Triathlon Swimming: Smarter, Not Harder
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on October 6th, 2009

This is a chapter I contributed to a new book, Triathlete in Transition by Ray Fauteux, which has just been released this week.

Earlier this year I watched 3200 neoprene-clad bodies churn up the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain during the New Orleans 70.3 Triathlon, Two weeks later, 4500 athletes swam 1500 meters in Tampa Bay at the St. Anthony’s Triathlon. Race directors estimated that about a quarter of them were new triathletes. In other words, in just two races some 1200 novices plunged into a distance swim in open water, surrounded by thousands of others, arms and legs churning, and water boiling from the ruckus.

Is there a more daunting athletic challenge than for a relatively inexperienced swimmer to traverse a mile or more of open water . . . in crowd conditions that—to a novice—seem chaotic . . . without lines to guide them or a wall to rest on . . . before  cycling and running up to 138 miles? Beyond what they face in the race itself, new triathletes face two significant challenges: One, humans really aren’t meant to be swimmers. Two, making sense of the flood of often-conflicting advice on how to solve the first challenge.

In 20 years since founding Total Immersion, I’ve met, observed or coached thousands of triathletes and seen the various ways in which they approach swimming. They range from the somewhat fatalistic: “I’ll tough it out” or “I can survive it with my wetsuit” to thoughtful and patient – carefully planned, long-term self-improvement projects focused on pursuit of swimming mastery.

All start out seeking to answer the same question: “How can I swim faster?”  The answers they arrive at are as different as their approach, ranging from simplistic (Move your arms and legs faster) to nuanced and analytical. I’m writing to recommend the latter path by citing some empirical evidence about swimming that should become part of the store of essential knowledge among new triathletes. Let’s start by clarifying your objective: I suggest you set two goals for your first, or next, triathlon swim:

1) To jog out of the water and be pleasantly surprised by your time, due to how effortlessly you achieved it; and

2) To have your experience during the swim be so positive that you eagerly anticipate your next one. Here are three ideas that can help make that a reality.

Keep your powder dry.

This proverb, attributed to Oliver Cromwell, means “Act only when action will be effective.”  Apply it in a triathlon by being mindful that, as Runner’s World editor, former Boston Marathon champion and avid TI swimmer, Amby Burfoot has written, “It takes only a little more energy to run a little faster; it takes a lot more energy to swim a little faster.”

In more specific terms, physiologists estimate that a 10 percent increase in effort will roughly translate into the following increase in speed in the three disciplines: Running – 10 percent, Cycling – 6 percent (because of wind resistance); Swimming – 3 percent. If you apply those figures to the approximate median splits for the 2008 Hawaii Ironman of 1:25 for swimming, 6:30 for cycling and 5:30 for running, you get the following return on a 10 percent increase in effort:

Swimming:      3 minutes

Cycling:         23 minutes

Running:        33 minutes

Takeaway: The next time you’re in the water and feel the urge to work a little harder to stay with or pass someone else, let them go. Pass them on land instead.

Better engine on land. Better vessel in the water.

Race outcomes – even race instincts – are determined in training. To make the best use of your investment of scarce energy and time in training for three disciplines, it’s essential to know what kind of effort will result in the greatest improvement in performance. According to Mayo Clinic exercise researcher (also a veteran marathon runner and Masters distance swimmer) Dr. Michael Joyner, performance in running and cycling are 70% to 80% determined by fitness, while performance in swimming is 70% to 80% determined by efficiency.

Here’s more: When elite athletes have been tested on various common measures of fitness – for instance aerobic power and VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake) — the top scores have all been for land athletes. Elite swimmers have often registered fairly undistinguished measures of aerobic fitness.

The takeaway is that, in triathlon’s two “dryland’ disciplines, gains in speed will correlate strongly with gains in fitness. In swimming, there’s little relationship between your fitness level and your speed. What makes the greatest difference, according to tests conducted on all swimmers at the 1992 Olympics by two USA Swimming scientists is “active streamlining.” A swimmer’s ability to minimize drag while pulling and kicking had the strongest correlation to performance of any measure.

Don’t Swim Faster. Hold a Better Pace

The nearly universal instinct about swimming faster is that it happens by stroking faster.  Let’s clear that up: Swimming speed is not a measure of how fast your arms are moving. Rather it’s a measure of the time it takes for your body to cover a given distance. Several factors are far more influential than how fast your arms are moving. The two that matter most are:

1) In most triathlons, 80% or more of the field will swim too fast in the first 100 to 200 meters, then spend the next 1300 to 3800 meters slowing down. In any swim lasting over a minute, speed is far more about sustainability than velocity. In fact, if you replace the word “speed” with the phrase “pace-holding-ability” for any event above 50 meters, your thoughts and actions will immediately become more effective.  To hold a better pace, your first step should be to reduce the effort it takes to swim your current speed. That will help you maintain that pace longer without fatigue. Later focus on increasing your current speed.

2) In order to move your body forward, the propulsive force you generate must be greater than the resistive force (drag) of the water. To move forward faster, you must increase the difference between propulsive and resistive forces. Increasing propulsive force takes work. Decreasing resistive force does not. This makes the resulting increase in speed sustainable – I.E. you’ll be able to hold a stronger pace longer without fatigue. Therefore always focus on reducing drag first.

This chapter is excerpted from Terry Laughlin’s just-released e-book, Outside the Box, a TI Program for Success in Open Water.

Download a free excerpt here.

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