You have made the big decision to try a tri. So what are the very first things you should know and think about as you start training for the swimming portion of the event? I have many new triathletes every year who come to me saying, “I am doing my first triathlon in two weeks, can you help me with my freestyle?” That is not an exaggeration on my part. Thus the very first piece of advice I can give to the new triathlete is to start your swimming training earlier. Several benefits will occur when you do this. The most obvious benefit will be that you will develop greater stamina in the water portion of the event. Far too many people think that just because they are in good shape for running and cycling they are also in good shape for swimming. The reality is that the crossover benefit is very different from expectations. Different muscles are used and swimming requires a very different approach to oxygen intake. The anxiety level of the athlete also plays a major role in the perception of fatigue as does the more obvious issue of stroke technique. So plan your training and competition calendar in advance. We are entering the winter here and for many of you that will cut down on the amount of running and cycling you can do so now is a perfect time to start your swim training program.
When you begin your swimming training there are many points to keep in mind. The first is relaxation. You may not be very comfortable in the water; you may have bad memories of swim lessons. The swim portion of a triathlon is normally done in open water in a crowd. You will be jostled, splashed, sometimes even dunked and shoved. If you aren’t comfortable in the water, if you feel like panicking when your face gets wet, you will have a problem. So when you begin your training, work on relaxation in the water. Get in the pool and submerge yourself. Stay under the water and look around a bit. Come up for air and go back down. If you feel a little panicky, think about a pleasant place. Relax. The second step is to try swimming under the water a little bit. You won’t be swimming under water in your competition but this step will help in decreasing your anxiety level. Push off the wall and try to swim as far as you can under the water with your eyes open. Come up for air and go back down. Relax. Finally for this portion, go under the water and lie down on the bottom of the pool on your back and look up. Many times even if you had no problem with the first two suggestions, this third one will cause some difficulty. If you are new to swimming, I advise you to do these three steps frequently all the while reminding yourself to relax, to loosen up.
The second key point is related to the first because without being relaxed a lot of what happens in swim training is more difficult. Push off the wall, on the surface this time, and just stretch out and kick. When your face is in the water blow bubbles; when you need to breathe turn your entire body and inhale. Then return to your prone position blowing bubbles. You have to learn to exhale while your face is in the water and inhale when your body turns. This may seem very obvious, but many new swimmers hold their breath when their faces are in the water and then try to exhale and inhale in the same motion. When they do that they lift their heads too high, they blow all their air out, and they gasp for new air. This becomes a negative cycle and can destroy any comfort or relaxation achieved as well as interrupting good stroke technique. So blow bubbles in the water, breathe air out of the water.
Good body position is essential to good swimming. The newer stroke manuals and videos emphasize swimming uphill. What that means is that you want your body to be level or even inclined slightly downward at the front. Put another way it means that you want your hips to be high in the water. The best way to achieve this position is to stretch out in the water and put your head down. Often new swimmers come to me and they swim with their heads out of the water or they swim with their heads too high in the water with their foreheads up and their chins down. Then when I tell them to put their heads down, they try to do this by just moving their head, as if nodding. The head should be down with the water level running right across the top, at the crown of the head, but that isn’t achieved by just nodding your head. Push the head down while holding the head in line with your spine and shoulders. This way your entire front half will also go down in a nice line and your hips will come up. Once again, relax. Holding your body too rigid while doing any of this will cause excess fatigue and will prevent you from developing a smooth , long stroke. Start swimming paying particular attention to the head position and to your hands. If your hands go too high in the recovery portion* of the stroke you will need to bring them down. If your hands enter the water too close to your head, you will need to move your entry* further in front of your shoulders. If your hands enter the water too far in front of your shoulders, you will need to bring them back just a little. You can figure out your best hand entry position by putting your arm out straight and then bringing your hand back about four inches with your elbow slightly bent. Your fingers should point downward and your palm should be flat, not canted to the thumb side or the pinky side. As your hand enters in this position, push forward at an angle several more inches and then pull your arm back with the fingers still pointing to the bottom of the pool until your thumb brushes your upper thigh. If you are looking down at the bottom, which you should be, you will be able to keep good arm position by pointing your fingers at the lines on the bottom of the pool and keeping them pointed there throughout the stroke. Just practice this for a while remembering to keep your head down.
The final point for this month’s advice is perhaps the most important. No matter what you do while training, and this is true for the biking and running portions as well as the swimming portions, you will always have an easier time doing it if you maintain a positive attitude. I always tell my swimmers that it comes down to, “Mind over mind.” This doesn’t mean just relaxation; it means that you have to be careful not to talk yourself out of anything. Once you start to think that you can’t do something, it will become that much harder to do. But if you keep focused and stay positive, you will be able to continue working hard even when you are tired, nervous, sore, etc.
Try this workout—
500 yards or meters warm up (work slowly, stretching out)
12 x 50 yards or meters
4 x 50 on 20 seconds rest after each
4 x 50 on 10 seconds rest after each
4 x 50 on 5 seconds rest after each
10 x 100 yards or meters
Do each of these 100’s with 30 seconds of rest after each. Try to drop 2 seconds from each 100 repeat. So if you swim the first 100 on 1:50, you will be swimming the last one on 1:32. This is one of the best sets I know to learn pacing. If you have trouble doing this the first time you try, put it into your workouts once a week. Learning how it feels to swim at targeted speeds is an important skill for swimming longer events.
12 x 25 yards or meters
Swim nice and easy but work on nice streamlining* off each wall.
*Glossary of swim terms
Recovery—the recovery portion of a stroke is the part of the stroke where you are not actively pulling. In freestyle it is the part of the stroke from when your hand leaves the water until it enters the water. Keep your hands low with fingers down during recovery in freestyle.
Entry—this just means the point at which your hand enters the water. Your fingers should be pointing down but not perpendicular to the water which would cause more drag.
Streamline—holding your body in a nice, tight line especially when you push off walls. You should be under the water with your arms pressed up against your head, deltoids squeezing your ears. One hand is on top of the other with the hand that will pull first on the bottom. Arms and legs are straight, toes are pointed.
I help coach Utah Masters here in Salt Lake City. I have been listed in the Top Ten in US Masters and Top Ten in the FINA world rankings.