Myth of Triathlon Swimming: The Cost of the Kona Swim

by SwimSwam Contributors 23

January 09th, 2019 Training

Courtesy: Tim Floyd

The old wisdom within the triathlon community is the investment in the swim is not worth the return.  Total training time is better spent focusing on improving the bike and run.  As a swim coach of triathletes, I hear this repeated frequently from professional and age group triathletes and triathlon coaches.  Long time professional triathlete Balazs Csoke, who is typically first out of the water, agrees that since he has been in the sport coaches have always told him , “you get through the swim and on to the bike to crush big gear.” Athletes and coaches who want to improve against their competition always look for areas of opportunity that are overlooked. All aspects of training and racing need to be challenged, especially long held “wisdom” within a community.  As triathlon and Ironman matured, the competition and the dynamics of the race changed.  The old wisdom is failing.  With that in mind, I enlisted the help of Thorsten Radde of TriRating.com to sort through the data.

The first question we asked was what is the impact of the swim on the overall race?  The swim is traditionally only 10% of the total time of an Ironman competition so does it have any significant influence on the overall result.  Thorsten analyzed the top ten best swim times and compared them to the swim time of the winner.  The trend is that the overall winner was within two minutes of the average top ten best swim times.

There were only two exceptions since 2005: Sebastian Kienle in 2014 and Patrick Lange in 2018 who both had the fastest “on-land race” by about eight minutes.  If we look at placing on the podium (top 3 overall) for men, again, there have been very few athletes in the last ten years that have made the podium and were more than three minutes down on the swim, most notably Sebastian Kienle (2013, ‘14 and ‘16), Lionel Sanders (2017) and Bart Aernouts (2018).  If you are looking to make the top 10, then on the men’s side don’t lose more than four to five minutes on the swim.

There have been a few exceptions, most of them from the races in 2017 and 2018 when packs of slower swimmers had a chance to catch up on the bike.  Also, in 2018 the conditions in the water were ideal and an unusual strategy from the dominant male pro swimmer, Josh Amberger, contributed to a large pack forming which allowed traditionally slower swimmers to draft longer and not get dropped.  Coach Pat Green of Green Multi-Sport, a regular spectator at Kona, described the conditions as “flat, calm seas with almost zero ebb or flow.”

For the women, the data paints a similar picture.  If you are more than ten minutes off the pace in the swim, you can forget about the top ten in Kona.  There are exceptions, the most recent was Sarah Piampiano in 2015, but like the men there needs to be an exceptional performance on the land – think fastest overall bike or run.

A casual look at the results for age groupers and my own experience with a handful of athletes is telling a similar story.  As Ironman offers less slots at races to qualify for Kona and as the competition increases, many athletes are losing out on Kona qualifications due to poor swim times.

The second question was why is the “old wisdom” failing?  The depth of competition has increased.  If an athlete needs to be within two minutes on a 2.4 mile swim to make the podium regardless of your performance on the bike and run when the total race is typically longer than 8 hours, athletes  .  The athletes at the highest levels of the sport are triathletes.  They aren’t great in just one leg of the race.  They are exceptionally competitive in all three legs and are in the race from the start.  The 2015 and 2016 World Champion, Jan Frodeno, has not put up the fastest split in any of the disciplines in either of his wins.  He has been the top four or better in each leg. ITU athletes and former swimmers are changing the dynamics of the race.  In 2016, half of the top ten athletes started out as ITU athletes (triathletes competing at the Olympic distance) where the swim is even more impactful on overall place, or were former NCAA D1 swimmers.  In 2015, seven of the top ten athletes competed in ITU or were former NCAA D1 swimmers.

The final question was what is holding back the competitive cyclist/runner from the podium or top ten at Kona?  When strongly held beliefs are challenged people find creative ways to continue to justify their original position.  This “cognitive dissonance” is the biggest obstacle to most  cyclist and runners achieving their full potential in a three sport event as a triathlete.  Change is difficult.  Also, in my experience, there is a large misunderstanding within the triathlon community about the training necessary to swim within two minutes of the front for the men and within six minutes for the women.  Many of the front pack swimmers trained ten years or more in the swim, twice a day, four hours a day and upwards of 60,000 yards/meters a week.  They also started training in the swim at a very young age.  This does not mean that all is lost for the adult onset swimmer pro or age grouper.  However, five to six hours a week of swim training for the pro triathlete without a swim background will not cut it.  In fact, adding more swim training on top of already over-trained athletes from the bike and run will be a difficult recipe for improvement. Many professional triathletes from non-swim backgrounds feel that a couple months of 40k a week is a serious commitment to the swim.  They found they made gains but weren’t able to keep them over the long run.  Their conclusion was the investment isn’t worth it. In my experience, that isn’t a long enough commitment to the swim to make the gains necessary to compete at the highest levels of the sport.

While the wisdom holds true that you cannot win a triathlon in the swim, an athlete can very easily lose it in the swim.  For the strong cyclist/runner with a weaker swim, the questions is no longer if the investment in the swim is worth it, but can you afford not to make it.

About Tim Floyd

Tim Floyd, swim coach and former NCAA Div I swimmer, founded Magnolia Masters in 2010 to specifically help triathletes improve in pool competitions and open water swimming. He is also the founder of the podcast Coffee, Beer, Coaching and Dogs. You can find more information about Magnolia Masters and the podcast here (www.magnoliamasters.com) and here (www.cbcdmedia.com).

About Thorsten Radde

Thorsten Radde is fascinated by Professional long-distance Triathlon and runs TriRating.com (include link to site if possible). Before each IM-distance race he posts seedings based on athlete’s previous results, and after the race he analyzes the athlete’s performances in addition to in-depth analysis and opinion pieces on Ironman racing. He also follows Kona Pro Qualifying and profiles professional athletes. Before Kona and at the end of the year he publishes “Rating Reports” with lots of data and analysis. Follow @ThRadde (https://twitter.com/ThRadde) on Twitter.

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Bill Cox
2 years ago

Well said. Have swum competitively for 50 years, Triathlon for 35. I help triathletes regularly, and am amused at the thought that the legs don’t matter in the swim. A strong kick helps you swim straighter and conserves momentum during the recovering part of the stroke. Not to mention that the best swimmers have a motor behind them when they swim.

CraigH
2 years ago

That old wisdom makes more sense with regard to Ironman and age group non-draft races. For my friends who are professional Triathletes, they tell me that a strong swim is extremely important if you want to be competitive in the draft-legal races. If you are not with the lead pack coming out of the water, you have next to no chance to catch up to them on the bike.

Olof
Reply to  CraigH
2 years ago

Didn’t the writers miss out on some counter argument from the 2018 womens race? Daniela was a bit more than 9 minutes behind Lucy after the swim, but more than 10 minutes in front at the finish line. I.e. a lot can be done by the right biker/runner even if someone is way behind in swimming. Daniela would (if not hit by the jellyfish) still won with minutes in total even without swim training for a year. Yes, rare, but why not even not mention it (for a fare article)?

Tim Floyd
Reply to  Olof
2 years ago

The women’s race isn’t as deep and competitive as the men’s race yet, but it is moving in that direction. And the glaring reality of Daniela’s ride was that on the back half of the bike she had faster splits than all but about 3 male professionals. So she was able to go faster than the majority of the male professional Ironman triathletes.

Tim Floyd
Reply to  CraigH
2 years ago

It’s moving in the same direction for age group athletes who want to qualify in Kona and definitely for age group athletes who want to podium at Kona, You can’t have any weak legs.

cbswims
2 years ago

This so many times over. trying to convince people to kick and properly train their kick is one brutal granny gearing climb up hill…

Dan
2 years ago

If I read the graph correctly, 10 out of the 14 winners were within 1 min of the average for the 10 fastest swimmers.
This statistics helps to promote the swimming amongst triathletes, but how would the statistics be for someone that is focusing more on bike/run? Ex. How many of the athletes that were within 5 min of the average on the swim did not finish in the Top both in numbers and percentage?

Is there statistics for and against the swimming for the 40+ age groupers as well? As more people continue to do this event I am guessing that the swimming will start to play a bigger role in the future as well.

Tim Floyd
Reply to  Dan
2 years ago

Thorsten doesn’t keep any data on Age Groupers so all the data we analyzed was for professional triathlete at Kona. In my experience working with AGers, the swim is becoming a determining factor in Kona qualification. It’s certainly not as heavily weighted as it is with the pros, but it is moving in the direction that you have to be a competitive triathlete and not a duathlete who got wet.

SwimDad
2 years ago

Really can not figure out why some commentators see this article as validating the idea that a triathlete needs a “strong” kick. Kicking is not referenced in the article.

Taa
Reply to  SwimDad
2 years ago

Most triathletes rely on their wetsuit for buoyancy instead of learning to kick properly. Kona doesn’t allow wetsuits so you better learn to kick or you are suddenly swimming 5 minutes slower than your previous wetsuit swims.

oldschool
Reply to  Taa
2 years ago

Actually, as a currently broken FOP age grouper I advocate for very little kick, but an emphasis on stroke efficiency and body position. NOTHING is to be gained by adding additional strain on already in for a long day legs… (question – has anyone done a study to examine kick rate relationship to run cramping…?) but everything is to be gained by finding the sweet spot of maximum speed for acceptable effort. And I would like to see some concrete numbers as to whether age group overall results (especially in half and full) follow the pro trend the author cited. I do think that to truly be a FOP age grouper one cannot have an abjectly weak leg, but if… Read more »

StrokeDoc
Reply to  oldschool
2 years ago

Agreed. Making time to transform old, tight ankles into anything resembling a propulsive kick on the time constraints of any triathlete–pro or weekend warrior–is a fool’s errand. Any minute this crowd spends on a kickboard is a squandered opportunity they could have used to do something that would actually benefit their swim. For what it’s worth, Shirley Babashoff anchored the ’76 400 free relay to gold/world record in 55 seconds with a 2-beat kick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GipVOuPG50

Tim Floyd
Reply to  StrokeDoc
2 years ago

I have had a different experience working with triathletes on improving the kick. I’m not talking about anything more than a 2 beat kick, but it needs to efficient.

Coachchris
Reply to  Taa
2 years ago

Body position and head position determine buoyancy. If you have to kick more than an ankle flutter to be level just hang up the goggles or only swim the 50s at a masters meet.

CoachChris
2 years ago

Swim allows triathletes to build larger aerobic and anaerobic engines without doing more damage to their legs. They also teach their bodies to recover in 10-20 sec which is the typical rest interval for most swim training. Meaning they can actually recover between big efforts on the bike faster. I truly believe when tapering the aerobic swims are the last thing to be decreased and should be increased when you are trying to train power on land leading up to a big race to help recovery and maintain aerobic fitness.

Tim Floyd
Reply to  CoachChris
2 years ago

I have had a lot of athletes with extensive run backgrounds comment over the years that swimming actually helped their running.

Eddie Rowe
Reply to  Tim Floyd
2 years ago

Swimming and Running are a great combo. Swimming helps keep your hips loose to run without injury, and running helps keep your low back strong to help swim without injury. The complementary core work in each is invaluable.

Mac
2 years ago

Nice article. One point I’d like to add – if you are in great swim shape, you get out of the water and feel like you’ve done nothing.
Your bike & run will be so much better. It’s very difficult to quantify how much you really get out of all that swim training. You may only see a small improvement in your swim time, but the real gains will be made on the bike & run.

Tim Floyd
Reply to  Mac
2 years ago

Couldn’t agree more. That’s why we wrote the article. And you can quantify it. If you aren’t in swim shape, as a pro, you won’t podium or place in the top 10 at Kona.

Eddie Rowe
Reply to  Mac
2 years ago

Particularly true in sprint triathlon – and especially in pool-swim sprints. There’s simply not enough time to get a lead, but a swimmer can cruise it, be in the top 10 or fewer and have not really spent anything whereas others are going to hurt even after a 300 free.

Rob Sleamaker
Reply to  Mac
2 years ago

Mac, you make an excellent point and that is exactly why maintaining consistent, quality swim training is so valuable. Time-crunched triathletes must sort out the importance vs viability of doing the swim training in water relative to their personal strengths, weaknesses and life circumstances. In many cases, it makes the most sense to do a portion of that swim training out of the water and on land with an effective indoor swim trainer like a Vasa SwimErg or Vasa Trainer. There are many athletes who have executed on such a plan with great results in their triathlon swims, yielding similar gains on the bike and run as you suggest.

Amy
2 years ago

I’m confused about what the final suggestion is. In the second to last paragraph, you say 5-6 hours a week of swimming will not cut it, but more than that is a difficult recipe for improvement. Then you say that a few months of 40K a week isn’t a long enough commitment. Are you saying that athletes without a swimming background don’t stand a chance unless they take off 10 years and swim 60K a week?

Tim Floyd
Reply to  Amy
2 years ago

Amy – thanks for the question. Professional triathletes generally over-train and race too much. Unless they are willing to make the swim a priority, if that is their weak link in the race, then they will find it difficult to improve. The training load on the bike and run that will still allow them to improve their swim will vary from athlete to athlete. In my experience, the swim is the first of the three disciplines, especially for an athlete without a swim background, to cease making gains when the athlete gets fatigued. So if the swim is a priority, they would re-balance what they are doing on the bike and run to allow for the improvement in the swim… Read more »