Tag Archives: Triathlon

Swimming for beginning open water swimmers and triathletes is like planting a tree. Twenty common beginner triathlete questions answered.

Update: The first version of this post was a horribly-written first draft accidentally scheduled to post automatically that I hadn’t realised!  Now quickly edited for the interim, sorry for the lapse in quality control.

Swimming is very much like the old saying about planting trees.The very best time to start was ten years ago. The second best time to start was yesterday. The next best time is today.

I myself did not start ten years ago but I did incrementally improve my skills and technique and open water experience and achievements.

For the beginner triathletes and open water swimmers who start asking me these swimming questions in May and June, it’s usually too late, but here are my answers to the twenty-ish most common questions I get.

I’m answering them at the end of the summer in preparation for next year, giving you lots of time, instead of last-minute useless panic…

Yes, I know I’m not a triathlete but many have asked me about swimming, and open water swimming is what I know. I was once a beginner open water swimmer also, but I get a surge in open water swimming questions especially from beginner triathletes every May and June. Though occasionally I get might get asked in November or December and tell the person to start in January. But then I don’t hear from them again until, you guessed it, May or June.

Twenty Questions

Q 1. I have a triathlon is two weeks, do you think I can do enough swim training for it?

A. 1. No, you are not ready.

Q. 2. Surely you can help me get through the swim leg?

A. 2. No, not in two weeks and asking me doesn’t mean you have “permission” to swim. Really I will help, but things are just wrong, and more importantly, unsafe.

Q. 3. I’m really afraid of open water/depth/cold/creatures/other swimmers. I don’t think I can overcome it. Can I?

A. 3. You are not a special case. Many world-class open water swimmers deal with some or all of these issues such as English channel record holder Trent Grimsey being afraid of underwater creatures. All can be dealt with or overcome or through both physical and mental training.

Q. 4. Isn’t swimming continuously for 30 minutes the best preparation for a continuous triathlon swim?

A. 4. No, you need to do interval swimming. Long distance and marathon swimmers like myself mostly train by doing intervals (aka threshold training), not swimming 10 to 20k continuously all the time. You can start introducing interval training by thinking about Zone or Heart Rate Training.

Q. 5. Is twice a week enough to swim in training?

A. 5. No, you need to swim more often. At least three times of at least 2000 metres per session is the very minimum I advise (Most open water swimmers will train five to seven days a week). That minimum is based on doing the shortest triathlons or open water swims of only about one kilometre. Maybe you should have a look at “How much do I need to swim for -x- open water distance?

Q. 6. Won’t the wetsuit help?

A. 6. Only in the wrong way. The biggest mistake triathletes make is assuming their wetsuit is a safety device and a substitute for training. Relying on it to get you through is looking for trouble and substituting neoprene for training. When you are crossing a road do you do without looking and rely entirely on the traffic to react to you?

Q. 7. A lot of the open water swimmers look, well, less fit than me. Aren’t they just using natural fat instead a wetsuit and all quite slow?

A. 7. That includes me. But no, those open water swimmers are just better prepared. Don’t be fooled by the weight, that’s a choice and sacrifice that most of us make.

Q. 8. I couldn’t ever be as good as you if I have no talent for swimming, right?

A. 8. No, it’s not natural talent, it’s been hard consistent work for me too over years.

Q. 9. I can swim 2000 or 2250 metres per hour. Is that fast?

A. 9. No, it’s slow but others are afraid to tell you. I personally define fast as 4000 metres per hour or over. So now train to get faster and learn to work with your current speed. Start with understanding how to structure a basic swimming training session and start doing interval work.

Q. 10. Can I do an Sprint or Olympic triathlon in two weeks time if I swim a lot before then?

A. 10. No, it’s too late to be ready in two weeks. Or three, or four weeks.

Q. 11. Is it too late to be ready in two weeks time?

A. 11. You should have started earlier. But swimming is like planting a tree: The best time was before today. The next best time is today. It’s not too late to be start to start preparing for some more realistic target.

Q. 12. I feel like I’m pretty good at stroke. Do I need to do regular technique training?

A. 12. Yes, your technique still needs improvement. But so does everyone else’s, including mine. Here’s some triathlete specific advice I’ve written from what I’ve seen over the years.

Q. 13. I have limited or no access to open water. Do I really have to practice in it?

A. 13. Yes, you need to swim in open water regularly. The only way to practice open water is in open water and all those articles telling you otherwise are lying.

Q. 14. Do I need to practice in open water if I’m training in a pool all the time?

A. 14. Yes, you need to swim in rough open water also and learn the techniques, as well as such skills and sighting and navigation and learning responsibility for your own safety.

Q. 15. Can I learn better technique, or speed or open water skills?

A. 15. Yes, you can learn all the appropriate skills but you can’t do it in two weeks. With running, just running more frequently will make you better, the same with cycling. Swimming and open water swimming are far more complex, and require constant correct technique training, open water skills, and experience. Have a look at the How To articles section for some of that. And I keep adding stuff, I’m working on a comprehensive three-part series on open water navigation and sighting that will cover things I haven’t seen in any of the usual articles.

Q. 16. I think I started swimming when I was too old. Do you think I can get any better?

A. 16. Yes, you can get better. Swimming technique can always be improved regardless of age. It’s just far more technical than running or cycling (as a former runner and cyclist also). I can point out multiple stories of English Channel swimmers who only started swimming when they were 40 or even older and this year alone the oldest male Channel solo swimmer record has been broken, twice!

Q. 17. So do you think I can do a sprint or Olympic or even Ironman triathlon next year?

A. 17. Yes, you can be ready for next year. Probably even for an Ironman if you train correctly, and  get the right advice. And start right now!

Q. 18. What should I do next so?

A. 18. Don’t waste the autumn, winter and spring. Technique training in the pool and interval training and do some open water swimming at the weekend, especially now while the water is still warm.

Q. 19. You’re sure I shouldn’t do it (that triathlon/swim I asked you about)?

A. 19. No, if you cannot breathe easily while swimming, you really are not ready regardless what others tell you. Your goal shouldn’t be “just get through the swim” like so many triathletes. Your goal should be to swim it easily and comfortably so that you enjoy the sport and you can improve and progress.

Q. 20. Doing it your way means everything is too far away and I won’t get started.

A. 20. Races aren’t the start, they are the finish, the result of practice and training and experience. Open water swimmers learn to study the constraints and to plan ahead. As open water specialists, they (we) can aid you in your triathlon swimming leg. If you start correctly now, and spent the time learning and training for next, you will be better, more efficient and comfortable and perform better next year. This will result in greater enjoyment and longer term engagement in the sport.

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The first version of this post was a horribly written first draft. Now edited and sorry for the lapse in quality control!

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The common traits shared by so many of the questions and answers is to assume that swimming is too difficult, and then instead of treating the difficulty as a challenge, postponing actually working on the skills, from technique, to pool training, to open water training. And the next year the situation hasn’t changed and it’s all too late again.

In short, sometimes it really is too late to start if the immediate or looming deadline is wrong, but it’s not too late to start for the right deadline.

HOW TO: Open water swim tips for triathletes

This follows up Part 1 and Part 2 of common triathlon swimming techniques and remedies, and Evan’s tips on the best use of a public pool for training and a simple effective front crawl stroke tip.

I’ve written various How To’s about different aspects of open water swimming in detail. This post is intended to be a general round-up of maybe useful advice for triathletes (based on substantial open water swimming experience).

(By the way, I’ll be indexing the How To articles soon similar to the Cold Water Swimming Index, to make it easier to navigate).

  • Open water practice is different and separate to pool practice, and equally essential. You need both.
  • Breathing and sighting are two SEPARATE activities. Breathe to the side. Sight from LOW over the water (think of it as crocodile eyes).
  • Getting through large breaking waves is simple and quick (once you’ve practised it). Dive under them. Don’t try to go over or through.
  • Different wind strengths and directions (to your swimming direction) change the water conditions in different ways. Practice in all weather conditions.
  • My idea of cold and your idea of cold are different because you are wearing a wetsuit. I prepare for my temperatures, you MUST prepare for yours, even with a wetsuit.
  • Practice in open water well in advance of your event, and practice repeatedly.
  • Navigation is a learned skill. Pick something above the water and work out how often you need to sight forward to swim straight. Expect the number to be low at the beginning.
  • Few people are as good at sighting as they think they are. Most are worse. There are too many variable to always be certain you are swimming straight.
  • Practice turns around buoys.
  • Common technique causes of drifting off-course are crossing over the body centreline with your arm and breathing to one side (where it unbalances the swimmer). Address these in your pool training.
  • Controlled breathing is important. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Don’t concentrate on lowering your stroke rate, or gliding. (Yes, I know many of you try to do the opposite).
  • Do increase your stroke rate. And train for this.
  • Forget Total Immersion.
  • Don’t kick hard.
  • Don’t sprint at the start.
  • Don’t wear new goggles for a race.
  • Don’t start at the front of a race wave if you’ve never done so before.
  • Expect full contact with other swimmers. To avoid contact start slightly behind the pack.
  • Swim to the side of the pack.
  • Don’t trust that the pack knows where it’s going.
  • My sport is more extreme and dangerous than yours but yours is more popular and with a higher fatality rate. That can be improved by better understanding of and preparation for open water.
  1. Just because water is soft, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Train appropriately.
  2. The best safety decisions are made outside of the water.
  3. Your wetsuit is NOT an open water safety aid. Don’t use it as such to enter a swim you are not sure you are capable of completing.

How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 2

Following on from Part 1;

Scissors-kick

This is common and may be partially caused by increased thigh strength built up by running and cycling training. The legs kick wide, passing outside the silhouette of the body as seen from the front and adds very significant drag. In an elite sprint swimmer the kick only provides 15% of total forward propulsion and therefore provides less for most of the rest of us, and especially distance swimmers. The combination of added drag with reduced propulsive force means a scissors-kick is not just not providing little assistance, but is actually slowing the swimmer. For many triathletes less of a kick would be more effective in increasing speed and reducing effort. Note that the thigh muscles are the largest muscles in the body, with a higher density of fast twitch muscle fibres, which consume more oxygen and glycogen. If the muscles are being used inefficiently, the effects are systemic, adding drag while requiring more energy.

People who speed up while using a pull-buoy usually have a scissors-kick that is slowing them down normally. It is worth emphasising that, as I’m sure you have read, the kick is driven from the hips. However the lower leg is not stiff but is best described as having “soft knees.”

  • Do some swimming with a pull-buoy to determine if your kick is slowing you. If you are faster with a kick-buoy then it probably is. (Make sure you are NOT kicking while using a pull-buoy. This is the Aquasphere buoy that I use).
  • Another simple technique is to “make a fist with your toes“. This reduces the effectiveness of your hamstring muscles, reducing the range of motion of your kick. If you swim easier while doing this, you know your kick is adding drag. However this is not something you should be doing all the time, but only as a diagnostic tool or to get the feel of a more streamlined kick.
  • Tapping your big toes together when they pass will add bio-feedback for you to reduce the range of your kick. Again, this is not something you do every kick.
  • A long length of medium surgical tube or Theraband looped  over your ankles is useful for feeling the entire range of a kick. You will have to kick against the tubing which makes this an uncomfortable drill only used briefly but it will help stop your knees bending and again will demonstrate a better reduced kick range.
  • When using fins, make sure they are NOT long scuba-diving flipper types, but short stiff ones. Long flippers will force you to scissors-kick your lower legs more. I use Finis Z2 Zoomers.
  • One particular drill that I do occasionally is to swim with my ankles tied together with a large rubber band (or Finis ankle band though I simply use a loop of car inner-tube). This ensures I must concentrate on my chest buoy, which is a swimming phrase for the centre of buoyancy in the chest and lungs. To do this you must get yourself low in the water, your tied legs will be heavy and will sink down in the water, making you slower. So you must concentrate on elongating the body, staying smooth, and trying to elevate the legs. Don’t overdo this drill as it is too easy to use it to fall into a strength-only swimming technique. This drill is also useful as pool training for some choppy wind conditions, where getting low under oncoming chop is more effective than trying to swim over it.
  • Like many distance swimmers, I don’t do a lot of kick drills, but also like most experienced swimmers, I regularly use the side-kick drill as the most effective of all swimming drills. While I don’t recommend being as lazy as I am with kick-drills, this side-kick drill does work the kick, balance, elongation and rotation.
  • To do the side-kick drill you start by swimming a length on either side, one arm stretched out in front, the other relaxed by your side, on your hip. Concentrate on swimming straight and controlling your kick. Then you can add slow rotations to the other side. You can add a side-to-side transition every quarter of length, or every 12 kicks. The first side drill and a 6x kick (12 beat) rotation can be seen in the drill below. You are never too good to stop doing this drill and the various variations of it.

Not pulling through completely

The pull-phase in front crawl starts from when the hand engages the water at the catch (usually about 30 cm under the surface) until it starts to lift into the recovery phase. Many people shorten the pull phase and lose the power at the latter end of the pull.

  • When pulling, scrape your thumb against your thigh on every stroke

Concentration

Even the most experienced and even expert swimmer will develop technique errors once they lose focus on their stroke or get tired, as Evan points out. So you must concentrate on correct technique constantly, and always expect new errors to develop and need to be remedied.

Get some stroke analysis

Yes, I already mentioned this in the first part but it’s worth repeating. All of the above points are based on having those specific problems. People may have one or two or more. The BEST single thing you can do for your swimming is to get some simple stroke analysis. This sounds both complicated and expensive. But almost any experienced swimmer you meet will be happy to do so. They will have sufficient understanding of stroke mechanics, understand that everyone needs this assistance including themselves and most importantly be able to see things you can’t. Obviously experienced coaches and video analysis will give greater benefit but you could be surprised how easy it is for someone to see something you are not aware of, and therefore for you to make changes. (I went through all this myself earlier in the year when I visited the SwimSmooth clinic and discovered problems that had crept back into my stroke).

Conclusion

Proportionally speaking the swim leg of any distance triathlon is the leg, shortest and the one least likely to cause the athlete to gain or lose too much time. Therefore the best strategy for most people is to maximise efficiency during the swim leg, and get out of the water fresh without having lost too much time.

I’ve tried to address the most common issues which reduce efficiency and which are easiest to address. There are also common issues with crossover, thumb first entry, lifting too high to breathe, poor catch, s-pulling and working on the other previous problems will improve these also.

However you should address each of these issues separately at first, and NOT try to focus on everything at once.

By tackling these main issues you will reduce drag, develop a controlled a propulsive stroke technique with no dead spots, and have a good breathing pattern. You will be much further along the way to moving through any water conditions with improved efficiency. Some of these changes can be made made quickly but expect to repeat any muscle action at least 10,000 times for it to become ingrained in your muscle memory. So to change something you have to repeat it correctly at least once every metre swam.

There’s another swimming aphorism that applies to stroke correction and improvement that derives from this slow rate of improvement. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Note. I’ve now also written a How-To – Improving Open Water swimming performance for triathletes.

Related articles

How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 1

This post is one of a combined series of triathlon swim articles with Evan Morrison. Evan is a top American open water and marathon swimmer who holds several long distance records including Santa Barbara and the Ederle marathon swims.  His article considers some common mistakes people make while pool swim training (not technique errors) and how to improve. (We are also the co-founders and administrators of marathonswimmers.org). Evan also recently wrote  an excellent, easy-to-understand and follow simple front-crawl stroke tip.

While I written quite a few open water How To’s that are useful for both triathletes and open water novices, I thought some observations on the most common triathlete stroke problems that I’ve seen wouldn’t go astray and simple correction for these problems. 

Stroke Analysis

While all of these issues are visible to a good coach, many triathletes, (like myself as a swimmer), don’t have a local swim squad, regular coach or other swimmers to observe, intervene, or even to casually analyse their strokes. Swimming is the most technically difficult discipline in a triathlon. Quite unlike running or cycling, simply swimming more won’t necessarily improve your technique, and may even embed stroke errors more deeply. Fitness alone also isn’t sufficient. Swimming is a two-person sport in that it requires someone else to see what you are doing. So the best first tip is to get some stroke analysis. this doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. You can ask at your pool or if you see someone whom is a good swimmer, I can pretty much guarantee that they’d be happy to help as almost all experienced swimmers understand this requirement. (Just ask when they between sets).

I know a triathlete who has been swimming for twenty years. That should make him an excellent swimmer. But because he not only doesn’t ask for input, but refuses any he is offered by anyone, his swimming hasn’t progressed or improved in any way in all that time. (And he also makes most to of the errors that Evan points out).

Breathing

The most common question or complaint from novice swimmers refers to breathing. It is  often in the form of “I am very fit, I can run and cycle for miles, but I run out of air almost immediately when swimming“. You can have a sports car in the garage but if you don’t have fuel in the car it’s not going to go anywhere. In swimming the primary fuel isn’t food but oxygen. Stretching the car analogy, food is more like the lubricant used for an internal combustion engine, and air is more like the primary fuel. You need one to start and for power, and the other to keep the system working. So it is most important that you are continuously getting enough air by breathing. As all swimmers have favourite sayings they have heard from their coaches, one of mine that is relevant to this is you need to swim around your breathing, not breathe between your swimming. Many beginners seem to think of breathing as an addendum to swimming. The oldest and still most important instruction to swimmers is relax. Without being relaxed it’s difficult to breathe efficiently. A drill that helps this is the side kicking drill (below).

  • Don’t hold your breathe but exhale continuously underwater. Use both mouth and nose exhalation.
  • Don’t worry about speed, but take controlled strokes. (You can’t swim fast or efficiently without being able to swim slow).
  • To help control your breathing you can speak a word like “breathe” underwater on every arm-cycle, or even hum underwater.
  • Learn to exhale fully. Exhale and see if you sink. If you don’t try again, this time exhaling from lower in your abdomen and stomach. Pursing your lips adds exhalation pressure. (Easily demonstrated. Exhale as much as you can while reading this, then purse your lips and you will be able to exhale a little more).

Inflexible ankles

Inflexible ankles are common in triathletes who originally come from a running background or who emphasise running training. The repetitive impacts combined with a lack of focus on ankle flexibility leads to a decreased Range of Motion (ROM) in the ankles and leave some triathletes being unable to point their toes. In some cases not being able to point the foot at all, so the foot remains at up to 90 degrees to the lower leg. This adds significant drag, in effect a water-anchor to the swimmer. Stiff ankles will also cause the legs to drop down in the water, thereby adding yet more drag.

  • A simple solution to this is to increase ankle flexibility stretching. This has the great advantage of being amenable to being done while the person is sitting and relaxing or working. Two effective stretches from Michael Alter’s excellent Sport Stretches.

Ankle stretches 1-resized

Part 2.