The Myth of Triathlon Swimming: Swimming is Swimming

by SwimSwam Contributors 46

September 10th, 2018 News, Training

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]

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.

 

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Rich
2 years ago

The myth about triathalon swimming is that triathalons involve swimming. Mandatory cut-off times for iron man: swim – 2:20, bike: 8:10, run: 6:30. Championship pace: swim: under 50 minutes, bike: about 4.5 hours, run: about 2:45. My guess is that the swimmers were absent when they chose how to balance the different disciplines.

Roll tide
Reply to  Rich
2 years ago

Agreed! It should be a 5 mile swim / 75 mile bike / 20 mile run. Much more equitable.

Swims2day
Reply to  Roll tide
2 years ago

My experience as a masters/college/club swim coach is that triathletes view swimming as something that is in the way of the real race of cycling and running. Most, with the exception of very few, only want to learn and train just enough to get through the swim. So “tempo”, “big yardage” and time in the pool learning better “stroke mechanics” has little space in their training.

Cobalt
Reply to  Roll tide
2 years ago

Yes ROLL TIDE, that is the correct %. 6 mile swim if wetsuits are allowed.

CraigH
Reply to  Rich
2 years ago

They should have put the swim at the end. Let it turn into a true survival-of-the-fittest for the non-swimmers.

Snappingt
Reply to  CraigH
2 years ago

They did that format for a while until they had some people drown in races…

Reilly
Reply to  Rich
2 years ago

I have always believed that they should take an elite open water swimmer, an elite road bike, and an elite distance runner, have them go for 1.5 hours and base the distances off of that. Then it would be a true 3 sport discipline.

Bo Swims
Reply to  Rich
2 years ago

The original Ironman combined 3 pre existing races… the Waikiki rough water swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race (a 2 day race) and the Honalulu marathon…

Dan
2 years ago

You nailed it! Especially the point that in general triathletes over emphasis technique over training. I would add to this gear and “toys”, triathletes LOVE gadgets!

CraigH
Reply to  Dan
2 years ago

I’m a washed up Masters swimmer these days, and I LOVE toys.

He whatever keeps me going, I guess.

Mac
2 years ago

Bravo! Swimming is..swimming. It’s crazy that most age group teams have kids 10-12 years old with very little strength able to outswim seasoned triathletes that can totally crush a 112 mile bike and then run a marathon (or even a 40k bike & 10k run!). Why? Because even at that age, they swim a LOT!

sane swim parent
2 years ago

My favorite–triathletes telling me they are not supposed to kick during the swim.

stoobie
Reply to  sane swim parent
2 years ago

Yeah, I hear that. Full disclosure; I am a former college swimmer who does tri’s and Tim has actually helped me get back into swimming masters.
Completely agree with that point, especially with how much more muscle density triathletes usually carry in their legs. I’ve found that even a nominal kick helps keep the body aligned – meaning their lower body from sinking. While wetsuits can mitigate that in a race, not all races allow them.

AfterShock
Reply to  sane swim parent
2 years ago

They probably meant they are not supposed to kick other swimmers during the swim.

Jason Tufts
Reply to  sane swim parent
1 year ago

Some truth to that, maybe. Kicking uses big muscles, and thus big energy and oxygen. Too much kick can burn you out of a long swim, but too little can result in bad body/hip position- making you swim “uphill.” My preference is kick just enough to keep good position and pace (kick is tied to stroke rate), then use what you got when you are getting close to the end. Good distance swimmers appear to barely kick at all until the final push. Probably the result of good mechanics and body position. I’m not a TRI guy, but I assume you might still want to take it easy on your kick at the end of swim leg since you have… Read more »

Daaaave
2 years ago

Kicking!

A couple weeks back it was my turn to run the masters workout, and a triplet of tri-guys showed up with their mesh bags. I told them we wouldn’t be using any of that stuff today, but that they should grab a board since warmup included a 200m kick w/ board (then later, 100 w/o). They almost couldn’t do it.

I get it, you have a wetsuit floating your legs, often in salt water–so why bother, especially when you need your legs later. But I ask tri-ers whether they can remember the last time they got an arm cramp in the water vs a leg cramp. Not to mention being able to go to your legs in short… Read more »

gary hall sr
2 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree, Tim. It kills me that triathletes will ride 200 miles per week on their bike and expect to sustain a 30 minute or longer swim on 3 hrs of training per week. Most triathletes have little or no kick, so higher stroke rate should help them. They simply don’t train enough (at higher stroke rate) to sustain it in the race. I can assure you that Ous and Feery,, at their slower stroke rates, are driving that speed with strong kicks.

Snappingt
Reply to  gary hall sr
2 years ago

Yep. I’ve been working with triathletes for a while and there are a lot of misconceptions that have stuck around in the community for a long time about how to best train for the swim. I’m just trying to do my part to help improve the quality of the training.

anonymous
Reply to  gary hall sr
2 years ago

Well, I might have converted an ex-triathlete to swimming in Tucson’s senior Olympics. We both worked part time and were in and out of the pool. This is my second comeback in swimming in the older years. Younger triathlete should probably do more yardage if they are in more competitive competitions. In masters lots of women can’t do 5,000 a day in their 60’s like Laurie Val because they did not reenter the sport in their 30’s and keep swimming on a regular basis. Sam does for tri.

Alex Martinek
Reply to  gary hall sr
2 years ago

I used to coach a 300 person triathlon club and raced as a professional in Xterras. The one thing I always told my triathletes, “don’t be a triathlete, be a swimmer, a cyclist and a runner.” The point being AG triathletes train like idiots (hate me I don’t care). It’s pure volume oriented basically who can create the biggest upper zone 2 with only zone 2 training. No specificity in anything.

The reason the ITU guys are creaming the traditional pro ironmen is because they trained the other sports like other pros train the other sports. They recover like a pro. Even if you work full time long easy days are a must and not time wasting.

Jan… Read more »

Duke
Reply to  Alex Martinek
2 years ago

In the sport since 1985 , came in as a runner, now at age 61 its about being healthy , with a Girlfriend as a cardio othro rehab RN with 25 yrs in , she see’s the damage, hips , knee’s and hearts . I dont care to train for a Ironman with any kind of speed work. I can swim 1:36 to 1:40 per 100 with a HR of 65% I don’t need to swim 10 to 15 seconds faster per 100 to damage the heart . That also applies to the bike and run. See you guys when I am in the 75 to 79 and look around and no one is there .

Caleb
Reply to  Duke
2 years ago

That makes no sense, you’re not damaging your heart with more training intensity; you’re strengthening it.

Duke
Reply to  Caleb
1 month ago

Sure ask Dave Scott about his condition of his heart .

bob
Reply to  Alex Martinek
1 year ago

Preach! Haha. Not to mention the benefits swimming carries over to the other disciplines; increased lung capacity and efficient use of oxygen, capillarity, and the super important and underrated, flexibility! Plus you might even even out those tan lines (in California anyway).

Kelvin
Reply to  bob
1 year ago

Yes, up to a point. May I refer you to the book titled “The Haywire Heart” which I’ve just finished reading? I believe it is a book which any endurance athlete who wishes to enjoy longevity in the sport should read. Duke does have a point about not going all out and how it might just protect the heart.

Cynic
2 years ago

Sorry, the metabolic needs for multiple 1-2 minute performances over several days (even including warm-up and warm-down) are totally different that those required for a single 1 hour race. While there is certainly a component of aerobic fitness necessary to maintain a peak level of performance over a 4 day meet, the anaerobic requirements that play a major role in the actual races are negligible for the type of performance required in a triathlon.

Coach Josh
Reply to  Cynic
2 years ago

Totally agree, Cynic. And while I understand the author’s point about devoting more time to swimming (in the pool training), if they do that at the expense of technique they are spinning their wheels and wasting time grinding out yardage the with the wrong form. After working with many triathletes myself, technique is by far the number 1 barrier and the issue that needs to be addressed before anything else.

DLSwim
Reply to  Coach Josh
2 years ago

Coach Josh, there is no way you can get great technique in swimming without swimming A LOT. In swimming, technique and fitness are intertwined. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts.

Jason
Reply to  Coach Josh
1 year ago

DLSWIM got it. Technique and fitness are the same thing. You need a certain level of fitness to even get your body to try improving form. And you cant test the efficacy of that form without swimming A LOT.

Snappingt
Reply to  Cynic
2 years ago

Thanks for your comment and I appreciate the exchange. I would tend to disagree. I didn’t go into much in the article, because I didn’t want to go into something that would be even more controversial. But it’s the neuro-muscular efficiency and the perception of effort by the brain that’s the most important not the typical metabolic conditioning which still predominates a lot of coaching philosophy.

And from a competition stand-point particularly for pro and elite age groupers, the race(And you could make the argument for everything from sprint through IM distance) is not a steady state aerobic event. There tends to be surges (at least 3 in the pro swim) in pace through out the day and the… Read more »

Cynic
Reply to  Snappingt
2 years ago

If it’s all about neuro-muscular development, then why would triathletes need to do more volume, which is a major premise of the article? By this logic, they should just do 30-45 minutes/day of training at the speeds/rates they will use in competition (USRPT), even with poor technique (I also agree with Coach Josh above).

Snappingt
Reply to  Cynic
2 years ago

Again, I appreciate your comments. A close reading of my comments and the article shows that I don’t think it’s all about neuro-muscular efficiency or about more volume. The program I coach is rooted in a race paced approach to training, but consistency is king. That’s the key to the neuro-muscular development, but also goes hand in hand with the metabolic development. The argument I’m making is train the brain and the body will follow.

Jason
Reply to  Cynic
1 year ago

You are right, though maybe incomplete in your thinking. Its not so much the swim meet style of performance that transfers to a Tri, it’s all the miles of swimming and training ALL the energy zones that happen between the meets. A week of real swim training addresses everything from aerobic base, to lactic production, lactic tolerance, threshold, and anaerobic. It’s training you to shift between all of them as needed. IMHO The importance of technique is heavily for injury prevention and efficiency. Bike and run being equal, a poorly trained swimmer with perfect technique will get smoked by his/her twin who is well trained with merely acceptable/serviceable technique (barring injury). IMHO, Tri athletes can get away with downplaying the… Read more »

Ashley
2 years ago

Interesting article. However the thing I draw an issue with is this, you claim the need to swim more but don’t take into account the needs of the event itself.

In 140.6 distance Triathlon, swim is ~10% the total amount of time, biking ~40% and running ~50%. So yes, Triathlon swimming is different. The swim is just 1/10th the total race and it would be obscene for the training time devoted to swimming to be more than a similar fraction of their time spent in the race.

Ashley
Reply to  Ashley
2 years ago

Flipped my percentages. Should be Run 40%, bike 50%.

CraigH
Reply to  Ashley
2 years ago

Yes, except that I truly believe that we need a lot more time in the water to gain neuro-muscular adaption and “feel” than we do the other two legs.

We are evolved to be land-animals, and spend most of our lives walking and running on two legs. And let’s be honest, if you have a great aerobic base and strong legs you can pretty much just get on a bike and hammer for a while on a flat surface (I say this as someone who was pretty serious about cycling for a while).

But swimming requires technique, and feel for the water, and use of a whole series of muscles in coordination that you would not use otherwise.… Read more »

KQer/swammer/swimmom
Reply to  CraigH
2 years ago

The adage goes that you canNOT win the race in the swim. It is simply too short and the difference between a strong swimmer/weak swimmer is much less in actual time than that between strong/weak in the other legs. Also, a lot of triathletes come from a running background. Swimming is a late addition to their world. As a FOPer (in both the swim and overall) I can attest that I cannot put enough time, even in an IM swim, on a competitor who is comparably stronger in the bike or run. So there are seriously diminishing returns for me to focus on swimming (and especially not on kicking!!!! No no no…. that just messes up your hamstrings and ankles… Read more »

Snappingt
Reply to  KQer/swammer/swimmom
2 years ago

Yes, the adage is you can’t win the race in the swim, but you can lose it there. Last year I wrote an article with Thorsten Radde who is the owner of TriRating.com. He handicaps Ironman races with a lot of historical data. The argument we made was that at the pro level the race is becoming so competitive even at the Ironman distance that you can’t afford to give up time in any leg of the race. The basic numbers were that if you were 2.5 minutes behind the lead group out the water, it didn’t matter how good of a biker or runner, you weren’t going to make the podium. If you were greater than 4 minutes behind… Read more »

Snappingt
Reply to  Ashley
2 years ago

Thanks for the comment and I appreciate the exchange. Yours was another common point I wanted to address in the article, but ran out of room and it didn’t quite fit. For the break down you mentioned to ring true, each leg of the race would have to be “silo-ed” off from each other. The swim is the only leg of the three which impacts the entire race. And I’ve had too much anecdotal evidence to know that a slow, inefficient swim will impact the bike in a significant way regardless of how much time you’ve spent training the bike.

torchbearer
Reply to  Ashley
2 years ago

Was going to make the percentage point too. My local races (Adelaide) are ridiculously skewed toward cyclists- they sometimes have 20km-40km cycle legs and 300m-500m swim legs (hardly time to get wet).

Tri-Punk
Reply to  torchbearer
2 years ago

You all should organize your own race skewed how you think it ought to be. The history of triathlons dates way back and the French weren’t necessarily trying to please the swimmers when they thought up the wonderful event.

Go start your own swimathalon revolution! Could be fun!