Swim training for triathlon is extremely interesting – yes, I do have some issues. For me, it is a never ending and intriguing battle between technique, frequency and volume.
What I find even more interesting is the approach the vast majority of age-groupers take with their swim training. There has been a shift over the past twenty years away from the core swimming sessions that have always worked. It seems that while our bike and run training has become more and more specific we are trying to use the same logic with swimming …and it is not working.
Swimming will respond far better and quicker to the golf style of
training – i.e. if you want to improve your golf playing yet another 18 holes will make your game actually deteriorate. Instead golfers wanting to improve will spend hours at the driving range, the putting green and chipping practice. Improving technique works in every situation, every single time.
Lucy Charles is a former Olympic swimmer and the current Hawaii Ironman swim course record holder. Her first observation when asked about swimming with triathletes is “they should spend some time working on their catch”. Sam Pictor started his professional triathlon career swimming 100m repeats in about 2min. In a little over a year he dropped his 100m repeat time to 1:10min. This swim improvement lead to his recent Outlaw Half Ironman pro win. To improve fast he recommends getting AWAY from the squads and start to relax and breathe when you swim.
I will come back to Lucy and Sam’s tips later.
Many friends and training buddies assume I come from a swimming background, with school squad sessions three times per week and the like. This is definitely not the case. I grew up in regional NSW and swam with mates in the Lachlan River and then later in Lake Eraring. In the 1970’s the Eraring Power Station let the warm used water flow straight into the lake with minimal treatment, it was still fluoro green and explains quite a lot. Anyway the point is I swam to cool off and for fun and certainly no competitive or formal swim training.
I did my first three Ironman’s in 1997, 1999 and 2001. This was the first time that I started formal swim training and attended swim squads two or three mornings per week. I swam big volumes in these sessions. My swim improved from 1:15hrs to 1:07hrs and 1:05hrs in those first four or five years. Not exactly huge gains.
My ‘second’ comeback of 2005-06 (read about the other comebacks here) was the busiest time for me professionally. Long hours at work effectively ruled out 5.30am and 6pm swim squads. So I started to read and research the best way to improve my swimming using the time I had available. What I discovered changed the way I not only swam but the way I trained the bike and the run as well.
When I say “I discovered” what I mean is that every top level, elite and high performing coach was already delivering to their athletes, but I was just finding out about it? From ‘discovery’ I then tried and tested the sessions, then refined and implemented the new swim structure. By new swim structure I mean I was doing what top level athletes were already doing but slightly altered to fit a busy work, family, social life (i.e. not a pro-life). During this time Seac Studio Coach Extraordinaire, Jason Shortis was great working through these sessions.
In every Ironman since 2010 I have swum between 53mins and 55mins (except 1:04hr in Hawaii). The crazy part is that for each of these Ironman preparations I swam about half the volume and time of my first three Ironman’s. So what changed? What are these secret sessions?
These are the lessons I learnt during this process. If I knew these lessons it would have saved a lot of time, sweat, money and frustration.
It’s talked about a lot but most triathletes have no idea what it really means and definitely don’t know how to affect a strong catch. More importantly they don’t know how to fix their catch. “The more water you can catch, the faster your will move through the water” – Lucy Charles (Ironman World Championship swim course record holder).
The only way to improve catch is to use the old school tried and tested swim drills. Lucy Charles and Jason Shortis both recommend the “doggy-paddle” as well as several others. Front “skull” is by far the best of all the drills, but the problem is that until you can feel the water the skull doesn’t really make any sense.
This sounds pretty straight forward but is actually one of the hardest swim techniques to master. Those that can breathe easy will be better swimmers. The good news is that learning to breathe will lead to better technique and a faster swim.
So some very simple and effective breathing techniques can have a huge impact on your swimming. Sam Pictor recommends swimming less with a squad and letting yourself swim relaxed (yes, even slowing down). In a squad the focus is on the swimmer in front and behind and the repeat time, etc. Slowing down a little and relaxing will let you concentrate on breathing. A simple que is to remember if your head is under the water to breathe. Sounds straight forward until you think about it and look at what you are doing (under water).
Sam says “holding your breath creates tension in your upper body and restricts arm movement” hence poor technique and slower swimming. Sam recommends the “sinking ball” drill. Lucy Charles also recommends bilateral breathing as often as possible. If it’s not your natural stroke, then use it during your warm up and warm down and easy sets is a good option.
Little & Often
“As an adult new to swimming and not having years of childhood swimming under my belt I learnt quickly that swimming a little, often was the way to improve” – Sam Pictor. I agree completely, anyone following my Strava will see heaps of 400m, 800m and 1k swims. Surf Ironman and Triathlon legend Spot Anderson’s best advice and my general aim is to not go two days without swimming – even if it is just a splash in the surf with the kids.
Structured sessions make the most of the limited swim time you have to swim. No, 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100m with 15sec rest is not a structured session.
The session should have a purpose. Each session should take into consideration where it sits in your weekly schedule and how fatigued you will be at the start of the session. There are many ways to slice and dice a session but understanding your repeat times and hold times is imperative. Holding a repeat time is where you see improvements.
Learn to read the clock
This is a much bigger value-add than most non-swimmers can understand. Next time you are at your local Olympic pool watch to see the swimmers reading the clock and compare them to the swimmers clicking their chunky watches at the start and end of each lap. You will see very quickly the clock readers are much better swimmers. This is not by accident.
Knowing how to read the clock and basing your session on the clock times teaches you so much more than just simple maths. In fact it ties together relaxing with structure and teaches you very quickly when your pace and times are even a second or two off.
This is sometimes a little strange for triathletes, but hard flat-out swimming with long recoveries is just as important as long endurance swimming (with short recoveries). Always include hard 25’s, 50’s and 100’s in your program. Even if you usually swim around 2min/100m spending time swimming 25m as fast as you can will deliver results – be sure to give yourself a long recovery between each. It will look slow when you post it on your favourite socials, but it will work.
Lucy, Sam, Shorto, Spot, Vlad, and every other swim and triathlon
(Coach Jason Shortis explaining correct technique)
coach …ever will say that drills work. They work every time for every athlete and they work fast. Yet, many athletes ignore the call for more drill work and instead punch-out as many k’s as possible in the time they have. The bigger problem is that those that do the drills will more than likely be doing them wrong. Not doing them and doing them wrong will have the same zero effect.
This is precisely why SEAC Studio runs our Drill Master Class every Saturday. This is a small class designed to teach the correct form for the specific drills you need to improve your swim. Come along and see what it’s about for yourself.
We also provide video feedback to help with your proprioception when you are in the water.
Put a little effort into these concepts and you will be swimming faster with less time in the pool. Even better is that now you will be getting into T1 with faster cyclists which means your cycling will be faster with less effort. This will leave your legs ready to run the house down. So a little focus on the swim leads to some pretty dramatic race improvements.
Remember, spend a little time and relax in the water, let your lungs breathe, the tightness will disappear and your catch will improve. Swim often with structure and don’t forget to swim fast. Then all that’s left is to treat your swimming like golf and focus on the technique and the drills.
Check out the full interviews with Lucy Charles and Sam Pictor on GTN here: