With focus and a methodical approach, triathletes can take advantage of the break from triathlon racing to become great swimmers.
It’s the discipline triathletes love to hate and even more so during the winter months.
With no events in sight, athletes tend to hang up their goggles and hibernate into biking, running and cross-training. Many triathletes neglect swim training for months. For most, this approach is a mistake. The off-season presents a great opportunity to increase swim load, resulting in gains that carry over into the new season. As swimming is a non-eccentric loading exercise, it is very low in injury risk.
For weak swimmers who lack technique, a planned off-season swim block can be just what an athlete needs to break his/her plateau or gain a newfound appreciation and love for the sport.
To best guide athletes through an off-season swim block, coaches should keep the following five steps in mind.
Set expectations and feasible frequency. I have coached children aged 3-12 when I was a student studying Sports at the University of Pretoria. For 5 years of working with kids in the water hands-on, it was pretty clear that those who had more exposure to water mastered their confidence a lot faster. To improve your swimming you need a minimum of 2 days back-to-back swimming 1 day off, and to maintain swimming every second day.
The swim is a deceptively time-intensive discipline, mostly due to travel and prep. The time spent gathering gear, driving to the pool, changing, and showering can really add up. For these reasons, I have always tried to live as close as possible to a pool as swimming has always been my personal weakness. It’s important for athletes to see the value of a swim-focused block and establish a reasonable consistent swim frequency.
As a general rule, I find the sweet spot for most age-group triathletes is around four to five sessions per week during the season, as the aerobic fitness you build will add value to your biking and running. Looking to do a swim focussed block this should be the aim to increase frequency. It’s not unreasonable to increase typical swim volume by 50 to 100-plus percent over a swim block, but be careful about using the pool buoy and paddles too much too soon to avoid shoulder or elbow injuries.
Tip: Pre-swim focussed block you can strengthen your shoulder by starting to do daily push up.
It’s important to remember that the swim, like all technique-focused disciplines, benefits from frequency and consistent engagement. Frequency is key with swimming and 500m is better than a skipped session. Once the ideal frequency is established, a coach can determine the ideal mix of workout types within a week and structure the plan to accommodate these sessions relative to the other disciplines. A run-swim or swim-run session can be combined as a time saver and a longer aerobic workout.
Focus on improving swim technique
Swimming is a technical sport and well requires relentless attention to form. The first few weeks of a swim block are the ideal time to hone technique and develop good habits. At the beginning of the block, anyone should film themselves in the water and identify obvious form flaws. Athletes are often not aware that they have errors in their strokes and can’t feel what they are doing incorrectly. You can then fix the basic errors, gain some fitness and then engage with a proper swim coach. I have seen this many times, helping an unfit athlete to correct their stroke. They barely make 100m in total and now you are asking them to focus. Impossible!
We were lucky at TUKS (University of Pretoria) to work in the early day with very expensive equipment filming, like Swordfish. But now through amateur video analysis using a GoPro, inefficiencies become evident. Coaches should point out areas to improve upon, such as poor rotation, crossover, a weak pull, poor alignment, and sinking legs. Always take into account that pool swimming is NOT open-water swimming. You need to be stronger and handle decent form while swimming with 5+ athletes around you. So practise in a wetsuit prior to an event.
In addition to improving form at the beginning of a swim block athletes create the habit of constantly assessing their form. This can be done by asking your fellow swim partner, coach or swimmer on the next lane. Free advice is sometimes the best.
The mission of self-improve technique is an endless endeavour and should not simply be relegated to drilling or occasional form-focused sessions—it should be a constant focus. By emphasizing technique from the beginning, athletes learn to be “thinkers” in the water and establish real engagement with their strokes, both of which will prove particularly valuable during tough swim sets or races.
Emphasize quality, high-frequency swimming sessions
Most triathletes don’t swim enough to realize the benefits of traditionally-structured, high-frequency swimming. They rock up to the pool and swim up and down counting tiles.
Pure swimmers do 30-50km per week in structured well-planned sessions. This will be broken up into warm-up, building efforts, kicking, main set and cool-downs.
For triathletes only swimming 8km to 12km each week is average, and it’s important to make each stroke count and best use of time available as you still need to bike and run.
Swimming in a squad to keep you accountable will improve your swimming. You need to get pushed and also rock up to the pool deck when it’s cold and dark.
Tips for getting to the pool.
Pack your bag the night before
Have your pre-swim coffee/snack ready to grab and go.
Don’t allow time for negotiating the session Eg. I’ll do it in the afternoon
Reward yourself after the session with a nice healthy breakfast at the gym.
Working with a coach like De Bruin Train can guide you to eliminate loads of triathlon mistakes. Having a coach giving encouragement and helping with techniques can be great motivation for improvement.
By joining a group with others and under the watchful eye of a coach, athletes are often motivated to swim harder and with superior form.
There is no better time of the year to become a great swimmer than in the off-season. With focus and a methodical approach, athletes can take advantage of the break from triathlon racing to become great swimmers.