Swim Like a Triathlete, Not a Swimmer       October 28, 2015
You’re not a single-sport pool swimmer, so why would you train like one?

 The article makes some good points, for example, the importance of utilizing bi-lateral breathing, employing a less vigorous use of legs/kicking, & adopting a stroke rate that is on the high end of the spectrum.  All of these are all probably good skills for a triathlete. However, the title, "Swim Like a Triathlete" is just sad. Triathletes should strive to be the best they can be at each individual event: swim like a swimmer!!

Whenever freestyle swimming technique is discussed, names of fast and famous pool swimmers are tossed about: Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Katie Ledecky and Sun Yang, to name a few. Their technique is viewed and analyzed from the tips of their fingers to the points of their toes. These record-setting athletes have many commonalities in their technique that can be broken down and taught to young and novice swimmers. The question is, should triathletes be learning the skills to swim fast in a pool, or does the different environment warrant a different technique altogether?


The pool is a very controlled environment, while open water can vary from a calm lake to a rough ocean. Pool swimmers develop an unchanging stroke technique for maximum efficiency while moving through calm water. Triathletes, on the other hand, must be able to change their technique from race to race (or even within a single race) to adapt to the weather and water conditions. Some stroke variations include single-sided breathing away from chop, high hand recovery over waves, and short or compressed strokes when surrounded by other athletes.

Of course triathletes should learn the skills and techniques to swim fast in a pool! If Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, Katie Ladecky or Sun Yang competed in a triathlon, they would be so far ahead in the swim!  Shout out to Lars Jorgensen, the former 1500 Olympic swimmer who set all the triathlon swim records when he competed in the '90's & early 2000's; and Andy Potts, an Olympic trial qualifier in several swimming events and currently a veteran triathlete ranked top ten in the world, who regularly still sets the pace for the swim portion of every triathlon distance he races. Technique rules!

Pool swimmers are fast. Period. Slow pool swimmers are slow in open water just like they are in "controlled environments".

 Bilateral Breathing
Race footage of pool swimmers will show some breathing to a single side for an entire event. However, a majority of these swimmers will spend 90 percent of training breathing to both sides. They develop a balanced and even stroke during practice and use their dominant side when racing to consume more oxygen. There are many reasons for triathletes to embrace bilateral breathing: the water and weather conditions, the proximity of other athletes, the placement of buoys, the direction of the sun, etc. These frequently shifting conditions require triathletes to be confident breathing to the non-dominant side.

Low Profile Breathing

In a calm lane, swimmers can take a breath very close to the surface of the water. Coaches call this “one goggle in, one goggle out” breathing. This is a very efficient technique, but it isn’t always possible in open, choppy waters. Trying to maintain a low-profile breathing technique in these conditions will result in a lung full of water. Stay efficient while breathing with a higher profile or turn your face slightly backward into your armpit to find a clean breath of air.

Bilateral breathing is certainly a useful skill for the triathlete in open water, but it can be developed while doing stroke drills and an occasional set, and probably 80% of the workout should be breathing to one side. The only exception to this might be if the workouts are regularly longer than 7or 8k. Bilateral breathing might be a preventative to additional shoulder stress during long sets. Remember, the head is like a 16 pound bowling ball: the more you move your head around, the rest of your body is detrimentally affected. Bilateral breathing, turning your head backward to breath or lifting it is tiring, less efficient, and creates that wiggle that not only looks like a snake but a slow snake at that ;) 

A swimmer can compete with a 4–6-beat kick from start to finish, while a triathlete might use a light, less frequent two-beat kick to take the rest of the race—and the mandate on the legs for the bike and the run—into consideration. The kick provides a very small percentage of forward propulsion, but swimmers are trying to knock portions of seconds off their times, so the additional kick is necessary. Meanwhile, a triathlete is trying to efficiently complete the swim leg with a minimal effect on the other two disciplines. While a two-beat kick will help with rotation and increase power in the pull phase, the additional kicking can be detrimental to the overall race.

The conditions are starkly different from swimming in a pool to swimming in open water, and learning to swim like a pool swimmer can be detrimental to your development as an open-water athlete. After developing stroke skills in the pool, you should focus on developing an efficient stroke technique for the open water.

While it’s true that in the swim portion of a triathlon saving the legs for the bike and the run is important, the kick still plays a role in rhythm and balance and hip rotation. Additionally, the triathlete needs to feel that their feet are at or close to the surface, otherwise additional drag forces are incurred. In training, kicking is good for increasing blood flow and oxygen, breaking muscle adhesions , and increasing range-of-motion and flexibility.  In a swim workout, it will raise the pulse rate so that the training stimulus is at its maximum potential.  The pull buoy certainly has a paramount place in training, but it lowers the heart rate by 10 to 20 beats for the same workout done without the buoy. At the very least, kicking will help your running & cycling by increasing capillary action, and helping quick twitch muscle fiber recruitment. In a sense, kicking acts like a massage to flush out waste and toxins and serves to refresh the legs. Not too much, not too little, find just the right amount of leg work in the pool through drills, sprint 25s, & “ocean 50s” J

Stroke Rate
Swimsmooth.com’s Paul Newsome compared the stroke rate (or strokes per minute) between the medalists in the men’s Olympic 1500m swim and the 1500m swim at the start of the men’s Olympic triathlon. Here’s what he found:

 Medal   Pool  Triathlon
Gold       65        89
Silver      80        82
Bronze   76        92

This trend of high stroke rate persists with the top female triathletes as well as the best open-water swimmers in the world. A higher rate allows triathletes to adapt to any water conditions—especially choppy waves—and recover quickly from interrupted strokes caused by colliding with other athletes.

Note: In the chart comparing the gold silver and bronze, the silver medalist in the triathlon had a stroke count as low as the silver medalist in the pool.

Higher stroke rates are so personalized and for some swimmers are advisable. Yet, stroke efficiency should always include distance-per-stroke consideration. It is not a fixed number for all, rather it should be individualized and be the fewest strokes that is appropriate, based somatyping, fitness, even personal preference.

Let's stop giving triathletes a pass. Slow in the pool is slow in the open water.  Let's give "fast" a fair shot: smooth always trumps rough, and improved technique & reduced stroke count are never a bad thing. Churning the water is bad. Some kicking is good. 

Embrace the challenge of swimming pretty and fast!  

A recent article in Triathlete magazine challenges the practice of triathlon swim training in a swimming pool. The article text appears below, along with our own comments in response.

Read on!!

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