My approach to swim training is somewhat unique. I don’t come from a swim background. I come from a running and cycling background. As such, I have come to several conclusions with regard to swim training for triathlon.
The first is that not all Masters swim programs are created equally. Many are not geared toward a triathlete who is seeking to improve their front crawl. The programs of which I speak are those that give equal training to the other strokes such as back, breast and butterfly. I am in no way suggesting that these are bad programs. My concern is that a triathlete with limited time needs to concentrate on the stroke they will be using in races. There is certainly a benefit to learning other strokes and swim techniques to improve overall swim ability, but I recommend choosing a program that is geared heavily toward front crawl. In the Vancouver, BC area, fortunately there are some great options geared toward triathletes.
Technique is important in the swim, especially since water is more difficult to force yourself through with poor technique. Technique is also important in cycling and running, but is often less emphasized since air is more forgiving of our attempts to force ourselves through it (more on that in a future post). Since we hear these assertions on technique so often, it is tempting to swim drills at every swim session, while omitting or limiting continuous swims and interval sets. I believe in committing time to technique-only sessions and then applying those learned techniques in continuous swims and interval sets. This gives the mind some variety and a break from heavy thinking about swimming. Sometimes, an athlete deserves to “just swim” and feel the joy of being in the water.
This leads me to another point which is swimming interval sets. I will often schedule a session with warm up, cool down and a simple set of X number of sets of X reps with a prescribed rest in between. No drills, just warm up, swim strong, cool down. I find these sessions give the athlete more focus on the intensity because there are no drills in the session to think about. I make sure that the athlete includes drills in another session, but not during this one.
Continuous swims are as important as the long bike and the long run. You will be swimming continuously on race day, so practicing nonstop swimming make sense. This is especially true when the weather allows for group open water swimming.
The final consideration in swim training is how much time to commit to swimming in your overall plan. The swim portion of a triathlon is the smallest percentage of time of the three sports. For longer races, it represents 15% of the time spent racing. Should you swim 15% of your total training time? Probably not, but neither should you spend 50% of your time swimming (unless you have a lot of extra time). I recommend 20-25% of training time be dedicated to swimming, depending on the season. In the off-season I like to do some swimming focus weeks so the bike and run will drop in volume in favour of swimming.
In a nutshell, I believe a balanced approach to swimming with your overall triathlon goals in mind yields the best results in the water and on the bike and run.