Swimming is the first of the three disciplines in triathlon and therefore, with good preparation, gives every triathlete the possibility of a good performance right from the start. The triathlon swim is different from most other swim competitions because in a triathlon you usually swim in open water. This type of swimming not only requires endurance and technical preparation, but you should also take into account some other peculiarities of triathlon swimming. This includes that usually all triathletes start the race closely together leading to a lot of people swimming at the same time, which sometimes can lead to injuries. Furthermore, for certain temperatures, wetsuits may be required to protect the triathlete and must be effectively removed before the cycling portion. All of these factors are important for triathletes to keep in mind during their triathlon swim training and to adapt their swim workouts accordingly. In the following, we will go into some of the special features of triathlon swim training and try to give you the most important information about triathlon swimming.
Swim workouts for a triathlon should cover the four most important aspects of swimming: Speed, endurance, strength and technique! These are the basic building blocks for good performance in swimming and should be part of any triathlon swim training plan. A well-balanced workout is composed of different proportions of the three aspects, depending on your skill level. For example, while a beginner needs a lot of practice to learn the right technique to swim efficiently, an experienced triathlete will primarily work on speed and endurance. So triathlon swim workouts vary greatly depending on the skill level of the triathlete and their goals.
Triathlon swim training can often be challenging for triathlon beginners. Especially in swimming, newcomers need to learn a lot of new technical aspects to swim efficiently and over a long distance. For this reason, triathlon swim workouts for beginners usually focus on technique and endurance. In the first weeks and months, these two aspects should be the focus of your swim training to enable you to participate successfully in a triathlon. Since swimming is the first of the three disciplines in a triathlon, you need to be very economical in order to not suddenly run out of energy during cycling and running.
Triathlon swim training for advanced athletes, as already mentioned, focuses on the endurance and speed aspects of swimming. The correct technique is constantly repeated and internalized, but at a higher skill level it can be assumed that the triathlete knows and has mastered the technical aspects that suit them best. However, no matter how high the level of the athlete, some technical components of swimming must always be considered. Hence, a good triathlon swim workout then becomes more about physical endurance and strength for fast swimming as the focal areas. For advanced triathletes, a swim program should take into account all the attributes needed for fast and effective swimming. Although this is often not possible or costs too much time, the difference between swim training in the pool and in open water is substantial, so that every triathlete should complete a triathlon swim workout in open water at least a few times before attending a competition.
There are a variety of different triathlon swim workouts that can help you as a triathlete to improve your technique, endurance, or even speed. Each of these workouts has its own focus, advantages and disadvantages, which is why a balanced and good swim training plan is composed of a variety of different workouts. Also external factors like pool availability and proximity often dictate which training is more suitable for the triathlete and which is not. In the following paragraphs we will look at different swim workouts and show you their focus as well as their special aspects and overall training role.
High volume low intensity workouts are, as the name suggests, workouts where the focus is on extended duration and (accordingly) distance, while keeping the intensity low. For swimming workouts, this also means a slower pace which improves the oxygen uptake in your body and triggers endurance adaptations. This is especially important for longer triathlon distances such as 70.3 or full distance.
The opposite of high volume training is low volume high intensity also called high intensity interval training (Hiit training). Here, the focus is no longer on endurance and on a long distance or duration, but on short very intense training sessions that put you under maximum stress. This means swimming at speeds faster than CSS. These Hiit swimming workouts should be done either as a full unit or at the end of your workout to achieve the best results by increasing your strength and speed and leading to better swimming times. However, if you put these Hiit workouts at the beginning of your workout, your body might not have enough strength left to maintain the right swimming technique or to perform a good high volume workout afterwards. Therefore, you should always follow this order.
In technical swims, the focus is on practicing and refining the triathlete's swimming technique as technique is a key component in order to swim fast. Swimming with the right motion also reduces strain on the shoulders or other parts of the body. Technical swims should be a regular part of any triathlete’s training as technique is something that takes time to perfect and needs to be maintained by training it. For this purpose, various exercises are performed, usually at a very low intensity. Using additional training equipment (buoys etc.) to place more focus on certain areas of the swim motion helps to learn and practice the correct movement sequences in order to swim even more efficiently, preserve energy and perform well in a race.
Dryland swimming workouts are an additional part of triathlon swim training and can complement water swim workouts. The purpose of dryland swimming workouts is usually to increase your strength and mobility to improve your performance in the water. It is important to note that dryland swim workouts can not replace triathlon swim workouts, but only complement them. This is especially true for triathlon swim workouts, as triathletes need to focus on open water swimming, which is particularly challenging. However, it is very suitable as an additional home workout to train certain muscle groups on land. In technical swimming, the focus is on practicing and refining the athlete's swimming technique. For this purpose, various exercises are performed on land, which help the athlete to learn and practice the correct movement sequences in order to swim even more efficiently and faster in triathlon swimming training as well as in the race.
CSS is the swimming equivalent of FTP (Functional Threshold Power) in cycling and describes the maximum swim pace that can be performed aerobically and thereby for a prolonged time without crossing the anaerobic (or lactate) threshold. Up to this point the muscles can absorb lactic acid (a byproduct of producing energy) and keep the level of lactate steady before it rises exponentially, moves into the bloodstream and causes the body to have to slow down. Keeping track of your CSS is key to measuring your fitness progress and to perfectly adjusting swim workout intensity in endurance training. The Critical Swim Speed test (CSS is actually displayed as pace, not speed as the name suggests) is probably the best known test to measure how good your swimming endurance is. Instead of attempting to go all out for a prolonged time the test uses two sets with a break to estimate the CSS. The result we are looking for is time per 100 meters (you could also use yards). The test itself is divided into two steps. After a warm-up the athlete must swim 400 meters: evenly paced, yet aiming for the maximum intensity they are capable of swimming without slowing down and measure the exact time needed. After a break of about 10-15 minutes to fully recover, a shorter distance of 200 meters is performed also at maximum even pace possible. The exact time needed is tracked again. Based on the results CSS can then be calculated (estimated) using the following formula:
(time 1 - time 2 in seconds) / 2 = CSS (x seconds / 100 meters). This is a close estimate of the athlete’s possible swim pace for a prolonged time and within aerobic capacity. Note that a “perfect” CSS estimate can only be achieved if the swimmer really goes close to all out, paces evenly at the same time, fully recovers in the 10-15 minute break and isn’t fatigued by previous training days. Knowledge of CSS is also a great way to prescribe training intensity on an individual level. So this is a critical number to be aware of.
Indoor pool workouts lay the foundation of swim training for most swimmers and triathletes. They offer the possibility to train endurance as well as speed and technique in an environment with constant conditions and easily measurable distances. Regarding focus, indoor pool workouts vary greatly and can be adapted not only according to the demands of different disciplines but also in their intensity and volume. For example, high volume low intensity and high intensity low volume (hiit) workouts discussed earlier are also mostly performed in a pool. However, some triathlon swim workouts should also take place in open water to get used to the different circumstances.
Using the right triathlon swimming technique for the swim leg of a triathlon race is key to a competitive triathlon performance. The benchmark technique of choice is the front crawl (other strokes are legal but usually slower and/or more energy consuming). Although the swim leg of a triathlon usually takes up the smallest part of the total time (about 10%), poor technique can cause a substantial loss of endurance and energy. There are two key aspects to a good swimming technique for a triathlon swim: Minimizing water resistance and maximizing the efficiency of your swim stroke (pull through). Minimizing the resistance is mainly achieved by paying attention to the correct body and head positioning in order to create as little resistance as possible. By practicing, getting feedback and optimizing the movement of the legs triathletes can also reduce resistance and effort at once. For most swimmers the legs account for only 15-25% of the forward movement (even less in a wetsuit) but they do increase the water resistance heavily if you don't use the right technique and have good body position. Maximizing the front crawl efficiency once you maintain a steady position is achieved mainly by maintaining the correct frequency of strokes, breathing motion, the optimal position of arms and hands during the dive and the final phase underwater, as the arms "pull" the body forward. However, these triathlon swimming tips are only a start for triathletes in order to understand the main aspects of a good triathlon swimming technique. Learning to really perfect and also maintain your technique takes time and is a constant process using a variety of swim drills. It is advisable to book a coach for a few 1:1 sessions because swimming technique must be adapted individually for each athlete and is not easy to improve alone.
The right swimwear for a triathlon is another important aspect that every triathlete should be aware of before competing in an event. This is mainly due to the fact that there are certain regulations, which clothing must or may be worn while swimming. These specifications for swimming clothing are defined by the organizers before the event and include information on the temperatures at which, for example, a wetsuit must be worn. Also the use of swim caps and diving goggles are specified in these guidelines. In addition to that, water resistance of different materials and the ability to change out of swim wear smoothly before you get on the bike are things to keep in mind.
Generally speaking, if the water temperature is below 16 degrees Celsius, no race may be started. If the water temperature is between 16 and 18 degrees, a wetsuit is mandatory for all triathletes. If the water temperature is between 18 and 20 degrees a wetsuit is optional and if the water temperature is above 20 degrees no wetsuit is allowed. This information can vary from event to event and often also depends on the length of the swim course and category. For example, the cut-off for non-wetsuit swims lies at a higher temperature for age-groupers and amateur athletes. As such, be familiar with specific open water swimming wetsuits. Ensuring you have the right fit and type that suits your requirements and swimming style. For example, choices can be made between buoyancy (legs and arms) and thickness of the wetsuits. Better swimmers normally choose thinner less buoyant wetsuits, whereas poorer swimmers generally choose thicker and more buoyant wetsuits.
In contrast to the wetsuit, the swim cap is usually provided by the organizer and must be worn to better recognize and distinguish the triathletes in the water. It is often recommended to wear two swim caps on top of each other in very cold temperatures to protect the head better, because it’s where the body loses most heat and this can quickly lead to headaches from being undercooled.
There are a variety of swim goggles on the market, and the correct type is very much down to personal preference. Typically for open water swimming, goggles that have wider fields of vision are more popular. However, you can now also buy custom made goggles that are specifically designed to fit the contours of your face. Other more high tech goggles (form) include advanced accelerometry that can detect swimming pace and even technical aspects, such a distance and rate (strokes per minute) of the stroke. However, what is imperative is to ensure your goggles have good “anti-fog”, so they don’t fog up and disturb vision during swimming. This is particularly important when swimming in open water. A great tip is that, for important races, buy some new goggles and swim in them only once to test them before race day. This will ensure the anti-fog is still working to its full ability.
The swim portion of a triathlon can vary greatly. For one, there is the difference between open water and pool triathlon swims, with the latter only being offered very rarely. Furthermore, for the open water swim, it’s possible to swim in the sea, through a lake or sometimes a river, with each of these three possibilities having its own difficulties. Last but not least, the temperature of the water, the current and waves play a big role. For example, swimming in the sea often means very low water temperatures and high waves, whereas swimming in the lake can have a strong current as well as low temperatures. Due to these many differences in the triathlon swim legs, it is often worthwhile to find out exactly what type of open water is planned for the swim leg before the race, in order to then prepare for it appropriately or choose races that fit your personal preferences.
Swimming is the first discipline of the triathlon. Starts can go in either direction from or towards a beach and can also be done as an open water swim start. There are a few things to keep in mind to minimize the risk of injury and to give everyone a fair start. For this reason, you should train triathlon swim starts in your preparation for a triathlon to avoid any surprises on race day. The different type of triathlon swim starting procedures are explained in the following.
In a time trial swim start, triathletes line up one after the other, usually according to their estimated swim time, and start one by one. This means that the swim time of each triathlete starts individually as soon as they cross the marker just before entering the water. The advantage of this triathlon start is that it prevents crowded swims and thus significantly reduces the risk of injury. Furthermore, the rolling start gives more experienced triathletes the opportunity to swim the leg directly without having to swim around slower swimmers on the way.
In wave starts, triathletes are divided into groups according to their age or expected finish time. These groups then start one after the other either from the beach or directly within the water. The advantage of this triathlon start is that it takes less time than a rolling start. However, unlike the rolling start, triathletes with different abilities are mixed together and are more likely to hinder or even injure each other, especially during the swim.
Mass starts on the other hand, places the pros at the front of the field, the age-groupers behind them and everyone starts “simultaneously” into the water. While this is likely the most iconic start to a triathlon it’s also the most stressful as all the potential issues named above are most likely to occur in this starting procedure.
Swimming in open water is a big adjustment for many triathletes, physically as well as psychologically, especially if they have trained mainly or exclusively in indoor pools. Especially ocean swims pose a mental challenge for some athletes as waves can be intimidating and swimming and breathing safely in this moving surrounding needs to be practiced and takes some getting used to. The fact that sometimes contact with other swimmers and even somewhat colliding might be hard to completely avoid poses another mental hurdle that triathletes should be aware of and approach proactively in order to keep themselves and other athletes around them safe. In addition to this, a big difference in triathlon open water swimming is the water temperature. Whether in a lake, sea or river, the water temperature is usually significantly lower than that of a pool, which in turn leads to reactions of the body. Often the cold water can lead to headaches or shortness of breath, which triathletes should be prepared for and practice for. Also, when swimming in open water, the use of a neoprene suit is often required or recommended. Since these suits actively affect swimming and the way the body behaves in the water, it is crucial to practice swimming in a wetsuit beforehand. All in all, it can be said that open water swimming is an adjustment, but with the correct training and good preparation it can be overcome quickly.
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