Triathlon Corner: It’s All About Technique

by Rich Roll 6

March 21st, 2012 News

The vast majority of triathletes and masters swimmers just can’t swim very well.  And are clueless when it comes to training properly.  Sorry people, it’s just a fact.

But let’s be honest, it’s not their fault.  Unlike the many “born swimmers” covered here on SwimSwam – most of whom began honing proper technique around the time they learned how to walk, most triathletes and masters swimmers stumble into swimming much later in life without any real background in our beloved sport.  Ask any masters coach and they will tell you the same thing: teaching someone in middle-age how to swim correctly is a herculean task.  Put another way, a child can quickly pick up Chinese when immersed in the language.  But try learning this exotic tongue in your thirties and you’re looking at a lost decade.

But not all hope is lost.  One of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing triathletes from improving upon their swim is a commonly held but misdirected belief that fitness trumps all.  Just muscle through it and get it over with so I can get on my bike.  With demanding schedules that leave only small windows to train – more often than not without the aid of a decent coach or masters program — these athletes hit the pool with only one thought in mind: throw down as much hard volume as possible within the limited time allotted.  Drills?  Forget it.  Intervals?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Who has time for technique?  My Ironman is in 2 months and I’m terrified I won’t be able to finish the 2.4 mile distance!

Believe me, as a time-pressed triathlete myself, I’m sympathetic.  But before I was a triathlete, I was a swimmer, competing in the 200 fly for Stanford back in the late 1980’s.  So I have a swimmer’s perspective when it comes to physically and mentally preparing for the treachery of facing the open water.  I’m here to tell you that the aforementioned misconceptions are some of the biggest impediments to improving your swimming acumen – stunting improvement, leading to implacable plateaus and generally culminating in a frustrated and discouraged athlete.

With this column, I will be sharing tips and strategies to help you break those bad habits and rewire how you think about your training so you can break that glass ceiling, conquer your fear of the open water, and ultimately make the swim work for you, rather than against.

For today, I will leave you with this one simple yet critical piece of advice based on my experience.  Develop a willingness to let go of that overriding fixation on fitness and focus on proficient technique first.  When I work with masters swimmers and triathletes, I throw fitness right out the window and spend weeks, sometimes months, focused solely on improving and refining technique and technique alone.  Because you simply cannot build a house without a solid foundation.

If you are struggling with your stroke, take a deep breath and slow down.  Forget about fitness and yardage for the time being and channel all that type-A personality and ferocity that attracted you to triathlon in the first place and redirect it towards improving fundamental mechanics.  Rethink your approach to stroke drills – rather than considering them a welcome “break” from the harder set work, attack them with the same focus and intensity you would tackle a set of hard 200’s.  Swim alone?  Have your stroke repeatedly videotaped and critiqued by someone who knows their stuff.  And finally, find in a coach who can help you.  In the long run, this investment will pay time improvement dividends far beyond that set of expensive carbon Zipp wheels you treasure.

In 2009 and 2011, Rich clocked top finishes and the fastest swims at the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii, a double ironman distance triathlon that involves a 6.2 mile open water swim, 260 miles of cycling and culminates with a 52.4 mile run.

For more information on Rich, visit his website at and follow him on Twitter at @richroll.

Rich’s inspirational memoir FINDING ULTRA (Crown / Random House) hits bookshelves May 22, 2012.  Pre-oder now!.  For more information on the book and Rich, visit

And check out Rich and his wife Julie’s plant-based e-cookbook JAI SEED – a beautiful coffee-table style cookbook for the digital iPad set that contains 77 glossy pages of plant-based nutrition information and easy to prepare recipes certain to satisfy even the most finicky family member.


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Great post, Rich! I can’t wait to hear more about your technique, drills, and how to put all this together efficiently. I’ve been in the pool for two months (well, not actually the entire two months. I came out to eat, work, stuff like that) and have my marathon coach helping me with my stroke. She showed me some drills that essentially break my stroke down and then put it all back together again that help immensely. My confidence has quadrupled and now all I wanna do is see how fast I can kill 2000m. This is a great reminder to RELAX and hang with the fundamentals. Thanks for sharing your journey with the rest of us – you are… Read more »

Fantastic! Happy to have you writing on our site 🙂

My comments after reading the first paragraph: I think another aspect of mid lifers joining the swimming game is well overlooked and mostly by coaches. You say “Ask any masters coach and they will tell you the same thing: teaching someone in middle-age how to swim correctly is a herculean task.” Have those masters coaches ever considered teaching swim technique like they were taught when they were 6? Cause if you are starting from scratch, that is basically the mentality, in terms of experience, of what you are dealing with. Give the newbs the benefit of the doubt and know that they will probabaly overthink everything you are telling them, unlike a child, and everything will have to be oversimplified.… Read more »

I read the rest of the article and kudo’s to focusing on technique. Highly overlooked in a time contrained training world.

About Rich Roll

A graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School, Rich is a 45-year old, world-renowned vegan ultra-endurance athlete, wellness advocate, husband, father of 4 and inspiration to people worldwide as a transformative example of courageous and healthy living. A member of Stanford’s legendary swimming program in the late 1980’s, Rich competed …

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