recently read an article that talked about working your weakness versus
strengthening your strength. The author suggested there’s a reason why something is your strength – the way you’re built, your background
– and you’ll likely be banging your head into a wall trying to turn
yourself into something else. Sounds like an easy way of getting out of the challenging, often uncomfortable and slow process of improving your weakness. Is that process worth it?
athletes come to the sport of triathlon from one of two backgrounds: swimming
or running. Rare is the triathlete who
comes from a cycling background. Cycling isn't as mainstream as swimming (for youth) or running (for adults) and the cyclists out there tend to feel
strongly about triathlons. If there are
triathletes in triathlons, the cyclists genearlly don’t want to be there.
I’ll talk mostly about swimmers and runners.
a swimmers swim just doesn’t make sense.
I’ve worked with some very, VERY fast swimmers. From what I’ve seen, you give a swimmer 2-3x
a week of swimming and they will maintain their strong swim which even when
it’s “weak” will be much stronger than most other triathletes (at the amateur
level). Remember, they
come from a background of swimming 10K a day for many, many years of their
life. To make a change, they need to
swim a lot and the time spent just won’t be worth it because generally their
bike and run lag far behind.
to work a swimmers weakness, generally the run, they need to run a lot. Not long – the worst thing you can do to a
swimmer is to train them for a marathon.
They’ll break down. Shorter, frequent
runs to improve their durability. Work
on cadence/turnover. Alactic strides,
short hill repeats – these are things that improve your neuromuscular ability
to run faster without draining you or risking injury as with more traditional
or extended ‘speed’work. Frequent running will also help chip away at
their generally stockier body mass.
Running 5-6x a week for shorter periods of time is more beneficial than
running 3 times a week for 60 minutes. A
day where they run twice can be useful too.
Separate double runs by at least 6 hours with the first run being at an
easier pace and the second run including some drill work or strides to
reinforce form when fatigued. Runs are
best scheduled before swim or bike workouts to have them going into runs fresh
so they work on form rather than shuffle through fatigue.
on the other hand, are generally poor swimmers.
If you’ve ever watched an adult-onset swimmer who comes from a run
background, it’s no surprise that they try run while swimming. Excessive kicks driven from the knee down are
not only ineffective but costly in terms of energy/oxygen consumption. This fatigues their legs and impacts their triathlon running. Not only that but the runner tends to get frustrated
at the technical, patient nature of swimming.
In a sport where applying a harder-faster-longer mentality often rules,
getting them to slow down, work on form and feel
what they’re doing can be the most difficult part of swimming.
pays to have a runner set aside a month if not a season to work on their
swim. During this time their
run will temporarily suffer, especially if they run after swimming. But this is very much like what happens in a
triathlon. It may be mentally and
emotionally frustrating to them because what was once their “baby” (the run)
might slow down as they direct energy for the swim or even put on more muscle
mass to swim better. In the long term,
as a triathlete, this will pay off. They
just need to trust it.
runners who come to triathlon can benefit from a month long focus on their
swim. During this time, the bike and run
should be put on 2-3x a week maintenance with shorter sessions that focus on
maintaining feel/form rather than trying to build big fitness. They should swim with frequency and not necessarily
duration. Swim just enough to maintain
form rather than get to the point where form breaks down and they’re just
logging useless laps. Swimming 5-6x a
week, even with one day where they swim twice a week can result in a nice boost
in their swim ability. Since swimming is
so much about feel for the water, the
more they are in the water, the better they’ll understand (and feel) how their
body moves through the water. You just
cannot develop that by swimming 2-3x a week.
swim days should be separated by at least 6 hours. The first session should consist of some
shorter, faster sprint work. The second session
should consist of drills to reinforce form when fatigued or pulling. Pulling with paddles is beneficial for
runners, especially women, as it helps them to develop the musculature around
the shoulders and in the lats to power stronger swimming. Paddles should be just slightly bigger than
the hand and contain no wrist straps (if you’re entering wrong with the paddle,
it should fall off!). There’s much
debate on this topic and ultimately it depends on how your body (and shoulders)
responds to paddles.
working on your weakness is beneficial. With
the swim as your strength, rare is the swimmer who is so far ahead of the field
that they can sustain that lead for the entire race. The longer the race, the less your swim
strength helps you. With significantly
more time spent on the bike and run, the cyclists – and even more, the runners –
will eventually hunt you down. Not only
that but stronger swimmers can get frustrated by being out front and then
getting passed for the rest of the race.
Psychologically, this is a tough pill to swallow. By bringing the swimmer’s bike and run up to
a more competitive level, they might lose some time on the swim but overall
gain more time on the bike and run. They
are better able to race. Being a part of
the race is more empowering than being passed by the entire race.
any triathlete, the swim can be full of anxiety, fears and frustration. By improving their skills, technique and
confidence in swimming, an athlete can go into a race feeling more capable of
not just surviving the swim but actually making forward progress during
it. When one can focus on competing
rather than just completing, that’s when they’re actually racing in a
heard from other athletes who struggle with the swim that their coach doesn’t
believe in working on the swim because it’s the shortest part of the
triathlon. While it’s true that you only
spend a small fraction of the overall race time in the water, remember, that
small time is where you start your day.
If you start your day overworking, inefficient and fatigued, it will negatively
impact your bike and run. A swim focus
might only gain you a few minutes on your swim time but could lead to more
energy to expend on your bike and run – leading to bigger time gains. Remember too that triathlon is the ability to
seamlessly weave and execute three sports together. Coaches should be coaching you to be a
too is the idea of giving up swim training for a few months only to bring it
back closer to race season. From my own
experience, this works only for those consistently able to swim a sub 1:20
pace. These athletes tend to have
superior feel for the water which
they never lose. They just lose the top
end of their fitness. Give them 4-8
weeks of working on that speed and it comes back again. Some in the 1:30 range might also be able to
get away with this. Those in the 1:30+
range should not give up swimming for any extended period of time. Better to cut down to even 20 minute sessions
3-4x a week than to completely leave the water.
longer you’re in the sport or the more competitive you wish to be in the sport,
the more aces you need up your sleeve.
You can’t rely on a strength to run someone down or swim away from
them. You need to be well-rounded. As you age in the sport of triathlon, I also see
that the swim and bike become even more important. We all experience a loss of speed in our run
as we age. Relying on your run when you’re
over 35, just doesn’t work from what I’ve seen.
You need to be well-rounded, equally as strong in all 3 sports so you
can race rather than catch-up across the race.
The longer the race, the more important this is.
the sport becomes more popular, I also see fewer “outliers” in the sport. Athletes are getting smarter - they’re hiring
coaches, following plans, paying attention to the details like recovery,
equipment and nutrition. Because of
this, all of those little things that add up to more speed are putting athletes
closer together. This is a good
thing. It raises the bar for all us,
forcing us to make the commitment to becoming a better triathlete rather than a
good runner or swimmer or cyclist who does triathlons. Again, it pays to be well-rounded in your
approach to training. If you’re
interested in excelling at the sport of triathlon then you must take all 3
weakness is transitioning, you should also set aside time to work on that
too. At the higher end of the competition,
every second counts. You can practice
transitions every day – on your trainer, when putting on your run shoes, when
heading back into the lockerroom. Think
about all of the challenges outside of just swimming, biking and running that
you encounter in a triathlon – putting on shoes, buckling your helmet, running
from the swim to the bike. Include a
variety of bricks in your training: run before your bike, run after your
swim. The only thing you can generally
do fresh all of the time is swimming because we never really do anything before
swimming (unlike the bike and the run).
Lastly and most importantly, giving your weakness attention will improve your ability and fitness but
more importantly your confidence. I’m a
big proponent of the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.” You need confidence to go into a masters practice
and “fake” being a good swimmer so you can get into a faster lane and try to keep up. You need confidence to find yourself at the
end of a race with the determination and grit to push yourself to keep up with
the person who’s trying to take away your lead. You need confidence before you can have any
type of breakthrough. The tougher the
conditions (chop, heat, rain), the more this confidence pays off. The kiss of death for a poor swimmer is
choppy conditions. They might have the
fitness but they do not have the confidence to effectively maneuver through it.
Same goes for hills, head or wind on the
bike or run. You need confidence to
effectively pace and push yourself through those obstacles. Yes, you also need fitness. But at the higher end of the age groups,
everyone’s got fitness. What’s going to
be your ace in the hole?
you’ll find after working on your weakness is that it better puts you in a
position to utilize your strength. If
you swim and bike better, you’ll be able to run fresher and stronger. If you bike and run better, you’ll be able to
maintain that lead you built on the swim.
And it goes without saying, if you bike more efficiently, even if you’re
a great runner, you will run even better.
In any case, you don’t necessarily have to work your weakness until it
becomes your strength, you just have to work it unless it becomes less of a
weakness. Besides, who wants to think
of any part of themselves as weak anyways?
Framing the language you use when you think about yourself is also a big
part of confidence and self-efficacy.
it comes time to consider working your weakness, trust that there is
value. It will be frustrating, it will
require patience and you will (temporarily) slow down in your area of
strength. But in time, speed and ability
level out making you stronger in all 3 sports.
Ultimately, this is what makes for success in triathlon.