the moment.
- Split time in both pool and open water to become a better all-around swimmer.
- Simulate open water conditions in some of your group workouts.
- Stretch and work on your flexibility, especially the shoulders and ankles.
- Change your mindset. Erase, "I stink" or "I'm slow" from your vocabulary.