Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Becoming a Swimmer, Not Just a Triathlete

by Jeff Fejfar

When I started swimming at 29 years old, I did not have the years of experience and feel in the water of many lifetime swimmers. At the same time, I learned quite a few successful swimmers and triathletes, including many elites, were also “adult” swimmers. So how do you develop speed and efficiency in the water as someone who began swimming later in life?

  1. Read - If you read only one thing about training in multisport, do yourself a favor and read a book on swimming technique. There are several great resources out there, but one of the easiest to comprehend and most straightforward is Sheila Taormina's book, Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes. Getting an understanding of the basics of an effective swim stroke can be invaluable in knowing where to focus your attention in the pool. The coaches at SwimSmooth also have an incredible amount of free, online resources.

  2. Get a lesson - One-on-one swim instruction from a knowledgeable coach can be extremely valuable. If your coach uses video, it can help you get an understanding of how what you "feel" like you're doing relates to what you're "actually" doing in the water. Follow-up lessons every four to eight weeks are great ideas regardless of your ability. They allow you to continue progressing, make sure you haven't developed any bad habits, or find new ways to continue developing your speed and/or efficiency.

  3. Swim often - Once you've done the two items above, you need to train. Swimming six days a week for 1500 yards will most likely give you more benefit than swimming three days of 3000 yards, or even two days of 4500 yards. Each of these scenarios equals a volume of 9000 yards per week, but with swimming, especially when you're trying to learn or make a change, frequency in the water trumps volume almost every time. Swim only as long as you can maintain good form.

There are some coaches out there whose philosophy is that swimming is the shortest of the three disciplines, and thus you should spend the least amount of time on it since you get the least "bang for your training buck" on race day. Some even say do zero swimming in the off-season. I feel that in a triathlon, your swim leg sets up the rest of your day. The saying, “You can’t win the race in the swim, but you can definitely lose it,” certainly applies. Your goal may not be to win the race, but many developing triathletes never even have a chance to use their bike and run strengths if they’re fried after the swim.

Here is a common scenario for extremely inefficient swimmers in triathlon (it applies from sprints to full-ironman distance races, but seems to amplify the longer the race gets):

  • Swim - They expend a huge amount of energy during the swim only to get out far back from where they think they should be and already slightly exhausted.

  • Bike - They then spend the first 25-50% of the bike just trying to recover from the intense effort they used during the swim. They then try to play catch-up in the back half of the bike by going as hard as they can to “make up” for the slower front portion of the bike leg.

  • Run - By overdoing the effort on the back half of the bike, they are already spent for the run and spend the entire leg getting slower and slower, reaching the finish line frustrated with their times.

If the above race scenario sounds familiar and you are an athlete who basically “gets through” the swim, expends a great amount of energy and then spends the rest of the race just recovering from your swim leg, consider changing your approach to swim training. The weaker a swimmer you are, the more you can benefit from a focused block of working on your swimming efficiency and speed.


Jeff has been a multisport athlete since the mid-2000s, having entered the sport as many do as an adult. Over his competitive triathlon career, he has been a multiple-time 70.3, Kona and Team USA qualifier. As a coach, his vision is to help athletes increase their skills, fitness and overall race performance to move them forward to reach their goals.
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