For a while I’ve been intending to write about swimming, but always held back for the simple reason I’m not a great swimmer! If you look at my splits from any of my successful races you’ll see the swim leg lets me down. Last year my 9:47 in Kona was particularly satisfying given I started that with a disappointing 1:09 in the water! Whilst that was a clear under performance on my part being a 1 hour Ironman swimmer may not give credibility to my swim advice.
I’m not going to tell you what you need to do to swim better as it’s work in progress for me. Instead I thought I’d consider the last four years of training and the periods when I swam my best. What was I doing at those points, what worked well for me and ultimately what does that tell me I should be doing now?
1. Squad Swimming
There’s no escaping the fact that my best swimming has come whilst regularly attending squad sessions with Reading Masters. They’ve a lot of strong swimmers, but the main benefit is the routine of structured sessions and motivation from sharing the lane with others. My peak period of swimming involved four sessions a week along with a few easier sessions on my own. At that point my long course 100m freestyle P.B. was around the 1:20 mark (just under I think)
A good squad can make a big difference even if their goals don’t entirely line up with your own. My objective was to swim 3.8km as efficiently as I could whilst the squad focusses on the various national masters events round the country. 1500m is about as long as you need to race and the focus was generally shorter than that.
2. Swim Often
Access to squads has been varied and very dependent on where I’ve been. The downside to travelling a lot is you don’t always have the time to settle and identify the best training options. I’ve been fortunate on most of the occasions I’ve been out of squad training I’ve had great facilities. Free lanes, 50m pools, long opening hours all these things remove barriers to training and help get me swimming.
Frequency has worked well for me in running and cycling so it’s no surprise that it’s similarly effective in the water. There’s that nebulous term ‘feel for the water’ which I’d struggle to define in words, but have a sense of when I swim. Regularity is the best approach to developing and maintaining this. Take time out of the pool and you feel awkward when you return.
Most of my progress as a swimmer has come from blocks of frequent swimming. On the Gold Coast or in Wellington where I’d swim most days I saw times start to head comfortably under the 1:30 per 100m mark once more. At the end of the 40km swim week I tried after Ironman New Zealand I found myself holding 1:25s for 100m. I’d not seen those in a while!
3. Swim like a swimmer
This means learn to tumble turn, learn all the strokes and practice things like kick sets. Watch what squad swimmers do or what elite swimmers do and note they do it for a reason. Whilst specificity is good and the overall focus of a triathlete needs to be their front crawl (particularly its application in open water) make room for the full range of swim training.
I’ll admit I have the advantage of training time when I want to swim like a swimmer I can do all the crawl I want and simply add more in. With athletes I coach where time is limited I do tend to also limit the amount of work I do outside front crawl. Ultimately much as I see benefits in all round swimming if you can’t swim more than an hour or two a week it’s best to focus. Unfortunately training like a top swimmer is impractical for most of us.
During every period of improving swimming I have been practicing all four strokes. If nothing else it’s a good sign of swim fitness when I can manage medley sets. Epic Camp has given me a favourite to work in to the week. A simple continuous set of 100m Medley straight into 150m Crawl done 12 times through for 3km. Whilst there’s no rest the medley sections gave you a break and ultimately I was able to swim the crawl harder than I expected. It’s a good workout all round.
4. Swim with purpose
However often you swim and however much volume you do it needs to have purpose. You need to be aware of a number of factors with the session you’re doing. Most importantly what’s the purpose? What are you looking to achieve with your time in the water? That applies across the board with training always have a goal for a session even if it’s just to add some volume.
I also feel that if you’re swimming with purpose this means you have to be aware of technique. Developing swim fitness is one thing, but swimming is technical and you need to keep a focus. The first step is understanding good technique which normally means coaching or video analysis for guidance. My personal preference is for the Swim Smooth approach, there are plenty of other systems out there, whichever you use stick to it.
Mixing and matching techniques and approaches is a mistake. It’s not that there’s one clear method, everyone is different and what works for us will vary. You need to give any method you follow time to see if it works. If results aren’t following after a month then consider if you’re applying it correctly or whether it works for you.
Once you have a technique and approach to training be aware of it whenever you swim. There was a superb blog post by Chuckie V on how he developed as a swimmer (loads of good advice in there, far better than this article!) Monotonous as it sounds when I swim all I am really thinking about is how my catch is working. Were mistakes made? Can I correct them on the next stroke? I’m constantly aware of it and how I think it’s going. I try to shift my thoughts to other areas of the swim, but ultimately this is where it returns.
5. Open Water Swimming is not easy Swimming
If you want to get faster then you have to spend a lot of time in the pool. There’s no doubt about that in my mind. Triathletes need to train open water skills too so time spent in lakes or the sea is required. Too many of us see this as an opportunity to plod around a lake a few times. Just because there isn’t the precise timing and distances of a pool session doesn’t mean you can slack off!
There are two ways I like to approach an open water session. The simplest is to see it as an endurance workout and focus on distance. This doesn’t mean easy! Once I’ve done a warm up lap I’ll aim to build and sustain something around my race pace for one or two kilometres. It won’t be a hard sprint session, but it’s working near to threshold swim pace.
Alternatively I’ll warm up with a lap and then use the buoys to do a set. The distances won’t be precise so it’s about working hard for periods of time. Quarters of a lap at max effort on thirty seconds rest for example. Effectively transferring work you’d do in the pool into open water. Just because there’s no lane line doesn’t mean we have to go at one pace.
Use your time in open water to practice the skills and techniques needed. You don’t want to lose time in a race because of poor navigation or being unfamiliar with your wetsuit. Don’t view it as an escape from the confines of the pool. Make sure you’re still doing proper swim session there as that’s where you really develop speed.
Five points is enough for today. The question for me is what am I going to do to ensure I swim faster in Kona? I was discussing Kona goals last night and as I said then I can’t afford a 1:09 this year. The aim is to perform closer to the hour mark, the dream to go an hour or better! I’ll revisit this topic soon to examine what I’ll be doing for the next six weeks to become a better swimmer.
From nutrition to pacing - a collection of CoachCox blog posts focused specifically on Ironman training and racing.