Saturday, January 25, 2020

Why triathletes are poor swimmers – Part One

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I recently conducted a Twitter poll which seemed to confirm a widely-held view that as triathletes, we consider our worst discipline to be swimming (for the record, I chose running, but then unlike many triathletes, I don’t come from a running background).

Of the 78 people that responded to my survey, 51% chose swimming as their weakest of the triathlon sports, compared to 24% for running and 22% for cycling (well done to the 3% who declared themselves ‘superb at all three’!).  But why is it that triathletes struggle with swimming?

In this article, I’d like to explore three angles: 1) where triathletes come from; 2) why swimming is alien to most of us; 3) the challenges of swim training.

Where triathletes come from

Although I didn’t include this as part of the poll, I think it’s fair to say that most people come into the world of triathlon with a pre-determined preference for one of the three sports - and I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of competitors come from a running or cycling background, often with very limited swimming experience.  Personally, I’d say that when I started triathlon, I was an above-average swimmer (I swam on the school team and played water polo), an average cyclist and a below-average runner.

With my competitive swim background, I was already more comfortable in the water than many others – and so it was natural for me to spend more time in the pool than someone who perhaps is not already a strong(ish) swimmer.  I think the reverse applies to someone coming into triathlon from a strong running or cycling background.  Their mindsets are already set into a particular training pattern and it can be difficult to shift this.

This is where it's important to have a strong desire to work on weaknesses, rather than prioritise on enhancing existing strengths.

Why swimming is alien
Andy Bullock, a triathlon coach who runs Endurance Coaching, has this insight into people’s aversion to swim training: “The movement patterns for swimming are very different to everyday life.  Whereas running is a natural extension of walking or jogging; swimming is a movement like no other.  This means a greater time, and concentration need to be spent practising the skills and technique of swimming than running; almost like you did when learning to walk.”

I’d also add that for many people there is a real fear of the water.  After all, you can breathe as hard and fast as you want to on the run or cycle – but unless you’re swimming with your head out of the water, you are restricted in your ability to breathe when swimming.  I also know others who have no issues with swimming in a pool, but who freak out at the idea of open water swimming, with its variety of aquatic life and less-than-crystal clear water.

Kim Ingleby, GB Sports Performance Coach and head coach at Energised Performance advises those uncomfortable with swimming to practice these psychological exercises prior to swimming:  “Spend some time the night before writing down a mind map of how you would like your training to go and then write down any areas that are concerning you – combined with a solution next to them. Choose up to four qualities you would like to have to swim with confidence – common ones chosen by clients are calm, confidence, focus, strength, and power but choose what works for you – note down all the times you have felt these and then use them as a mantra when swimming.”

Although as triathletes we have a tendency to train alone, Nathan Veldhoen advises finding others with a similar training need to help improve motivation to get swimming: “Finding a friend that is in the same spot and speed always helps too, getting out and joining a masters program makes that step a lot easier.  Sharing and talking about the workouts after gains some helpful confidence because there is always someone in a group that feels the same as you.”

The challenges of swim training

Not that I want to give you any extra excuses not to train, but it’s general true that there are more challenges to effective swim training than cycling or running.  You can’t just step out of the door and swim, for example.  Well, not unless you’re very lucky or rich, anyway!

You need to find a pool, contend with whoever else might be sharing the lane that day etc. etc.  But these are just part and parcel of swim training – nothing you can do expect grin and bear it.

But if you need extra motivation to get into the water, consider the following.  While it’s generally true that the swim portion of any triathlon is the shortest part of the race – and therefore some would argue (with some logic) that it’s right that you don’t prioritise on swim training – it’s also true that while the race is never won in the water, it can be lost if you come out significantly behind your rivals.  

Andy Bullock again: “At sea level water has a density approximately 800 times greater than air.  When running the odd flailing may appear to have a minimal effect however, when swimming limbs out of place can have a dramatic effect which is often seen on the stopwatch; the water takes no prisoners!  The aim therefore, when swimming should be to reduce drag, increase propulsion all to improve efficiency.”

That’s something that can be difficult to address without some professional coaching and advice.  Although I would describe myself as an above average swimmer, I also know through working with Andy Bullock that my kick is far from perfect – what feels natural to me is actually causing drag and therefore I’m not as efficient in the water as I need to be.  I’d struggle to fix this just by reading books (or internet blog posts!) but working with Andy he can see what my kick is doing and offer me advice on how I should ‘feel’ in the water.

One final challenge of swim training that I encounter regularly myself is boredom. Swimming a 1,500m set in a 25m pool can be a disheartening experience!  That’s one reason why personally I like to get out of the pool and into the swimming lakes at the earliest opportunity; but another way to try to enjoy swimming more is to have a solid swim plan for each session which offers a number of different challenges to keep your mind active.


So, there are any number of reasons why triathletes might consider themselves (relatively) poor swimmers, but there are also very good reasons why you shouldn’t feel that way.  The chances are that even if you don’t consider yourself a strong swimmer, you’re probably much better than you’re giving yourself credit for! But you can always be better...

In part two of this blog article (due next week), I’ll be sharing some training advice for improving the productivity of your swim training as well as overcoming any latent fears you might have, especially when it comes to open water swimming.

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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs