"Water is your friend," says Russian former swimmer Alexander Popov. He should know, having won four Olympic gold medals, but it's easy to feel he's talking nonsense when you're being churned about in the melee at the start of a triathlon - and sometimes even in the pool when you're training. However, he's right: making friends with water could be the difference between loving every minute of a triathlon and metaphorically holding your breath until you exit the water.
Triathletes from a non-swimming background often view the water as something to be endured, squeezing in training around hours of more comfortable riding and running. But according to Mike Rudd, a five-time Ironman finisher, you may not win a race in the swim section, but you could lose it there.
Rudd has been competing in triathlons since 1994 and has firm ideas about the swim. "It's about thinking and training smart," he says. "If you only have a few hours in the water each week, you need to use every single minute to its maximum."
If your swim training consists of holding a pull buoy between your legs and just swimming back and forth, you may want to re-evaluate how you're using your time. With a carefully planned programme, even a few hours in the water every week can turn your technique from splashing to dashing and help you enjoy the swim instead of treating it like a chore. Commit yourself to our plan and you could improve your stroke and speed in just six weeks.
To get the most out of your swimming training, split your pool/water time into three sessions of 30 to 45 minutes. This will be more effective than a single two-hour session each week as you'll be fresher every time you jump in the water.
Aim to visit the pool when you know it's going to be quiet - even if that means being at the front door when the pool opens in the morning. This week your aim should be to gauge your fitness. Do a time trial of about 400m on the third session of the week so you can see your progress over the following weeks. It's won't take too much out of you but it's enough to allow you to measure improvements later in the programme. If you are consistent with your training, you'll improve, and the more time you can spend in the water, the greater your confidence will become.
This first week is also the time to make a plan based on the length of the triathlon you're targeting - include weekly achievable goals to help focus your training and boost your confidence.
Helen Gorman is a triathlete and former GB swimmer. She also coaches triathletes: "Train for your race by targeting the muscles you will be using," she says. "A lot of the muscles for swimming aren't used in day-to-day life, so just getting in the water will help, but if you are training for a 750m swim, aim to do sets such as 8 x 100m, with a short rest between each 100m, and build up to 10 x 100m. Also try four or five times 200m, two or three times 400m, and so on."
Now is the time to build your stroke and improve your efficiency as you move through the water. Gorman recommends counting your strokes to help increase length and reach. For example, if you count 20 strokes per length on average, spend a session aiming to cover lengths in 18 strokes.
"This helps you think about your technique and reach," she says. Try to glide forward, in the same way you would if you were ice-skating. "Think about stroking all the way forward and pulling all the way back past your thigh. This will also help with your breathing."
Try to keep your mind focused as you pull through, repeating the 'long and strong' mantra in your head.
During this building phase, work on your breathing and balance, too. Practise breathing every five strokes for the first 100 metres, then every four strokes for the next 100m, every three strokes for the next 100m and so on, to help you increase your lung capacity as you breathe in quickly with a fast, smooth head-turn.
If you're short of time, try breathing on both sides on the third and fifth strokes. This will help your balance and align an unsymmetrical stroke, which is often caused by having one side stronger than the other.
Ask a coach or another triathlete to watch your stroke and give you feedback on whether it's balanced. Rudd recommends going along to a structured session in which a coach will be able to assess whether your stroke needs tweaking. "Constructive criticism is invaluable when you're perfecting your technique," she says. Make sure you join a group at the same level as you, or your confidence may suffer.
Also, look at the techniques of strong swimmers and approach them for tips after their workout.
If your commitments don't allow for regular coaching, you could enrol on a day or weekend session where a tutor will focus attention on your stroke. "These are great for your development as a swimmer," says Rudd. "The advice is also more likely to sink in: I still remember my coach's comments from 1996."
As you improve during this base-building phase, there are exercises you can try out of the pool that will help in all three disciplines. Work on your core strength with stomach and back exercises and stretches before and after training - whether you're running, cycling or swimming. This will help you become more aware of your core muscles while you are in the pool. Your stomach muscles need to be tight to keep you high in the water.
Gorman says you should also be working on your flexibility, in and out of the pool, with basic stretches. If you suffer from tense shoulders from cycling, try making triceps stretches part of your sessions. This will help you stay relaxed in your arms and hands, enabling you to keep your elbows high up through your stroke. You can also simulate wearing a wetsuit by putting a pull buoy under your body. This will lift your shoulders a little higher out of the water. Wearing a swim hat will also help keep you higher in the water for a more efficient stroke.
This is the week to work on your kick. If you have come to triathlon from cycling, your legs are likely to be heavier and more muscular than if you are a runner or swimmer. But heavy legs shouldn't put you at a disadvantage.
A strong leg kick should be part of your swimming arsenal and will help you to keep up with the pack. Just make sure you are working your legs at a pace that fits the length of your race."During an Ironman, it's not a good idea to thrash your legs on the swim as you have a big ride and run coming," says Rudd. "Remember that 60 per cent of the oxygen you take in goes to your big leg muscles, but 80 per cent of your propulsion comes from your arms."
Try some basic pool exercises to strengthen your muscles, such as using a float to practise front-crawl leg-kicks. Hold the float out in front of you, keep your upper body relaxed and just use your legs to swim. It can be hard going at first, so begin with one length using the float, building to four in the session. "Kick from your hips, not your knees," says Gorman.
Flexible ankles are essential for the swim so spend some time sitting on your lower legs with your ankles stretched out under you, with the front of your feet pushing into the floor. You can also try using short fin flippers once a week to work your quads, increase your flexibility and your awareness of your kick.
If you're targeting an open-water race, you should prepare for this in training. You're less likely to be nervous if you aim to swim one of your three weekly sessions in open water, with a group of triathletes if possible. Remind yourself that the water may be cold and choppy at the start of a triathlon, but that these sessions will prepare you for crowded and competitive conditions, with the result that when race day arrives you'll be calm and composed.
In week five, evaluate your progress. Incorporate another time trial into your first session of the week to find out how much you have improved over 400m and use this information to set your next training goal. Whatever your target, remember to work on adjusting your stroke one change at time, or you may forget to breathe properly.
Using your time-trial results, concentrate on building your speed. Break up your session into a 150m warm-up, drills, speed set, endurance set and warm down. For the drill set you could, for example, practise length efficiency by using two or three strokes less than average in a length. Think about stretching out fully and applying power to your pull, and keep your strokes long. For the speed set, try a 12.5m sprint. Start by treading water in the deep end - this is good preparation for the open water.
Do your speed set before your endurance set as you will be fresher, and once you're into your endurance set you will be swimming faster, having already developed a feel for the water. Maintain your speed over, say, 750m, working at an aerobic pace and keeping your heart rate between 140 and 160bpm.
Don't be tempted to become lazy with your sessions this week: your body will have become stronger and more efficient in the past few weeks so now is the time to push it to the next level to maximise your ability and speed. For the warm-down, try 200m of backstroke. This uses the opposite muscles to front crawl; it helps stretch out the shoulders and open up the chest.
If you find you hit a plateau when you're working on your speed, don't be deterred, because all your training from this point will help you improve your efficiency in the water. "At the beginning of your training your speed will increase dramatically, but this will plateau," says Rudd. "Persevere by making small adjustments to your stroke as these efficiency improvements will help you shave seconds off your times. Don't get dispirited with small changes in your time because you are still getting better."
Focus on your technique, keeping in mind the long stroke. This is a time for fine-tuning, not for introducing something new to your sessions.
When it comes to the race, don't simply follow the person in front of you. In training, practise looking up and forward every six to eight strokes, looking for a marker or water bottle at the edge of the pool. Practise looking quickly because when you raise your head, your hips fall and act as a brake.
Instead of starting off fast at the front and fading, pace yourself. Gorman recommends starting at the back with a plan to overtake other swimmers. As well as giving you a confidence boost as you pass other triathletes, you'll have enough energy to kick a little harder towards the end to warm up your legs for the bike section.
Week six should also be when you taper before the race. Stay relaxed and positive. Remember that you are aiming to get out of the water with a good time, but you don't want to become so exhausted by the swim that you have little energy left for the ride and run. "Above all, focus on your own race and don't be distracted by what others are doing," says Gorman.
It's worth remembering another Popov gem: "You don't have to fight with the water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move." Follow this six-week plan and start making friends with water right now.