Triathlon Training - Swimming

Jump in at the deep end with our lowdown on swim training and how it can help your running


Posted: 19 June 2006

Swimming is perhaps the perfect athletic complement to running because the two sports are so different. "Just about everything about swimming is exactly the opposite from running in terms of stresses on the body," says Joe Friel, a runner-turned-triathlete and the author of The Triathlete's Training Bible (VeloPress, 2004). "Swimming tends to stretch you out, whereas running tends to compress you." Running, of course, is a high-impact, primarily lower-body activity, while swimming is a full-body activity that's both non-impact and non-weight-bearing.

As a less natural and more technique-dependent sport than running, swimming requires a different training approach. "The key for runners who start to swim is to harness technique rather than energy," says Steven Shaw, the author of Master the Art of Swimming (Collins & Brown, 2006). "People often make the mistake of trying to build up their endurance straight away, but they need a technical foundation first because the most efficient swimmers take the fewest strokes. In running, the opposite is true."

Different strokes

There are a number of ways to swim, of course, but unless you're the Olympian Michael Phelps, you'll be swimming freestyle (sometimes called front crawl). While proper freestyle technique is relatively simple compared with the butterfly, almost all beginning triathletes need feedback on their stroke from a knowledgeable observer. Find a friend who is a good swimmer, or a local swimming coach, and ask if they would look at your stroke. One or two tips from a keen observer will save you weeks of struggling on your own.

Experts also advise beginning swimmers to forget about speed. "If you're competing in a triathlon, you can't afford to use your legs too much in the swim because you'll need them for the bike and run," warns Shaw. "Reduce the pace of your kick and drive the stroke with your arms." Instead of trying to cross the pool faster, count your strokes per length and try to reduce the number.

Running involves sustained effort, but the key to efficient swimming is knowing at what point in the stroke to put in effort. "When your arm comes over the top of the stroke, don't throw it at the water as this actually produces a breaking force," explains Shaw. "Instead harness your energy when your arm is under the water and keep your hand relaxed and open." You may have been told as a child that closed fingers will propel you through the water at greater speed but new studies suggest that's not the case, and in fact makes you more likely to injure your shoulders.

Drills can also help you improve your swimming technique because they allow you to break down the freestyle stroke into parts, so you can focus on improving one or two aspects at a time. Shaw recommends practising different breathing positions to give you confidence for open-water swimming. "Extend one arm and kick on the side with your face almost in the water. If you know that you can adapt your breathing to cope with wind and waves, you'll be more confident in the water."

Pool your efforts

Whether you're serious about racing your first triathlon or you just want to do some cross-training in the pool, there are two types of swimming workouts that offer the most benefits for runners. The first is swimming laps, or endurance swimming, where you simply swim for a pre-determined amount of time or complete a designated distance at a moderate intensity. Lap swimming is a great form of active recovery after a hard run, while it also prepares you for the rigours of a triathlon's open-water swim by requiring you to swim for an extended period without rest.

Swim intervals are the second important workouts to include in triathlon training. A typical session would start with a few easy warm-up lengths, followed by some drills to improve your technique. For example, pick four drills and do 25 metres (typically one length) of each drill with a 10-second rest after each length. Next, do a set of higher-speed intervals to develop efficiency, such as swimming six times 50m a bit faster than your normal length-swimming pace with a 20-second rest after each 50m interval. Finally, cool down with a few more easy lengths.

Nearly all triathlon swims take place in open water and in a big crowd, which is very different from cruising along in your own lane with the black line on the bottom of the pool to guide you. So all beginning triathletes need to learn to swim in crowded, rough conditions.

To build this confidence you need to experience a little contact with other swimmers while training. You can do this by gathering some friends and swimming together in a single pool lane. As you become more comfortable swimming in traffic, increase the contact you have with the other swimmers by intentionally swimming over the top of each other's legs, which is a common occurrence in triathlon swims.

It's also important to do some of your swimming in an open-water environment so you can become comfortable with the poor visibility, cooler water temperature, the need to "sight" (look ahead at a buoy or landmark every few strokes), and the lack of walls to push off (or rest on).

When choosing a training site, make sure it is a designated swimming area and always swim with at least one partner. Practise running into the water from the beach (if you're doing a beach triathlon), diving forward, and swimming hard for 30 seconds. Then turn around and practise swimming towards the shore or bank, and running or pulling yourself out of the water.

Get in the swim

1. Smear a small dab of baby shampoo on the inside of your swim goggle lenses to keep them from fogging up.

2. Swim fins help you learn a tight, efficient kick. Use short, stubby swim fins such as Aqua Sphere Micro Fins (£13; www.aquasphereuk.co.uk) which allow a more natural kick than big, floppy scuba fins.

3. Swim paddles are like fins for your hands. Use them occasionally to help you develop a correct, "high-elbow" arm pull. Paddles come in various sizes. Less experienced swimmers should use smaller paddles, which put less strain on the shoulders. Try Aqua Sphere (£6) hand paddles.

4. In the UK you'll need to wear a wetsuit for an outdoor swim. This should feel uncomfortably tight when it's dry as it will expand a little when you enter the water. If it's too big you'll collect water and the drag will slow you down. Tri UK offers wetsuit hire for the triathlon season (April-September) for £25. See www.triuk.com for more details.

On the pull
The five elements of proper freestyle technique:

Body position
The optimal body position is to float high in the water, as it minimises drag. Beginners tend to allow their hips and legs to sink. To avoid this error, concentrate on pushing your chest towards the bottom of the pool. This will naturally cause your hips and legs to rise.

Rotation
By rotating your entire body from side to side with each stroke, you swim more narrowly and can slice through the water with less drag. As you extend your leading arm ahead of you, rotate your body from the hips about 60 degrees towards the opposite side (as though you're reaching to pluck an item off a high shelf). Be sure to keep your neck and head neutral

Arm cycle
Your leading hand should pierce the water about a foot in front of your shoulder. Once you've reached full extension with your leading arm, rotate your shoulder and elbow so that your hand and forearm form a single "paddle" that pulls backward toward your feet. A proper pull feels as if you're reaching over a barrel. Be sure to pull all the way back until your arm is fully extended toward your foot. Your hand should exit the water next to your upper thigh. Your arms are always at opposite points of the arm cycle, so when one hand is entering the water, the other is leaving it

Kick
Kicking too hard creates more drag than it does propulsion, so swim with a tight, "flicking" kick that uses minimal energy. Kick twice with each leg for each stroke you make with your arms

Breathing
Turn your head to the side and inhale through your mouth when your leading arm reaches full extension, then turn your head towards the bottom of the pool and exhale forcefully. You can inhale on one side every second or fourth stroke, or on alternating sides every third stroke.


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