As a coach, my eyes were opened this past weekend with the results of several of our athletes at Ironman Florida. When looking at the title of this blog it would appear obvious that swimming is a critical part in any triathlon plan. However, what often happens (and mostly for good reasons) is that athletes start to focus on their bike and run far before their swim. After all, athletes doing long distance triathlon can make up much more time overall by having a strong bike or strong run as compared to a strong swim. Even with that being so, our athletes at Ironman Florida this past weekend went in with swim confidence which I believe resulted in great performances from everyone there. So while there is more time to be made up on the bike and run for long distance triathlon, swimming is what sets up the entire day and therefore should never be neglected. Here is what can happen from a strong swim.
Less Time in The Water
As triathletes train more for the swim, they tend to get faster. The faster they get in the water, the quicker they exit the water and head into transition. While this seems obvious, what many people neglect is the actual amount of stress put on the athlete by how long it takes them in the water. An athlete that swims under 1 hour in an ironman may actually have less stress on their body than an athlete swimming a 1:30 even if the 1 hour athlete is working harder. By swimming more in training and exiting the water faster, you are limiting the amount of stress on your body initially and therefore setting up your bike/run to be a bit more fresh. For those athletes that are in the water for over 1:40 in an Ironman, regardless of how easy you take it, you’re going to be coming out more fatigued than you would if you were a better swimmer with more effort and it will affect your bike/run throughout the day. So, the first point of this blog is the more we train in the water, the faster we can push the pace and come out of the water in a good position to set up the rest of the day.
While there is no tangible metric to put on this point, I want to show how important swim confidence can be. When you enter a swim with confidence (regardless if you swim a 50 minute or 1:30 at Ironman), you feel as if you are executing the plan and your body is capable of the performance. We all know that our mind will give out long before our bodies. Knowing this, as athletes get in the pool or swim in open water, their confidence tends to increase. This athlete that is confident in swimming a 1:10-1:15 knows that they can hit these numbers and have a successful day. The more confidence you can carry throughout the day at Ironman the better you will perform. When things get tough, you know you can push through and your body will be ready to handle the difficult times. This is an unmeasurable factor in how your race will play out, and it comes from more time swimming. Athletes that fear the swim rarely ever have great days. Yes, they can finish the Ironman, but not nearly as fast as they could have with proper swim training and confidence regarding this discipline.
Swimming Sets up Your Finish
From age groupers to pro’s, if you are giving away serious time in the water then you will never be able to make it all up on the bike/run. You may be very good at the bike/run portion, but you’ll never be as fast as you could be if you were stronger in the water. While you can buy a fast bike and you can love the way it looks, you’ll only ever be able to ride it fast if you are starting the bike fresh. Therefore, even if the bike is your strength, you still need to start with your strength in tact and not jeopardized due to having tired legs/low on nutrition due to a long fatiguing swim. Further, the bike will set up your run. If your bike is your strength but now you’re trying to make up time on tired legs, you’ll probably over-bike and turn the run into a death march. Again, this all comes from the swim. So, while you may have the nicest bike in transition, and you may have the fastest individual time trial out of anyone there, you still have to look that 2.4 mile swim in the face and get through it with limited stress. For the athletes looking to do exceptionally well, if you haven’t put in the swim training then you’ll be starting the bike fatigued and will be giving away your strength and destroying your race. No amount of money can save you from a slow swim.
Every athlete depends. Some athletes who are in this sport for multiple years (hopefully all of them) may be in a bike or run build for overall development. There is a time and place for all of these. However, when you are ready for a peak performance and to truly test your limits, its all going to start with the swim. By neglecting your swim you are taking away your strength whether its the bike or run. I would urge anyone with a strong bike/run to try getting in the pool an extra day a week to start and slowly work on building volume. After all, triathlon is swim/bike/run and should be treated as such.
Disclaimer: This is a generalized concept meant to be taken as such. If you are an athlete with low hanging fruit in the bike or run, then it would serve you to focus on those for long periods of time. Same can be said for the swim. It is up to each individual athlete to talk with their coach to understand the best training practices for them at this given time.