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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Tim Floyd, founder and coach of Magnolia Masters.
I heard repeatedly when I started to coach triathletes about 10 years ago that there was a difference between a swim coach and a “triathlon swim” coach. As a swim coach for almost 20 years before I started to work with triathletes, I quickly realized that there wasn’t a substantive difference between how swimmers and triathletes should train for races. With this article, I wanted to dispel some of the misunderstandings the triathlon community maintains about swim training and in particular the myth of triathlon swimming. Swimming is swimming. The main misconceptions by the triathlon community involve three separate aspects of swim training or technique. The first is the training loads of swimmers. The second is the physiological demands on a swimmer in a meet, specifically where a large majority of the events in competition are less than two minutes. Third, the idea that there is a substantive difference between a pool stroke and an “open water stroke” and the tempo range of successful distance swimmers.
The largest difference between swimmers and triathletes is the amount of time devoted to swim training. Elite level swimmers, on average, swim about 20 or more hours a week (65,000+ yards a week). According to professional Ironman triathlete and Boulder, Colorado based coach, Justin Daerr, long course pro triathletes typically allocate around 5-7 hours a week (20,000 – 30,000 yards a week) to swim training. In my experience working with close to 500 triathletes over the past 10 years, most age group triathletes swim about 2-4 hours a week (10,000 yards or less). The bottom line is triathletes do not swim enough for the distances they compete. Technique is important, but if an athlete doesn’t have the swimming specific fitness in the water to carry the technique through the race distance then overall efficiency and success will suffer. Triathletes in general over-emphasize technique and under-emphasize training. While you can’t separate out these two important factors for success in both the pool and open water, triathletes are largely limited by their fitness and time in the water for the race distance.
Second, the most common argument the triathlon community has about the difference between “triathlon swimming” and swim training is that in a swim meet the majority of events are less than two minutes in duration while the opening leg of a triathlon can be longer than an hour. This assumption about swimming reveals the misunderstanding the triathlon community has about swim training and racing. Swimmers in a meet don’t swim only one two minute event and then go home. For most swimmers at a championship meet, the program requires them to swim multiple events in preliminary and final heats in the same day sometimes over a 4 day competition. The physiological requirements to swim maximal efforts repeatedly over a short period of time requires a tremendous amount of training and aerobic capacity. The training isn’t designed for one two minute event. The racing requires the athlete to recover quickly from an all out effort and be able to repeat at that same level of effort and performance. Typically, with each event there is a substantial amount of warming up before each race and cooling down. In all, some distance swimmers will swim 20,000 yards over the course of a meet. Also, over the past 30 years, open water swimming has been contested at the World Championship level at the 5km, 10km and 25km distances. The most recent men’s winner of the European championships in the 25km race swam just under 5 hours and had an average pace of 1:11 per 100 meters. That pacing is the equivalent of swimming six and a half Ironman distance swims at an average pace of around 45 minutes per swim.
Third, the triathlon community believes there is a substantial difference between a pool stroke and an “open water stroke.” The belief being that with a large, group start with no lane lines the stroke needs to be high turnover with a straight arm recovery to overcome the jostling of the pack and a higher tempo to deal with chop and other conditions of the open water. A close examination of championship level open water swimmers shows their strokes largely mimic their strokes in the pool. One of the most recent examples was Ous Melloli’s win at the 2012 Olympic 10k and his 3rd place finish in the mile in the pool. A look at the videos of both events shows a remarkably similar stroke.
In regards to tempo, faster is not always better. Most swim coaches recognize tempo as a highly individualistic part of the stroke. Again, elite level open water swimmers demonstrate a wide range of tempos that have proven successful. Thomas Lurz, multi-year world champion in open water swimming swam with a very fast tempo of around 1.2 stroke cycles/second (100 strokes/min). Feery Wertman, Men’s Gold Medal 10k winner in Rio, swam with a tempo of around 2.0 stroke cycles/second (60 strokes/min). Through experience working with hundreds of triathletes and swimmers, relatively traditional approaches to swim training work well for elite level swimmers down through entry level triathletes. As with any athlete, an individual approach from an experienced and qualified coach works best.
Swim coaches are highly proficient in coaching an athlete in everything from the 50m free through the 25km open water swim and have developed the technical coaching skills over many years of experience standing on a pool deck working with swimmers. While there are many certified coaches, there is a difference between certified and qualified to be a swim coach.
About Tim Floyd
Tim Floyd is the founder and coach of Magnolia Masters. He has 25 years experience as a swim coach and 10 years working with triathletes. Tim started his swimming career at age 7 in Southern California, swam in high school at Churchill High School in San Antonio and finished his competitive swimming at SMU. In addition to Magnolia Masters, Tim is the founder and race director of the Snapping Tortuga open water swim series and the host of the podcast Coffee, Beer, Coaching and Dogs.