Since becoming involved with Developmental Triathlon Coaching and being mentored within the swim sessions of the Lakers Triathlon Club Program over the past months, I’ve developed a stronger appreciation of how difficult it can be starting a learning journey in triathlon swimming in your 30’s, 40s, 50s or even 60s. Swimming is unlike cycling and running in a number of ways, and the approaches one takes to swimming training and development must reflect the unique requirements of the sport in order to sustain continual progress. This article aims to provide some useful paradigms new triathletes can buy into to improve their chances of progression with their swimming.
Swimming is a ‘skill’ sport first, and a ‘fitness’ sport second
Land-based sports like cycling and running, while unquestionably having important technique and skill elements to them, come much more naturally to most new athletes than swimming. After all, we use many of the same muscles and neural firing patterns for these sports as we do in our everyday movements – things like walking to the shops or scaling a flight of stairs, have more in common with running and cycling than they do swimming. Water is a medium that most humans are not exposed to regularly, and did not evolve to move through efficiently. As such, the process of efficiently and quickly moving one’s body through water is an extremely complex skill that must be learnt over time.
Swimming has more in common with sports like tennis than it does with cycling and running. In tennis speed and fitness are important, however it doesn’t matter how fast you can move around the court if every return ends up over the baseline or in the net. As such, top tennis players spend huge amounts of time working on their forehand, backhand, volleys, lobs and other strokes, under a range of conditions, to ensure they can perform these skills automatically under pressure.
Swimming is no different, except that triathletes coming in with their cycling and running mindsets tend to skip skill development in favour of just ‘going hard’. It doesn’t matter how big your aerobic engine is if you’re applying pressure to the water in the wrong directions, creating huge amounts of drag with a poor body position, and wasting energy with extraneous muscle contractions – you’re not going to go fast. If you’re fighting the water, the water will win every time.
Developing efficient movement skills in the water is the number “1” most important factor in continual swimming improvement. This is particularly important for triathletes who don’t have as much time to dedicate to their swimming as pure swimmers. Every session needs to have a clear and purposeful focus on improving one or more aspects of movement efficiency.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do aerobic development sets.
Swimming fast and swimming fatigued are incredibly important skills in and of themselves, particularly given this is what we do in a race! However your mental focus during these training sets should still be on your stroke efficiency, breathing and pacing, rather than just putting your head down and ‘going hard’. As a broad rule of thumb, I think swimmers should do at least one aerobic development set each week specific to their ability and the demands of their event, and those who swim more regularly can focus a greater amount of time in the water on aerobic development. Aerobic fitness developed from cycling and running also contribute to swim fitness.
The good news is that, while fitness levels will fluctuate throughout the season, well developed movement skills tend to ‘stick’ better. A technically sound swimmer can still swim quite fast off a low fitness base, and improvements from year to year will be better retained rather than disappearing over the off-season.
Swimming needs to be practiced regularly to maintain progress
Now that we’ve established that skill development is of primary importance to sustainable swimming improvement, we need to look at how we can facilitate this in our training. It’s a well-established principle of skill development that, given a choice between increasing the frequency of practice or increasing the duration of practice, the former is the preferred approach. Given how foreign the wet environment is to humans and the limited opportunities to practice swimming movement skills out of the pool, regular swimming practice is essential for continued improvement.
Regular, short sessions allow the athlete to start and finish the session mentally attuned, helping maintain focus and retain learning of ‘good habits’ – fatigue can lead to disintegration of technique, which can result in bad habits working their way in at the tail end of the session. The reduced time between sessions also assists with the express habituation of learning. In my opinion, the vast majority of newer triathletes don’t swim often enough to support effective skill development, resulting in stagnation and eventually a mindset of ‘I’m just not a good swimmer’.
As a rule of thumb, newer swimmers should aim to practice their swimming at least 3 times per week to allow continual, sustained progress. As a swimmer improves, this needs to increase further as the technical skills being developed become more difficult and complex, the technical inefficiencies are smaller and the focus required to improve is even greater.
Practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes progress
I’m seeing many swimmers who just turn up at squad and go through the motions; doing vaguely what the coach says, but not really engaging with the exercises or thinking about what they’re doing. Poorly executed technique drills not only won’t result in the desired improvement, they can ingrain bad habits which make your swimming worse.
The primary focus of any swim training activity, whether it be drills or an interval set, should be on excellent execution. Swimmers need to become attuned to their body, feeling what they are doing well and what they aren’t doing well, and making small adjustments as they go. Video analysis can be hugely beneficial in this, allowing athletes to see things that aren’t visible to them while swimming, though seeing oneself swimming on video can be uncomfortable!
Blissful ignorance of one’s flaws is, however, a recipe for stagnation.
Coaches have a great responsibility to convey to their athletes a strong understanding of how to perform the activity properly, and to correct things when they aren’t done properly. They also need to ensure that the activities and drills are appropriate for the skill levels of the swimmers, and that as swimmers master new skills the activities are progressed to drive continued improvement. A good swim coach is an asset; if you’re not getting the above from your current coach, raise it with them or find a better coach.
Swimmers need to focus on their weaknesses, and regularly step outside their comfort zone
Let’s face it – working on our weaknesses is uncomfortable. Doing what we do well give us a feeling of competence and confidence, however trying to repair our inadequacies can be frustrating and demoralising.
Henry Ford is credited with saying ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got’, and nowhere is this more relevant than in swimming. If the goal of your swimming is to maintain a false sense of competence, burying your head in the sand about weaknesses and never improving, then by all means continue to do the same things every session.
However, real progress comes from stepping outside our comfort zone and challenging our skills, coordination and fitness. It doesn’t feel nice to start with, but over time you will develop real confidence and competence by mastering skills you never would have acquired had you not taken that leap of faith.
Stepping outside one’s comfort zone regularly also helps swimmers to achieve something even greater. Instead of mastering the performance of a particular skill, the athlete masters the skill of learning skills. What that means is, faced with an unfamiliar challenge or set of conditions, the athlete has the ability to figure out an appropriate solution on-the-fly, rather than just relying on the limited tools they have at their disposal and hoping for the best. The positive impact of this cannot be overstated. Athletes who have this ability will often beat far-superior competitors in races with tricky conditions, and are usually far more consistent in their performances than athletes with a ‘2D’ approach to training.
Next time you’re at the pool, try a new drill you haven’t tried before, or spend some time working on form strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle). Swim in open water regularly, in a range of conditions, in a pack and solo, and with and without a wetsuit. Try out some crazy ‘brain twister’ strokes, for example freestyle arms with a dolphin kick, or breaststroke arms with a freestyle flutter kick. Learn to dive and tumble-turn. Try swimming freestyle with one or both of your eyes closed. All of these will make you a more versatile swimmer in the long run. Make them up, but have fun.
Progress in swimming is a long term, incremental process requiring regular, effective and consistent practice over years, not over weeks.
The older we are when we start swimming, the more challenging it becomes. Humans experience peak development of their neural pathways prior to the age of 9 to 10. Beyond that age, our ability to learn and master new skills (of any kind) diminishes and it becomes harder to change the way our brains talking to our muscles – the essence of learning any motor skill.
However humans are pretty incredible creatures that do retain the ability to learn new skills well into old age; it just takes a little more time, will, effort and wan’t.
It is important for adults who are new to swimming to approach the sport with a long view. You will get better over time, but you need to practice regularly, effectively, and consistently. There’s is a great joy a New or Old coach than when one of their athletes has an ‘AHA!’ moment and makes a huge improvement quickly, however the reality for most swimmers is that significant improvements occur in small increments over years, not weeks.
Detaching yourself from outcomes and focussing on the improvement process will maintain your sanity at those challenging times where everything seems to be going backwards, allowing you to stick it out until the rewards finally come, and improve your enjoyment of swimming and swim training.
I hope as triathletes, new and old, you will take some of these ideas and apply them to their own approach to triathlon swimming. They will help you set a course of continual improvement each year, and hopefully take away some of the frustration that can arise along the way. I also encourage you to become students of the sport, as having a deeper understanding of the “Why” will enable you to execute the “How” much more effectively.
This is the useful paradigm to ensure continual swimming improvement!
The Most Graceful Freestyle Swimming by Shinji Takeuchi