The #1 thing you can do to become a better triathlete
Just keep swimming.
In essence it’s that simple, but most people don’t want to hear it. Swimming for late-starters (aka non-swimmers) is usually the most difficult. It’s not intuitive nor does it come naturally for most human beings. Some people genuinely hate it and attempt to "just get by” as they start out in triathlon. Naturally, most new triathletes start as duathletes, laying down the foundational land mammal bricks of bike + run before moving on to the amphibious “last” piece - the SWIM.
For many, the mere idea of "the swim leg” instills a level of primal fear, sparking imaginations of fear that shoot up cortisol levels. If given the choice, the anxiety would inspire more to run for their lives than visualize fighting amongst the great wide-open water chaos of a triathlon. And that fear is rooted in logic, considering the inherent danger (albeit low chance) of drowning when swimming in mass. So it’s not something to take lightly.
From this, athletes may come up with a few different anxiety reactions:
Denial - this person will simply deny that they have a deficiency in swimming, refusing to work on their weakness. “What do you mean? I can finish a few seconds before cutoff! I don’t need to work on my swim.”
Avoidance - this athlete might admit they need to focus on swimming, but just not now. “I can’t afford to focus on the swim when my race is 12 weeks away. I need a balanced tri-program so I don’t ‘lose' my bike or run.” They will typically end up cycling through seasons using the same excuse, until several years later... still repeating the same. “Really, I’ll work on my swim next season…promise.”
Do what it takes - this triathlete is not in denial or procrastination about what needs to be done. They know they ‘suck' at swimming and it’s taking a toll on their biking and running potential. They recognize the necessity to improve the swim, and they are willing to do what it takes. They are under no illusions about the task at hand.
So why focus on the swim?
Well because, you want to be a triathlete. Not a duathlete-who-attempts-or-barely-scrapes-by-the-swim-cut-off-time-in-triathlons. I'm convinced that everyone of all backgrounds and abilities can improve their swim to the point that they come out of the water strong and intact for the meat of the race - the bike and run.
I don’t buy into anyone’s excuses. Not about why they aren’t meant for swimming and why it cannot be done, and why they should just settle for bare minimum slogging through. I know for a fact that with the right mental perspective and physical application, anyone without a swimming background can at least get to the point of 1) feeling relatively safe and comfortable in the open water the whole race, and 2) complete the swim course of any distance in such a way that has them exiting the water feeling ready and pumped to get on the bike, not completely wasted.
I also don’t buy any excuse from someone saying that they are "just okay” with getting-by on the swim and then making it up on the bike. Thats a bullshit cop-out. Because the moment you get out of that water cramping, ready to throw up, 100% frazzled and ready to call it a day - you definitely WISH that you would have trained more in the water leading up to that moment.
No one ever came into T1 thinking, "wow, I wasted all that time on swimming” or “man, i could have come out of the water 5minutes later and still be happy” or “I’m so fit from swimming that I don’t need to work on it any more.” Said no one ever - even the fastest ITU pros.
Who should focus on the swim?
Granted, athletes from a swimming background have a different starting point and therefore a different experience in triathlon. But in reality, no one can afford to slack on the swim, because it’s not 3 separate sports on 3 different days. It’s one sport, therefore swim performance directly impacts the bike and run on the day. Even a competitive swimmer has to address their swim stroke and training as it relates to triathlon, because it’s not just a 1500m pool swim. It’s 1500m open water thrashing followed by crushing bike gears for 40k followed by a 10k footrace. So once again, deploy perspective.
But for the purpose of this read, which is geared more towards the non and new-swimmer, why should you focus on the swim? Because your entire race depends on it! I don’t understand how so many people have this mentality that consistently having the worst swims of their potential is NOT going to affect their biking performance. As if they are soo fancy that they don’t need to have a strong swim (relative to the person of course), because they are “such strong bikers” (also relative) on such fancy bikes, or such fast runners for that matter.
Sorry, but if the differential is that big to begin with, it’s made even LARGER by the fact that your weak swim set you up for a weaker bike and weaker run. This is the point. As in, being able to swim a few minutes faster and much more comfortably, will domino into you’re being able to bike MUCH stronger to your potential, saving several more minutes on the bike and run. So, theoretically, that difference in swim time that you think you’re “making up” by biking and running faster - are you really going to be making up 15-20minutes or more in a standard? Chances are no.
The reason you need to focus on the swim, is because you hate it. And for as long as you hate it, you must do whatever it takes to learn to love it. Because as long as you hate it, you’ll dread doing it and therefore not do exactly what it takes to make it better. Yes it’s going to take time. In fact it’ll likely take a disproportionate amount of time because that’s just the way swimming is. It doesn’t stick as quick as biking or running because of the technical aspect. But once you get over that and decide to commit, you’ll see what’s possible beyond your self-limiting beliefs.
Your average coaches even might not tell you like it is, because if it means you not liking what you hear and skipping their program, thats a loss for them. So they’d rather tell you what you want to hear and keep your subscription. But if someone has your best interest at heart, they will tell you like it is. No sugar coating.
What’s your why?
What are you in it for? To snag a snazzy medal pic and brag to friends? Or to truly and whole-heartedly push yourself beyond what you initially thought possible? If you are in it for superficial reasons, that’s your prerogative and motivation. But I hope to reach some of those who have that genuine burning desire to defy those limits.
If you’re willing to play the long game and sacrifice short-term gain, ie. committing to a swim stimulus periodically, rather than sticking to your comfort zone of a balanced program year round, then you’ll be a much more contented athlete with sustainable performances at your potential. If you’re willing to love the process-of-suck for a while (maybe quite a long while), then you can make it happen. If you can apply perspective, you'll buy into what it will take. If you can look beyond your ego and accept reality for what it is, you can change your present and therefore set up your future. No, you’ll probably never get down to swim an 18minute 1500m. But that’s fine (outside of men's ITU) so don’t sweat it. But what you can do is come to terms with a realistic progression that will take you from “barely surviving” — to approaching the bike with your legs and mental morale in tact.
How should one focus on the swim?
-Swim as much as humanly possible given your work and life balance.
-Do a swim stimulus, where your main focus is swimming - twice or even 3x a day. A good coach should be able to advise on how to structure this for your personal experience and schedule.
-For super tight schedules, frequency is more important than duration, so even squeezing in a quick 20’ before or after work is better than zero. Frequency in the water is key over volume for non-swimmers.
-On weekends when you have more time, get a longer or double/triple set in. Work with what you have, but make it happen.
-Donate your snorkel and fins - they are cop-outs and crutches that non swimmers use to avoid the initial discomfort of actual swimming. Ain't gunna have them on race day buddy.
-Use the pull buoy most of the time for buoyancy to reinforce proper body-position.
-Practice dolphin kick to gain the lower back strength needed to hold said body-position.
-Use small hand paddles (no bigger than your hand) to leverage strength.
-As you improve your strength, body position, and endurance, use an ankle band. Tie your feet together with a piece of old tire inner-tube (DIY ankle strap) and use with the buoy.
I won’t address specific swim styles because that requires in depth context on an individual basis, but these are some universal tips that everyone could deploy to their advantage. Likely most of you will still fall back on denial or avoidance when it comes to reading this. And thats okay, it's your choice. Just don’t complain about your next triathlons when you don’t feel you perform to your potential…
Comment below. Are you a Denial, Avoidance, or Do What it Takes type? I'd love to hear about your own swim journey and what kind of struggles and epiphanies you’ve had along the way.