The Triathlon Swim: Where Balance Begins

Here is an article from “Tri Newbies Online” website

The Triathlon Swim: Where Balance Begins

A balance of all three sports that make up the triathlon is necessary for successful results and this balance begins with the swim

Hazen Kent – Tri-Newbies Online

It is very important to understand one important fact for success and enjoyment in the sport of triathlon: you must think of this crazy activity and the racing and training involved…holistically, as one event made up of three interrelated activities – just like a smooth running engine (the triathlon) with all of its internal components (swim, bike, run) working in synch. And swimming is where the balance begins.

Most of us participating in the sport of triathlon have some history or experience in at least one of the three activities that make up the event. And when training for triathlons, many of us in tend to rely on and consequently put forth all of our energy in our particular specialty, whether it be swim, bike or run. Unfortunately, this can prove to be detrimental to our overall triathlon performance.

Such was the case for professional triathlete and cycling specialist Jurgen Zack in his attempts at the Hawaiian Ironman during the early 1990’s. Zack would make it known his plans to attack the bicycle leg in hopes of wearing out his opponents for the run. However, this plan of attack would often backfire, leaving his own legs wasted only to be passed on the run by the very opponents he was out to beat. After changing his ways, his more balanced attack has yielded Ironman victories all over the world as well as being one of only a handful of individuals to ever break the 8 hour time barrier for an Ironman distance race.

During the 1996 Hawaiian Ironman, swimming sensation Lars Jorgneson fell into this same trap, smashing the swim coarse record only to drop out of the race posting a DNF (Did Not Finish).

And finally, your better runners will often hold back on the first two legs of a triathlon, saving their strength for their specialty. However, this too can backfire leaving the athlete so far back in the pack, that even an outstanding run will fail to yield the desired results. This almost happened to Mark Allen in his 1995 comeback victory at the Hawaiian Ironman. When he began the run portion of the race, he was nearly 13 minutes down on the leader Thomas Hellreigal after saving his strength on the bike ride due to the extremely high winds blowing that day. Upon beginning the run, admittedly, he had thought a 13 minute gap would be too difficult to close. And his fears almost became reality finally catching and passing Hellreigal at mile 24 of the marathon.

So . Remember, you are not a swimmer, a cyclist or a runner…you are a triathlete. And swimming is where the balance begins.

Unfortunately, the swimming leg is often considered the “forgotten” leg of the triathlon, its role can actually be very crucial. Obviously swimming is the first leg of the traditional triathlon, and regardless of one’s swimming background, the swim can often be the determining factor of a racer’s overall triathlon performance. Go out too fast and you run the risk of “blowing up” during the bike or run. Go out too slow and you can be left too far back being forced to play catch-up for the remainder of the race. Ironically, it is more often the experienced swimmer who suffers. Again, I refer to Lars Jorgenson in 1996 record breaking swim and ultimate DNF – A perfect example of going out too fast on the swim portion of a triathlon resulting in a less than favorable overall performance. Unfortunately, such a mistake happens more often than not. Let us take a look at a typical scenario for many individuals competing in the sport triathlon. As you read the following passage, refer to the diagram in Figure 1.

You begin the swim of your triathlon like most excited and/or nervous individuals in a competitive race situation – attacking the swim portion of the race with a 100% effort. At the conclusion of the swim, you dash out of the water, head for the transition area, jump on your two-wheeler and begin the bike leg. As you proceed on the bike portion of the race, competitors are everywhere and your adrenaline begins to flow. Consequently, you continue to give it all you have. Unfortunately, whether you realize it or not, you are now having to put forth what feels like a 110% effort with perhaps a 90% return. In other words, you are working harder on the bike in an attempt to keep yourself on the same level as your swim. Unfortunately, and physiologically, you will never reach that level again. Not knowing this, or even caring, you continue to grind out the gears and push on. By the end of the bike leg or perhaps a minute or two into the run you discover your energy level is just about depleted. Consequently, you try harder than ever only to discover at the conclusion of the race, your running split was slower than your slowest run on a training day!

For many competing in triathlon, this type of racing method is not uncommon regardless of your swimming ability.

Yes, but it’s a triathlon. It’s supposed to be difficult. I know what the problem is. I need to get into better shape. I will go home and train HARDER for the next race. 

A typical response for most competitive athletes and one, unfortunately, that can lead to a downward spiral like a dog digging himself a hole while chasing his tale.

As an ex- swimmer it was only natural for me to excel during the swim leg of a triathlon. It was my strongest event, and I had to take advantage of it! Right? The adrenaline that arises when pulling away from a pack of swimmers is something only a true competitive swimmer can relate to. And to emerge from the water so far ahead of everybody, hearing the ooh’s and ahh’s from the onlookers on the beach, and hearing your name called out over the loud speaker…man it is quite an ego rush. Ironically, those fifteen seconds of fame almost caused me to quit triathlon all together. Being a swimmer, and thinking like a swimmer, I only knew of one way to train – hard and fast. And my swimming and racing performance was a reflection of that type of training. Consequently, I suffered greatly for it. Not only from the physical affects but from the mental or emotional affects as well. I would spend month’s fine-tuning all the components of the triathlon only to blow it every time on the swim. By taking advantage of my swimming background, I figured I could excel on the swim, build a lead and hold on. Unfortunately, the act of building a lead, which usually meant swimming too hard, resulted in the same outcome each time…dehydrated on the run with an occasional trip to the medical tent at the end of the race.

And you do not have to come from a swimming background to make the same mistakes. A non-swimmer can also fall victim to this type of scenario simply due to a lack of experience.

So why didn’t you just slow your swim pace down?

A great suggestion…and one in which I believe strongly, but it is not as easy as it would appear.

Allow me to explain…

Most triathletes train for their swimming by joining their local masters swim team. And, because “swimmers” tend to dominate a masters program, the workouts are designed accordingly – hard, anaerobic and interval based. If you fit into this category and you have been training like a swimmer, your race performance will be a reflection of your training…hard and fast. So simply slowing down in an effort to swim aerobically, may prove more difficult than you had thought. If you are not used to swimming slower, and aerobically, you may find yourself struggling to maintain that “slow” pace.

Furthermore, the slower you swim, the lower your body position will be in the water. Initially, you may find yourself swallowing water while attempting to breath. But more importantly, the lower you are in the water, the greater the water resistance. Therefore, in an attempt to maintain a slow and perhaps unfamiliar swim pace, you are actually having to work hard to swim slower. That is not to say that swimming slow or aerobically is bad. In fact it can be extremely beneficial. But, in order to successfully swim aerobically in a race, you must train accordingly.

So remember, when training and racing in the sport of triathlon, each of the three activities, swim, bike and run, must work in harmony to achieve the best possible results. And the best way to achieve this harmony is through an intelligent, dedicated and well – balanced training regimen. Therefore, do not overlook the importance of the swim leg. Successfully integrating the swim with your biking and running will provide the necessary balance for a successful overall triathlon performance.

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