Swim For Triathlon - What I Think You Should Know

I had my first swim lesson in a 13-metre swimming pool called “Club Apfel” (Club Apple) at 1,200 metre of altitude when I was 6 years old. At that time, that was the only pool we had available at my mountain village. For a bunch of 6-year-old the Club Apple looked long and daunting. But it worked quite well to be honest. There, not only did we learn the basics of front crawl (the name back then sounded really clunky), but we also played with an inflatable dinosaur we all called Denver.

Few years later I even finished second at the 50-metre, front crawl regional championships. But you also need to know that my region is nestled an average altitude of 2,000 metres, so that means not a lot people swim, let alone swimming at a high level. Most of them are into winter sports (and with reasons), so that “silver medal” always felt a bit like a scam. And that is why I also dedicated myself to alpine skiing.

This long intro had only the intent to say that for a good 20 years I didn’t swim anymore. I went sporadically to the pool and mostly enjoyed the sauna and the hot tub. To swim 50 metres became a challenge (and that medal felt even more like a scam), and I probably had to stop every 25 to take my breath back. But then, in 2012, something changed once again. I wanted to learn how to swim properly and looked for a swim coach in Turin. As a result I randomly ended up on a triathlon club website and decided to give it a go. The rest, as they say, is history.

I definitely improved A LOT in the last 7 years of my second swimming “career” but I am nowhere to consider myself as an advanced swimmer. There is still a lot that need to be done and I’m writing this post just few minutes before my periodic swim analysis and video session with Swim For Tri — the swimming improving specialists in London. They really know what are they talking about!

But the points that follow are, in my opinion, the most important ones you should keep in mind when you feel like your swimming isn’t improving and you’re struggling to get those 100 metre splits down. If you still don’t want believe your coach (or this random blogger/coach/journo you have found online, if you’re not one of my athletes), try to look at me as yet another age grouper who wants to share his personal path through a very rough and stormy sea. Cause in the end that’s who I am.

1.There is no magic bullet, nor shortcut. To improve your swimming technique and your swimming fitness takes A LOT of hard work and time. It’s a long game, so don’t expect it to be quick. It isn’t and it can’t be. To develop that “feel for the water” or those neuromuscular adaptations required to propel you through a fluid, well, it takes many years. You can see short term improvements from video analysis, medium term goals achieved by constant fitness classes, but the truth is that improving swimming is a long term project. One that is never complete or definitive and that — at least to me — is the beauty of swimming. Swimming is an art that I’m trying to master, but that I’m still struggling to master at a high level. Nevertheless, the intricacy of its technique keeps me busy and motivated to try to gain that knowledge and physical capacity to move my body through the water more and more efficiently.

2. Know your goals and what you want to achieve. If your main goal is to become a strong pool swimmer, then you should join a swim club, not a triathlon one. Do you want to master and develop the best technique, but only in the pool? Take lessons and get a lot of feedback on how to become smooth and fluid in the calmer environment of a pool. But if, on the other hand of the spectrum, you want to become a better open water swimmer because you’re a triathlete, than make sure your trainings are bringing you towards that goal. Do not get obsessed with the hand-entry angles of your hand before the catch phase. Instead, try to learn a swim stroke that despite not being smooth and nice to be seen, it will be highly effective in the turbulence of an open water scenario — where you’ll be swimming and battling currents, choppy waters and you’ll be thrown in the pack with hundreds of people around you. This does not mean you should forget the technical elements of swimming, nor that you shouldn’t do video analysis and have external feedback. But do your research and make sure you’re consulting someone that is familiar with the requirements of triathlon and/or let them know what your goals are.

3. Go to the pool, swim, and do not lose time. The most important thing you need to do to improve your swimming technique is actually swimming. Simple as that. If, on the other hand, you invest more time in reading books about swimming, reading blogs about the pull phase and start endless conversations on Twitter on whether a straight-arm recovery is better than a high-elbow one, then that is time you’re taking away from the most important part of the equation. That is still going to the pool and swim. Ok, I don’t want to sound too extremist: I also like to read books and blogs about swimming technique, but I tend not to start these kind of conversations on social media (I hope). But you know what I mean. Swim, swim, and swim more. You really cannot do anything better to your swim technique and fitness than actually swimming. I know it is not easy to find a nice pool where you look forward to going and training, and it also takes a lot of time to get there, to get changed, train, get changed again and move on with the rest of the day. But this is the naked reality of it: you need to go to the pool, swim and make those 60-90 minutes (more? good stuff!) by not faffing around and chatting with your swim partners and other people in your lane and other lanes. Go to the pool, swim, don’t lose time and swim more. Improvements will come naturally.

4. How many times you should swim? Well, it depends. If, for example, you only swim once a week, I’m sure swimming at least two times will have a huge benefit on both your technique and fitness (that would correspond to a 200% increase in your swimming time!) If — on the other hand — you are already able to swim twice per week and in the new year you’ll increase to three times per week, that is also an increase (150%) that will surely benefit your overall swim fitness. But if I have to be 100% honest and stick with percentages, there is not a definite number of time you really need to swim per week. Although I often suggest to swim at least three times and if you can swim four times it would be FANTASTIC! But again, to find a pool that is close to where you live and optimise the commute to get there and back is not easy. And yes, swimming is an important part of triathlon, but don’t forget triathlon is swim-bike-run and on top of targeting the swim for the outcome (swimming in open waters), you still need to keep the other disciplines up and running.

5. Open water sessions are good, but always when balanced. When I did my first triathlon in 2013 (sprint distance in Erfurt, Germany), well, that lake swim was also my first open water swim with a wetsuit ever. I remember I bought the wetsuit the same week in a shop in Jena — where I was studying — and wasn’t really sure I actually needed a wetsuit at all. I had balls and I was very keen, but right in the middle of the swim section I thought I would have never made it to the shore in one piece. Forget about getting on a bike! But it actually all went well, although I suffered way too much in that lake. So don’t do like me, plan some open water sessions before your races just to get a bit of confidence with the environment. After all, this is the environment you are going to race in, so this is where you want to perform at your best and where everything will come full-circle and — ideally — you’ll reap the benefits of all your hard work. However, even in this situation, remember not to overdue with open-water swimming, particularly on the build-up to a race. Not only lakes and seas are filled with bacteria and sea-life(!!!), but too much open-water can actually “break down” the stroke you have worked hard on in the pool. As always, hard work works, but a good balance is still king.