Almost all triathlons start with swimming, so the importance of training to swim well cannot be understated. But do you need to train like a swimmer to be better at triathlon swimming? Let’s take a good look at training like a competitive swimmer or a triathlete to see what really works best.
Training Like A Swimmer
Logic goes that if you want swim better, you should train how competitive swimmers do. Even though triathletes cover more distance than competitive swimmers, triathletes could get faster by applying technique and training systems that swimmers use.
There’s a belief in the triathlon community that kicking is not important since triathletes wear wetsuits that keep them afloat. However, an efficient kick is essential in balancing your stroke and creating less drag in the water, even with a wetsuit. Having good kicking technique will also give you an extra gear which you can use strategically in the open water, for instance to move onto the feet and draft off faster swimmers.
Larger Training Load
Competitive swimmers train more than triathletes when it comes to swimming. High-level swimmers tend to swim about 20 hours a week while triathletes on average swim around 5 to 7 hours a week – a very high disparity. Technique is very important but triathletes need to be fit enough to use the technique especially in the last parts of the swim, where fatigue might start to set in.
Elite-level swimmers use bilateral breathing to last longer in swimming meets, which is something that triathletes also need. It’s a bit awkward to breathe from your non-dominant side but doing this will make your stroke more symmetrical and avoid overloading one side of your body. Bilateral breathing is also a very useful skill to have in your arsenal for open water swims, which usually kick off triathlons. Your dominant side might be blocked by someone, the sun might be blinding from that side, or maybe chop makes it difficult to breathe on that side. In this case, being able to breathe on your other side will make you more comfortable.
Now that we've laid out the arguments for training like a competitive swimmer, let's look at the arguments for training like a triathlete.
Training Like A Triathlete
If you’re a triathlete which is three sports rolled into one competition, why would you ever train like a single-sport pool swimmer? There are differences between pool swimming and triathlon swimming. Here are a couple of reasons why to train like a triathlon-specific swimmer.
Horses for Courses
Many triathletes learn to swim as adults, while most competitive swimmers started training as children. This leads to differences in flexibility and range of motion that may prevent many adult learners from achieving a "perfect" stroke. Additionally, all the cycling and running can also lead to difficulty achieving and holding a streamlined position in the water.
Due to these factors, some triathlon swim coaches focus on simplifying technique ("place, press, push") as well as increased stroke rate and open-arm recovery, rather than the picture-perfect gliding pool stroke usually seen on swim champions like Michael Phelps and Ian Thorpe.
Additionally, many masters swim sessions incorporate medleys or use of other strokes rather than freestyle. This can be quite daunting, as well as time-consuming and not very specific to the athlete's need. While there can be space in a swim training session for other strokes (which can help refine the freestyle stroke), triathlon swimmers must balance the amount of training time between swimming and the other triathlon disciplines. Hence, they need to swim freestyle a majority of the time.
Different Environment, Different Requirements
Swimming alone in a 50-meter lane with a black line underneath you is a very controlled situation, perfect for becoming a faster pool swimmer. However, if you train for triathlon swimming solely in the pool, you won't learn how to change your stroke for open water conditions, to adapt to ocean currents, or to sight to keep you swimming on course. Triathlons also allow you to draft off your fellow swimmers, which is not a situation most competitive pool swimmers find themselves in.
Kicking for Balance
As stated above, having an efficient kick is very important in triathlons to propel you through the water. However, the kicks that pool swimmers and triathletes use have some subtle differences. While pool swimmers (especially sprinters) kick more forcefully, triathletes must conserve their legs because they still need them for biking and running.
Most elite triathletes use their kick to balance them in the water and only turn on forcefully kicking if they intend to bridge toward stronger swimmers ahead or leave weaker swimmers behind.
In the end though, the answer is you need to swim with the aim of improving. Some people see improvement joining a masters swim squad; others need more triathlon skills-specific training. You can also do swim-specific training blocks. One thing is for sure: a triathlon coach can help you balance the amount of swimming you need to do with the rest of the bike and run training needed for the sport.