General Discussion Triathlon Talk » The swim in your first triathlon (sprint) Rss Feed  
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2017-02-26 9:34 PM

Subject: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)
Hi All,

Great forum - happy to be here. I recently committed to doing my first triathlon, sprint distance. I have some background running, with a little cycling mixed in for cross-training. To give you an idea of my past/current fitness, here it is:

-2014 - ran 42:50 in the 10km, and 19:52 in the 5 km
-2014 - peaked at around 40-50 miles per week
-since then I've just run (and cycled) casually to stay healthy

-2 months ago I ran 12km in 60 minutes - this was reasonably difficult, though not race pace (on an indoor track FWIW)

Goal: to complete a sprint triathlon in August (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run). My first objective is to safely complete the event, and enjoy it.

I've committed to swimming twice weekly until then. My first experience with the swim was disastrous, as I suspect it is for many first time swimmers. I haven't swam lengths for exercise in my life, period (I don't count swimming lessons as a child). I've joined a coached swimming conditioning camp which I will participate in 1x week, and will swim on my own 1x more per week.

My 4th swim today, took me 43 minutes to swim 750m, freestyle. Each time I've swam I've moved in the right direction, but my gosh it seems like I have a long way to go.

I believe I can get my training up to 6 hours per week for this, mostly zone 2ish type training. (planning on doing a schedule like this)
-maintenance mileage
- +10%
- +10%
- -25%

Two questions:
1) Do beginner triathletes front crawl/freestyle the whole event? Do they stop to rest?
2) What kind of improvements do you think I can make, knowing my current running fitness level and past level?
3) Broadly speaking, any thing I should check out? Or do you have any other thoughts?

I greatly appreciate any input. There is still a tonne I need to figure out in terms of equipment, swim trunks, nutrition, etc.

Edited by drew_ab 2017-02-26 9:35 PM

2017-02-27 10:05 AM
in reply to: drew_ab

Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)
I started last year and did a 800m open water swim for my first sprint and was able to do freestyle the entire length. I did swim 3 times weekly though for 2 months previous and worked up to it. I would recommend that you get some lessons or join a masters swim team to help you with your technique as that helped me out a lot.

The main thing though it enjoy the training and the race. Don't fret if you don't do freestyle the entire way or have to tread water for a few. My brother did the sprint with me and did the backstroke the entire way and it worked for him.

Also keep it simple for your race.
2017-02-27 10:57 AM
in reply to: 0

Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)
Four years ago I did my first triathlon. I came from a running background and did some cycling so swimming was, and still is, my weakness. The first time I got into the pool I struggled big time and had to take a break after one length! I think I assumed since I was a runner swimming would come naturally. However, I kept at it and slowly increased my distance. I also joined a masters swim team which helped but didn't do much to teach me proper swim technique. Thinking back, I wished I used that money I spent on masters and applied it to swim lessons.

During my first triathlon, I was surprised at what I saw during the swim. I saw people backstroking, breast stroking, even doggy paddling. People rested along the way at the canoes. I even saw one lady floating. Ironman races have pods along the course so people can rest.

If you're taught proper technique right away you should improve pretty quickly. The key is to not develop any bad habits (believe me, I developed lots of them and have been trying to break them).

Swimming is a lot of fun but it's all about technique. One of my big issues is rushing my stroke. In my head I feel like the faster I move my arms the faster I should go (like running and cycling). That only creates drag and makes you inefficient. Slowing things down will actually make you faster. If you're not taught how to swim properly you'll eventually hit a wall and get frustrated. I've been swimming for only 4 years and have completed events all the way up to the full ironman. I was never taught nor did I seek out swim lessons (I assumed masters swimming would be all the lessons I would need), so although I have the endurance to swim the full ironman length, my technique isn't that great. This winter I've been working with my coach and he has more or less been teaching me how to swim.

Don't forget to do some swims in the open water! Swimming is totally different when you don't have a black line to look letting you know you're swimming straight. Is your race wetsuit legal? If it is, then you'll probably need to look at getting a wetsuit. Although, not mandatory (unless your swim is in super cold water), it will help you swim faster and keep you warm. If you don't want to commit to buying one (they can be expensive) I would suggest renting one. If you buy or rent get it early enough so you can test it out in the water to make sure it fits properly. Wetsuit fit is extremely important. If it's too big it'll just create more drag and if it's too small it can constrict and cause issues.

Although swimming is an important piece, don't forget the bike! 50% of a triathlon is on the bike so don't become so focused on swimming and neglect the other two sports. Also, practice running off the bike (i.e. brick). Basically all you would have to do is your bike workout, then do a short run right after. This will get your body used to running right after cycling.

Bottom line is don't make it too complicated. Have fun and enjoy the training. I was a runner for a long time but started to feel a little bored so I branched out and got hooked on triathlon. I feel like the cycling and swimming has helped my running in that I'm more efficient and more importantly prevented any running related injuries. I started with sprints, then worked my way up and eventually did my first full IM in 2015. I did my second full IM last year and am signed up for number 3 later this year.

Edited by katgirl2013 2017-02-27 11:04 AM
2017-02-27 11:05 AM
in reply to: drew_ab

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Ventura, California
Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)


1) LOL, Sorry I had to laugh, yes you swim the whole event  But you can stop to rest if you need to, you can also roll over on your back and backstroke, this is a good way to calm your nerves, regain breathing and slow down your heart rate. My first Tri was a olympic and I ended up in front of the pack and I was getting clobbered and swam over and it was quite terrifying. I think I made it less then 50 yards and had to pull over and tread water for a couple minutes to get my head together and get going again. I then backstroked for a ways to continue to calm myself and then was able to get back in the game and get the job done.

2) You have room for huge improvements. Swimming is very technique driven and once you start learning the technique of Triathlon specific freestyle you will make HUGE gains. Last year my best time was 35 min for a mile. (1800+yrd) That included the run back to transition as well.

3) I am using a workout guide called 'Swim Speed Secrets Workouts' This is a series of workout cards you take with you to the pool to structure your workouts. Its a 8 week program based on 3 workouts a week. I typically can only get in 1-2 workouts a week due to work and the fact the closest pool is 35 miles away. Having a structured workout is making huge gains for me both physically and mentally.

Also check out the first 10 podcasts, 4-8 specifically in this series from Tower 26. (in this link they are listed first episode last)

Best wishes and you got this no problem. Just starting out swimming seems very difficult at first. The best thing you can do is start learning proper techniques right away so you do not ingrain bad habits that will have to be unlearned. 

2017-02-27 4:34 PM
in reply to: drew_ab

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Great White North
Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)
Do whatever you like but freestyle is faster for 99% of folks.

Swimming is not running. You have to break it up. Water is over 780x more dense than air there forever technique and swim specific strength matter.

Next workout do 32 x 25 rest 15 seconds after each 25. 43 for 750 means something isn't working and you're better off starting small and working forward.

See about getting some coaching to improve your stroke and if you are already lifting PM me and I can point you towards a more swim specific routine.

Technique matters, that's why my 64lb 9 year old can swim 800m in 14:39.

2017-02-27 5:12 PM
in reply to: drew_ab

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Franklin, TN
Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)


Question 1: no, but it's the fastest stroke.  People will use backstroke/breaststroke to rest or recover but the majority of folks will be swimming freestyle.  The breaststroke kick can knock a competitor silly if they are swimming next to you so you need to be aware of your fellow swimmers if you decide to use it.

Question 2: It depends.  You can make big improvements (I'm thinking cutting your current time in half) if you get swim lessons and swim more than 2 times a'll get minimal improvement in your swim specific endurance only swimming twice a week.  Your running ability sounds pretty good but it won't help you if your exhausted coming out of the water.

The good news is you have plenty of time to get ready.  

I would try to get in the pool 3-4 times a week.  Your coach should be giving you feedback and specific drills to develop good technique.  It will be a bit of a struggle at first since you will be trying to address technique and swim specific endurance at the same time...everyone goes through this to some degree.  You might consider posting a swim video here for some additional feedback.

Bike/run- if you've only got 6 hours/week, I'd spend 2/3's of it on swimming and the remainder on biking/running.  You can fake your way through the bike/run at the sprint distance...especially with your running background.


2017-03-05 6:49 PM
in reply to: drew_ab

Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)
Thanks all for the detailed response - it is truly appreciated. It seems like some common themes are this:

- swimming 3x week (and getting coached if possible)... I've got a coach who I'll be seeing 1-2 times per week. I'm not sure they are outstanding, but they do seem good and it's all I can afford

- to not make everything too complicated, and enjoy the training!

- thanks for recommending the tower 26 podcasts -> I've listened to about 8 and have learned tonnes, it's a matter of actually being able to apply it and putting in the time

- I tried the 30 x 25m workout today with 15 sec rest. Towards the end I had to take 20 or 25 sec rest, but I did manage to swim 750m in 29min. So I'm going in the right direction (I don't think I could shave much off this currently)

I think I simply need time, patience, and continued coaching and support.
2017-03-06 1:26 PM
in reply to: drew_ab

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Austin, Texas
Subject: RE: The swim in your first triathlon (sprint)

Great progress!  Seems you're well on your way to the goal of safely completing your tri, which is awesome.  Be forewarned, it can become an addiction. 

It sounds like you've made a plan that will work for you and fit your schedule/available time, which is half the battle (consistency and working out "smart" will go a long way toward improvements in performance).

I'll offer one additional piece of advice for race day, admittedly similar to some of the above, about stroke.  While freestyle is the fastest and most common, there are lots of other folks out there using many different strokes.  My advice is to try a bunch of these strokes and see which ones work for YOU for calming your nerves, catching your breath, etc.

Many people like the breast stroke, but I find it tiring.  Others like backstroke, which I do like for resetting my goggles (my first tri after taking some 15 years "off" and I got punched in the face by a person who was "winning the start" and had to get my goggles back on my head).  For catching my breath if I've gone too hard or redlined for some reason (like getting socked in the face), I personally like the sidestroke (all that lifeguard practice).  It's fairly fast and I can breath like a shrew (fast) to catch my breath quickly without losing too much time. 

But that's just what works for ME. 

TLDR - Try some of the other strokes out to see what YOUR go to recovery stroke is (including trying to put goggles back on while swimming) before race day.  Hopefully, you won't need it, but it's a confidence builder to feel good about one of the alternate strokes before your first go.

Welcome and enjoy!


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