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4 Ways Triathletes Differ From Swimmers

In teaching triathletes to become better swimmers, Gary Hall Sr. has found one of the greatest obstacles is in their minds.

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Olympian and professional triathlete Andy Potts recently visited The Race Club camp to help coach alongside Gary Hall Sr. Here’s what Gary learned from the experience and training triathletes vs. swimmers in general.

They don’t think of themselves as swimmers

In teaching triathletes to become better swimmers, I have found one of the greatest obstacles is in their minds. They don’t think of themselves as swimmers, but rather as runners or cyclists, trying to get better at swimming. In order to swim like a swimmer, one has to think and act like a swimmer.

During a recent triathlon swim camp, one of our campers complained rather openly that he didn’t see the value in learning to streamline or do flip turns. “What is the point?” he asked. “I am never going to do a flip turn or streamline in a triathlon.

The point is that in order to swim fast, whether in a pool or in open water, one must learn the ways of a good swimmer, and those include streamlining off every wall and doing flip turns. Doing both of these well in practice will shave seconds off each 100 repeat you swim and that will give you more confidence in your swimming ability. Streamlining helps teach you the importance of reducing frontal drag, whether during the push off the wall or during the swim itself. As long as you are moving, frontal drag is slowing you down. We spend a great deal of time teaching you how to swim with less frontal drag. Doing flip turns are not only much faster, but an important part of hypoxic and core training.

RELATED: What Is The Ideal Stroke Rate?

They don’t swim enough

Andy Potts, who narrowly missed making the Olympic team in swimming, is arguably the world’s fastest swimmer in the pro triathlon circuit. Andy stated while coaching our triathlon swim camp that he trains more swimming each week than most triathletes. The reason Andy trains more in swimming than other triathletes because swimming is more of an aerobic sport, elevating his heart rate more than either running or cycling. He feels the aerobic conditioning of swimming helps him in all three disciplines. Andy gave several other reasons why he spends more than 20 percent of his time swim training when only about 8 percent of his triathlon race is spent in the water.

Most triathletes dedicate around three or so one-hour practices per week to swimming. Then they wonder why they are not getting better. I am not sure one can get much better at anything with three hours per week of practice. Swimming is no exception.

Since the shortest swim distance in a triathlon is likely 400–800 meters, and typically more, one needs to consider what training is required to sustain a good pace for the distance to be swum. 800 meters is no sprint. In my opinion, four practices per week is a minimum requirement, and each should be at least 1 ½ hrs, not just an hour. By doubling the hours of training in the pool from three to six hours per week, you will see a big difference in your fitness level and, most likely, in your swim times.

RELATED: Identify And Conquer Your Swim Weakness

They are held back by poor technique

Some triathletes get stuck at a certain race split, even with the additional training time and effort. For those, poor technique is likely standing in the way of improvement. Being some 800 times denser than air, water shows no mercy. Make a mistake in your swim stroke, over and over again, and you pay dearly for it. There also seems to be a tendency among triathletes to think that swimming freestyle offers a big margin of error. Well, for slow swimmers there is, but not for fast swimmers. One needs to get the pulling motion, the head and body position, the kick and the connecting rotation and recovery just right….or else.

RELATED: Are You Hurting Your Swim Technique?

They don’t breathe often enough

For most triathletes, breathing presents a few problems. It is not just that they take too long for the breath—that long star-gazing breath that slows the stroke rate and body’s speed down—it is also that they don’t breathe often enough. Many triathletes are taught to breathe to both sides, which usually gets translated into a 1:3 breathing pattern; one breath for three strokes. With a stroke rate of 60 (not unusual for a triathlete), that is a respiratory rate of 20 breaths per minute. On the bike or while running, one breathes 50–60 times a minute…so why do we want to swim hypoxically? Virtually all world-class freestylers breathe every cycle (1:2 pattern) and most of them are swimming at a stroke rate near 90, so they are getting 45 breaths per minute. The world record holder, Sun Yang, from China also throws in three consecutive breaths (three breaths in a row to both sides) in the middle of the pool and into and out of each turn.

Oxygen is the most precious nutrient out there for us. So use it, lots of it. If you insist on breathing to both sides, then breathe three times to the right, followed by three times to the left…but breathe more often.

If you are struggling on the technical side, let us (or another coach) help you. It is very hard to know or understand the subtle mistakes you may be making without a good trained eye and/or a camera on you. Every triathlete has very specific swim training needs. The motions of a fast freestyle swimmer are neither intuitive nor obvious. Nor are they easy. You need to be told what you are doing right or wrong, because what you are doing in the water and what you think you are doing are two very different things.

We don’t expect you to train like an elite swimmer, as that won’t help your triathlon, either. But more than likely, you do need to up your training, breathe more and most importantly, think like a swimmer.