Here’s the truth about triathlon swimming: It’s really difficult. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Swimming is the most troublesome aspect of triathlon. Coming off a weekend that saw two people lose their lives at Ironman South Africa, this is a necessary and timely conversation.
The triathlon swim occupies the shortest amount of time amongst the three disciplines of the sport. Your training should reflect that also. A typical split of training time typically looks like 20% swim, 50% bike, and 30% run. Obviously that can fluctuate depending on the skills of a particular athlete, but that’s a general guideline. It’s also the swim that prevents a lot of cyclists and runners from breaking into the sport of triathlon altogether. In my conversations with many would-be triathletes, they cite the swim as the sole anxiety-driven reason they won’t commit to the multi-sport challenge. I can’t say I blame them, really.
Because the swim makes up the shortest part of the race and training volume, it’s often the most overlooked piece of the puzzle. How many times have you heard it (or even said it yourself), “I’ll just survive the swim” or “So long as I don’t drown in the swim, I’ll be fine.” Yeah, it’s said tongue-in-cheek but there’s always some truth to those comments. Chances are, it’s because the swim training was often skipped, unfocused, or haphazard and didn’t prepare the athlete for what to expect on race day.
The pool vs. open water
The atmosphere in the water at your local YMCA is entirely different than your local lake, pond, river, or ocean. The two don’t even compare. Sure, you can prepare as best you can in the pool to simulate open water: the thrashing around of limbs, the poor visibility, and violence at the start of a race. But until you experience it first hand you’ll never truly be prepared.
The pool is a closed environment with help just feet away at all times. Open water can be seen as the Wild West with help seemingly yards away in the distance requiring a thorough paddle to even reach you. If something goes wrong in an open water swim and you need saving, hopefully you can muster the strength to contribute to the rescue mission.
The mechanics of your stroke are different in the pool than they are in open water. You don’t need to sight in a pool, whereas in open water it’s a necessary aspect of being successful, or at least not swimming far more distance than necessary. The catch, pull-through, and propulsion of your body is vastly different and must be practiced. While you can make significant gains in the pool that transfer into open water, your training must be intentional and specific for what you’re trying to accomplish. “Just trying to survive the swim,” isn’t an effective training strategy.
Get in the water
Your bike is set up in the basement on a trainer, it takes minimal effort to get that aspect fo training in. The same with running. Toss your sneakers on and head out the door. Easy, quick, and effective. The swim is a different animal.
You have to gather your swim bag, get in the car, drive upwards of 30 minutes in some cases to the nearest pool, get your workout in, shower, dry off, get dressed, make sure your post-workout nutrition was planned and brought along, then drive home another 30 minutes. All of that for a 2,000 yard swim that takes you 40 minutes. You spent more time in the car than in the water. It’s easy to not see the benefit in adhering to your swim training protocol.
It’s just not as convenient as biking or running. But it is critical that swimming doesn’t take a back seat in training because it’s clearly the most dangerous of the three.
Triathlon isn’t won in the swim
No one has ever won a triathlon in the water. The statement, “bike for show, run for dough” is true. It doesn’t mention anything about the swim though. You can’t win a race in the swim, but you can definitely lose it. If you’re unprepared it can set you back valuable minutes that’ll be difficult to make up.
Practice with your wetsuit
Being uncomfortable in the water is an issue many of us deal with. I myself still feel a sense of panic at the start of race. It’s crowded, dark, and restrictive. Feeling the tightness of a wetsuit around the neck doesn’t make things any easier. In order to overcome that sense of panic and anxiety, you must swim with your wetsuit on. Find areas near you where you can get in the open water and feel that tightness so you can understand how best to adapt. If that’s not possible, take it in the pool with you. Just be sure to thoroughly rinse it off afterwards so the chlorine doesn’t eat away at the material.
Practice. Practice. Practice. The swim is challenging, but with some consistent effort it won’t be overwhelming. Stay calm, find your breath, and be aggressive. It’s unfortunate we hear stories of athletes having to get taken back to shore, their race is over before they really even started because they panicked in open water. Athletes must learn how to get comfortable and swim with confidence in those situations so they can make it through the swim and out on to the bike.