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Triathlon For Runners: Triathlon Swimming 101

Posted Jun 13 2009 10:09pm




This article is part of a new series focused on triathlon information for runners.  Since we know cross training is good for runners and biking and swimming are popular cross training exercise, why not mix it up and add a triathlon race to your calendar?   Lana, from her blog The Fire Inside  offered her expertise in this topic in response to our Help Wanted ad a few months ago.   We were excited to have this marathoner turned Ironman share her knowledge with the Lounge.


By Lana Matthews Sain


Triathlon Swimming 101

Many “runners-turned-triathlete” find their biggest obstacle to be the swim.  Some have never had any experience with competitive swimming, and some swam with a swim team as a child, but either way they find the swim to be the most challenging of all three sports.   

Swimming requires a different mindset from running or cycling.  In running and cycling, for the most part, if you want to get stronger and faster you run or ride longer and/or harder.  The key to swimming in a triathlon, though, is about being efficient in the water.  You can get out there and give 110% and wear yourself out in the pool daily, but if your swim stroke is inefficient you aren’t going to get any faster.  Factors such as body position, drag, stroke entry, and elbow position will determine how easily and quickly you slip through the water and how much energy you retain for cycling and running afterwards.  

Contrary to the popular belief, you do not swim flat on your belly.  Efficient swimming requires a constant rolling of the core and hips from side to side.  It is a “roll and glide” that engages your core and requires only a quiet, flutter kick of the legs to propel you through the water.  Your body should stay in a long, streamlined position during the glide portion in order to produce the longest stroke and the least drag possible.  Fewer strokes and less drag result in faster swimming and more energy left for cycling and running.  It is very important to master this principal early on in your swim training.  Swimming lap after lap with an inefficient stroke is counter-productive.  Take some time and learn it right on the onset, and you won’t have to go to back and reprogram your muscle memory later.  

Open water swims in triathlon bring about another set of factors that you may not encounter in pool swims.  In an open water triathlon, sighting is extremely important.  It doesn’t do you any good to have a perfectly efficient swim stroke if you can’t stay on course and find yourself swimming a longer distance than required!  Sighting just takes practice - preferably practice in the open water.  You should pick out a buoy or maybe a building on the shoreline and quickly take a look at it every 5 th or 6 th stroke to ensure you are still on the right course.  If you find yourself in a race an unable to sight very well, it is also helpful to keep an eye on the swimmers in front of you – of course you have to hope they know where they are going as well!  Also, don’t forget that while drafting is illegal on the bike in triathlon, it is not illegal on the swim.  You can gain an advantage in the water if you find a swimmer swimming about the same pace as yourself, and you swim in his draft.  

Lastly, I have found one of the most important tips to swimming in a triathlon is to stay positive.  When you have hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of bodies churning the water around a single set of buoys – unforeseen things are going to happen.  You most likely will get kicked or pushed by others, or you might find yourself in the middle of a pack and unable to navigate easily.  These things are just part of the swim, and you’ll become more comfortable with them with more experience in races.  Regardless of the circumstances, though, stay positive and remember what a great opportunity it is to be out there.  It’s the first event of the three, and you don’t want to be wasting energy on negativity right off the bat.  Stay calm, focus on your stroke, and make sure you are swimming on course.  Then go kick butt in the bike and the run!

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