How should I swim for triathlon?
Starting out, I wasn’t that kid who learned to swim at 4 and then competed at the highest level. I struggled as a teenager to teach myself basics. My first swim assessment in 2015 with my coach Sutton (from whom I’ve learned so much) was pretty much, “Ya can’t swim. Ya swim is crap. Ya swim like shet! But we can work with that.” And I was like, "I know, so let’s go!" I think starting from that vantage point has been one of my assets as an athlete. An open mind and extreme desire to learn and improve as much as humanely possible drives me daily and continues to deepen the perspective I have.
Swimming is also one of the topics I dodge like the plague on a casual basis. It’s hard to explain this blog post in a quick one-liner! There’s plenty of noise from ‘experts' who don’t comprehend triathlon as a whole, but who try to sound credible without respect to practical application for non-swimmers going into triathlon. There’s so much bullshit marketing with no regard for psychology and empathy, which doesn’t cater to people’s true individual needs. And unfortunately, many triathletes are blinded by all of it and likewise too comfortable to think more critically. So it’s not a topic I’m ever quick to dive head first into. But since you’re on my territory for now, let's do it. Here’s some perspective from a non-swimmer going pro in triathlon and some insight from my experience.
But wait. I don’t have all the answers. This is not a “how-to” swim guide for non-swimmers becoming triathletes. This is a why examination on swimming itself and why it should vary in approach from person to person. I wouldn't attempt to offer specific swim advice to anyone at random without being their actual coach. As much as I'm passionate about helping people learn to also swim better, it'd be irresponsible to offer snap judgements without any context.
So, how should I swim for triathlon? As with many things, better questions lead to more insightful answers. What we should first be pondering is more specifically along the lines of: “Is there a difference in types of swimmers? How should non-swimmers train for triathlon? Why? How should swimmers train for triathlon, and should they try to change aspects to optimize their triathlon? What exactly is a swimmer and a non-swimmer?
I’m going to just put a ripple in the water on this topic. What I’ll try to address is the core idea behind seeing what those pieces of context are, and how that can influence perspective on swimming. We aren't even gunna touch on the whole issues of straight-arm, 6-beat kicking, breathing pattern, etc. We need to take it way back — because people should understand at a more rudimentary level the idea that different people adapt to swimming differently and why they should therefore approach it with more perspective.
Two people can have vastly different strokes aesthetically, but on race day come up with the same blazing swim split, setting them up well for a strong ride. On the flip side, they could also have two different strokes with different swim times - where one is set up well for a strong ride, and one is set up for a weak ride. There are many combinations, which is why you can never judge someone by the appearance of their stroke without having a clue what’s actually going on underwater and what it means for that individual.
Definitions. Let’s first get on the same page and simplify with two general cases:
A Swimmer is someone who learned from a young age, swam on a swim team, accumulating years upon years of pool-specific training. The standard way of teaching freestyle is particularly traditional, with emphasis on high-elbow recovery, fast kicking, body rotation, etc.
A Non-swimmer is someone who did not learn to swim at a young age nor spend their youth & young adult life doing laps on a team. They learned to swim later, usually as an adult, often times via youtube videos, and therefore lack the millions of laps logged into muscle memory by age 20. Their typical approach is to copy what the Swimmer naturally looks like in the water.
If you’re a non-swimmer, suspend any judgement first. There are distinct advantages to both cases! (but we can get into that topic another time.)
Why is there more than one way to swim for triathlon?
1- Because every body is different. That’s why “different strokes for different folks" means exactly that. Different biomechanics, body types, proportions, BMIs and buoyancies, hormone levels, injury history, mobility issues, power potential, flexibility, personality etc. will all influence how easily or stubbornly someone’s physicality takes to swim training in the beginning. It will change the trajectory of their learning curve compared to others and require different tools at different times to aid in the process.
Phelps is the prime example of what NOT to compare yourself to. How can you justify attempting to replicate someone else’s stroke mechanics when first of all, you are half their size and wingspan and physiologically will never be a comparison? Not to mention the colossal difference in history, fitness, strength endurance, muscle memory…etc. It’s just not fair to yourself to look at Olympic swimmers and dream of copying their stroke when: you have nothing physically in common with them or what got them to that level. It’s quite possibly going to make your practice a very miserable experience, perhaps leading to your pure loathing of swimming altogether, thus leading to less time in water and crappy swims that affect your entire triathlon performance - compromising what you work hard for on the bike and run.
2- Because every individual has different experience and history of swimming. On top of body type and predisposition comes what is most important of all: time and work in the water. After many years of competitive swimming, there’s a multitude of “forms” or “styles” which that Swimmer could have been using from day 1, and s/he will STILL be faster than the average non-swimmer because of the simple rule of accumulated fitness and endurance. Volume begets results, almost regardless of form. (for now let’s not venture too far into that debate either).
Between the Swimmer and Non-swimmer, there are varying degrees of conditioning/programming that may or may not have happened over the course of that person’s time in the water. Are they completely newbie blank slates? Were they top level collegiate or olympic swimmers with engrained stroke patterns that will never be changed? Or are they more malleable in the sense that, regardless of competence, their minds are open to trying a new technique? Which brings us to the next reason why there’s more than one way to swim for triathlon:
3- Because of individual mentality and belief. When it comes to someone’s adaptability to a certain swim form, psychology, learning style, and resistance to change are among the biggest bridges or barriers. You could be any level of swimmer, but if your belief system is rigidly stuck on one set of ideals (perhaps a lifelong coach imprinted you, you let yourself be imprinted by “experts” on youtube, or you simply want your swim to “look” a certain way to others while swimming) ...then you won’t be very coachable or open to new possibilities.
4-Because what is marketed to you as the “universal correct way to swim" is not necessarily in your best interest. I think about the way I was taught to swim as a 14 year old. It was virtually the same as every other swimmer I had ever seen (until taking on the new approach with Brett in 2015). There was one set of ideals for every aspect of the swim, and I could look to any more advanced swimmer for a model to emulate — high elbows recovering like chicken wings over the water, extreme pivoting body rotation, turbo-fast kicking, and of course, loooong-ass gliding that is only possible with said-turbo-kick. So why is that? Why does there seem to be this pervasive "one single truth” about how swimming should be done for everyone, regardless of the above context?
For one thing, a one-size-fits-all approach sells to the masses and is easy to coach. Why go through the hard work of marketing to individual needs and coaching based on individual optimization when it can be done for a fraction of the quality in one fell swoop? If you just defer to one of these standardized programs, you can just regurgitate technique aspects without spending the time and effort to analyze someones individual needs in context of what kind of swimming they aspire to do well under pressure (ie. open water in triathlon before a bike and run race). As with everything in life, we must be skeptical and critical of what is presented as “the way” and packaged up to us in pretty, convenient little online tutorials.
What are the different styles that one can use for triathlon and how would you know which style to adopt and when?
Well there’s so much nuance to that question that we'd have to save it for another time.
In essence though, what's most important across anyone's personal technique, is body position and how well they can engage their whole body in swimming for the duration of the race. What’s most important is what you can’t see from the surface - it’s the overall leverage through the water, not what the singular arms "look like" during the recovery phase. It’s what’s underwater that truly matters. ;]
Perhaps you came looking for an easy three-step process to guide your progress. Sorry, but as you can see, everything is based on context. Hopefully by scraping the surface, this may stir up some different perspective that is rarely considered when it comes to non-swimmers learning to swim for triathlon.
This is why we believe in genuine individualized training for athletes. Contact us if you’d like to learn more at https://www.apeirontriathlon.com/coaching/inquire/. Stay tuned for the next blog on triathlon swim tips. Happy Training and just keep swimming!