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Swim smart - tips for all levels of triathletes


When it comes to the swim training needed for a triathlon, there are those who love the water and are natural (or competitive) swimmers, those who are determined to become better swimmers and those who feel robotic and inefficient while swimming. Perhaps you've heard yourself or a triathlete say "I wish I could feel smoother in the water."

It's really beautiful to watch a swimmer swim. Smooth kicking, effortless arms and very few strokes to move from one side of the pool to the other. 

Swimming is all around a great sport but also a great way to improve fitness. It taxes all systems from cardio, respiratory to muscular and it also helps provide stress to the body without impact which transfers to run and bike fitness as well. 

That is - so long as you are not too exhausted from swimming that you can not maintain good energy during your run and bike workouts. 

There are a few pointers when it comes to training for a triathlon in the pool: 

1) You want to feel comfortable in the water
2) Form before speed
3) Strength training/dry land can improve imbalances in the body and also help with stronger upper body muscles
4) An efficient swimmer will perform better in all legs of a triathlon than a "fast" swimmer who expends too much energy during the swim portion. 
5) Swimming endurance will pay off more than swimming fast. However, before you go longer, form first, then incorporate that good form into short speed sessions to raise your threshold. 
6) You should actively warm-up your muscles before you swim and then do a warm-up (time-based warm-up can be more beneficial than yards for newer swimmers). 
7) Learn how to pace yourself in the water, especially when it comes to faster sets. 
8) Swimming makes for great active recovery - not every swim has to have a workout. 
9) When you train in the pool, your workout should have a purpose and a main set is often needed for more structured (and smart) training. 
10) Do technique work and drills!!
11) Use your tools - fins, paddles, buoys
12) Work with a swim coach that can help you with your stroke. 
13) Many athletes will benefit from a sport drink w/ carbohydrates and electrolytes during swimming to prevent overeating after workouts (feeling ravenous) as well as helping the athlete keep good form and to postpone fatigue.
14) Don't compare your endurance pace with "fast" pace and expect to swim the same time for a 100 compared to a 500 or 1000. Unless you run the same pace for a 5K as you do for a half marathon, appreciate going fast in short distance and steady in longer distance. 
15) REST between intervals!! If you want to get faster you will benefit from intervals with adequate rest to keep good form. Your threshold will improve even with 20-60 sec between intervals if that is what you need to be consistent at the beginning phases of training. 
16) There will be a time to go longer. Do not expect to swim 20 x 100's at goal olympic pace or 6 x 500's at goal IM pace in the first 4 weeks of swim training. Get faster (with good form) before you go longer. 

I have been swimming competitively since I was around 11 or 12 years old. I have loved the water ever since my first practice. I think I was a fish in my past life. 

My specialty races were:
200 butterfly (best time 2:19)
100 breast stroke (best time 1:09)
200 IM (best time 2:22)

I find it funny that I never enjoyed long distance swimming and always hated the 1 mile open water swim "race" we would do during our winter "hell week" training at FAU during college. Now seven Ironmans later, I call myself a distance swimmer. 


I really enjoyed every practice during my 20+ years of swim practices and had my share of back issues (and still do, now moved to my hips). But looking back, I can quickly acknowledge that I was very overtrained as a swimmer who did more than needed to improve. There was a lot of emphasis on yards with swimming 9 days a week and most workouts around 7000 yards in the evening (after 30 min of dry land). 

When you swim competitively (or do any sport) in school, it's hard to draw the line as to what is too much or not enough, especially if you are participating in a team sport with a few coaches leading the group. 

Now as a triathlete, I do not have to swim 9 times a week but instead, give myself workouts in the pool that allow me to be a better all around endurance triathlete. 

Recently I joined the Golden Group UNF masters swim with coach Erin for evening swims on MWF from 5:45pm - 7:15pm. I thought I had enough of my evening swims after a decade + of swimming in the afternoon every day, but being able to share this time with Karel gave me instant motivation to join his group. 

The group is small (about 6-8 of us) and the workouts are very focused on form. Karel has been part of this group since December and in two months, he has improved so much that it is almost unbelievable to think of where he was when he started to swim in June 2012 to where he is today. I'm talking a difference of barely breaking 1:30 for "fast" (which is still great for a new swimmer) and running out of oxygen and thus would need at least 30-60 sec rest to repeat that effort (but it didn't last long until his form suffered too much that he couldn't continue repeating those) to be able to swim 1:13!!!

Whereas my body performs a lot different than Karel's in the water due to many years of swimming, Karel is not only enjoying swimming more than ever but also not have shoulder problems any more and I am not having my upper back issues anymore. 

No matter what type of swimmer you are (experienced or novice or in between), part of the TRIMARNI TRAIN SMART approach is to focus on form.....all the time! NO workout should be at the expense of poor form.

When Karel started swimming with the Golden Group, the max yards was around 2000 (maybe 2500). Obviously Karel and the other swimmers could swim more but there was so much attention needed for better strokes that the extra yards were not worth the extra waste of energy. Now the swims are around 3000-3500 but in the past 6 months Karel has not swam over 4000 yards yet his speed and endurance are improving significantly. It's like free speed when you improve your form!

After weeks of form focused sets with fins (which has helped Karel a lot and I just recently purchased a pair and I have found a noticeably difference in my ability to focus more on my stroke with drill sets as most of our drills sets are with fins), the group as a whole (which is of mixed levels) have all improved their strokes and thus times as well......without swimming longer or harder!

After a few swims with the team, I have noticed that a lot of my bad habits in the water and being focused on a lot more now. It's like night and day to feel the catch in the right spot or to focus on the right time to breath. Even if I can jump into the water any day and swim 2.4 miles straight, this doesn't transfer to a faster swim leg or total time in an IM. 

The key with swimming is patience. There will be a time when you have a better feel for the water. If you want to get faster you do not have to swim faster all the time and you do not have to go longer all the time. 

But the mistake for athletes is focusing too much on the yards. I often give yard focused sets for my athletes but there's a specific set for every workout. As a coach, it's hard to recommend drills without seeing an athlete so communication and videos are helpful but also having someone to watch you is imperative. Even for me as a lover of the water, I really enjoy having someone correct my stroke to make me a better triathlete. 

Swim workout 1/13: 

After mini sets of drill focused work (almost all of it was with fins) for a total of 1800, we did the main set: 

4 x 300's - descend 1-4 (last 300 was the fastest).
Within each 300, descend (first 150 a bit slower than the 2nd 150). 
5:30 cycle

Not only did we have enough rest to refocus but this set required a lot of concentration and we put all that technique work to good use. 

My times: 
4:23
4:22
4:11
4:01

Not only did I feel so smooth in the water (Karel said the same thing - he was right behind me in the lane) but I am also swimming the paces that I was swimming during my peak Ironman training but with a lot less effort and volume in the water and feeling much smoother and efficient in the water. There will be a time when the volume of my swim-bike-run training increases but for now, I will enjoy focusing on the little things before putting all the pieces together when it counts. 

If you are looking to take your training to the next level, remember that less is more, recovery is just as important as sticking to a balanced training plan and good form during workouts make for a happy body and mind. 


Do you have your eyes set on an upcoming triathlon but are not sure how to get started or take training to the next level?

Are you struggling with endurance in the water, do you want to improve power on the bike, do you want to become a faster runner off the bike or do you struggle with motivation when you train because you are not following a balanced plan to help take your training to the next level?

Trimarni coaching and nutrition has your triathlon training needs in mind with a variety of PRE BUILT PLANS.