Can't Swim, Can't Bike, Can't Run but i'll Tri anyway! Part 2: Swimming
This blog is part 2 of our Can’t swim, Can’t bike, Can’t run but I’ll Tri anyways blogs. If you missed part 1 you can read it here.
We are hoping after you read the original blog that it might have gained your interest in giving triathlon a go but like a lot of people, the first part of a Triathlon (the swim) fills you with dread and you proclaim to not be a strong swimmer and that is what is stopping you! I have had numerous conversations with people who would like to try triathlon but as they aren’t strong swimmers or proclaim to not be able to swim they have built up a belief that they can’t complete a triathlon. It really doesn’t matter if you can only swim 1 length of the pool with out needing to stop for breath, the goal should be to identify what you can do to improve your swimming so that you can cross that finish line. This is where the process of improving your swimming should be what drives you to succeed and not focusing on what is holding you back.
Don’t worry about how much you think you need to improve just focus on taking the first step!
So how do we improve our swimming for Triathlon?
The first step to improving your swimming is going to the pool. While it would be great if I could tell you, you can improve your swimming without having to get wet but unfortunately that’s not the case. On top of going to the pool we also want to have a clear plan of what you are going to focus on during each session. However, if you are new to swimming then just getting to the pool a couple of times per week and swimming for 15-20 minutes will likely allow you to see improvements. Swimming is quite an unnatural thing for most people so its better to do short frequent sessions consistently than just doing 1 longer swim session.
A common mistake athletes make when trying to improve their swimming is they just want to swim a certain distance every session. While this might sound like a good thing to do it will usually mean you go to the pool and just count down how many lengths you still need to swim instead of being present during the session and working on your technique and experimenting with your swim stroke.
You could go to the pool with a plan to swim for a total of 20 minutes but within that 20 minutes you are going to focus on an aspect of your technique (see below for more specific advice on technique)
One of the reasons many people get frustrated with swimming is they constantly compare themselves with other people and perceive they are slow relative to them. I find this is true for all sports now with strava and zwift etc and we spend more time comparing our data to each other instead of just focusing on the process of training and improving our own fitness in context with what we want to improve.
While the pace you can swim relative to another person might be motivating for some people to push them on to improve, it will almost always end in them getting more frustrated as you try harder to close the gap and while you are chasing them you stop focusing on what you need to do to improve!
Even if you aren’t comparing yourself to others and just want to be able to make it to the end of the swim without being too exhausted to bike and run the key is being able to stay relaxed.
The distances we swim in Triathlon are aerobic in nature so being able to sustain a pace is more important than your flat-out speed. With this, we need to be able to stay relaxed and maintain our technique when fatigued. When we lose relaxation in the water we will start to tense up and begin fighting the water resulting in wasting energy. Being relaxed in the water comes from controlled breathing and ensuring we exhale when our face is in the water is key to avoid gasping from breath on our breathing stroke.
Check out our video on how to improve your relaxation in the water.
I can only do breaststroke, can I still complete a triathlon?
There is no requirement to swim front crawl in triathlon so if you can only do breaststroke with your head out of the water then that’s fine! Obviously, working on transitioning to front crawl will allow to swim faster. You don’t need to be able to swim the whole (or any) of the swim doing front crawl so if breaststroke is all you can do then don’t let it stop you. At most events you’ll find plenty of other athletes who will do the whole swim doing breaststroke, some will start with front crawl and then transition to breaststroke when the begin to fatigue and some will alternate each length.
If you are swimming breaststroke and want to get faster, one of the easiest things to improve is reduce the time you spend turning at the wall. Practice touching the wall and pushing off the wall without any pausing. I have seen this improve swimming times by more than a couple of minutes and its doesn’t require a lot of additional training so definitely worth practising.
Breathing and body position
If you are looking to improve your swimming so you can continually swim front crawl without feeling exhausted after a couple of lengths breathing is without a doubt the most common issue we see with swimmers. As per the above video, learning to exhale into the water will allow you to relax and keep your breathing relaxed. Until you can control your breathing it is impossible to fix subsequent stroke flaws. Many of the other stroke flaws can be improved just by improving your breathing.
After breathing, body position tends to be a big issue for a lot of swimmers (more common with guys).
Fixing body position isn’t usually that difficult but it can be quite hard to sustain when you fatigue. Legs sinking in the water is usually caused by either, head being too high (including lifting the head to breathe), lack of ankle flexibility, lack of core engagement or a combination of them all.
With most swimmers, improving posture in the water can have the biggest impact. Imagine you are trying to be as long as you possible can increasing the distance between the top of your head and your feet and keeping your abdominals engaged.
You can try this in the pool with a kickboard out in front of you and trying to get your heels to break the surface of the water, just experiment with different positions and see what improves your body position and what impacts it.
Propulsion is a big aspect of improving swim technique although difficult to address in one blog post as there’s multi components to improving propulsion. However, for most triathletes staying relaxed and reducing drag in the water will get you significantly more efficient in the water.
Unlike other sports, you can’t rely on overall cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength to get you through the water and trying to muscle through the swim will usually leave you overly fatigued for the bike and run.
While swimming is not an easy sport to master especially if you did not learn as a child. However, you do not need to be a good swimmer to complete one. In fact, most triathletes don’t start out as good swimmers and with practice and perseverance they can continue to improve.
So when trying to improve your swimming, leave your ego at home and go to the pool with a clear plan of what it is you are trying to achieve from a particular session and enjoy the process of swimming and each session try to get a little bit better and develop a better understanding of what parts are helping and which parts are not and continue trying to master your technique. When you can do that your enjoyment and fulfilment from swimming will be worth every frustrating length between then and now.