For age-group triathletes, especially those of us facing longer swim distances, this ‘need for speed,’ though still important, is partially eclipsed by an equal need for greater mechanical and fluid efficiency. Energy saved during the swim leg translates into energy earned toward the bike and the run.
We must swim faster. But we must also swim smarter.
Fortunately, aero and hydrodynamics are very similar and equally simple to understand. Those of us who’ve been fans of the sport for a while know the value of the aero-bar in cycling. This single accessory, patented in 1987 and designed to create a more aerodynamic cycling position by allowing the rider to lay low and forward over the handlebars, has revolutionized triathlon by reducing aerodynamic drag, allowing higher speeds and significantly faster finishing times during the bike leg of each triathlon. Similarly, in swimming, by increasing your mind-body awareness and by studying and improving your swimming technique, it is possible to significantly impact the ratio between propulsion and hydrodynamic drag, recognizing significant increases in speed while expending less effort in the water.
Due to water’s density, the amount of raw power required to increase your swim speed becomes exponential pretty quickly. To swim twice your speed, you have to expend four times the power, and so on. But keep in mind that the same principal applies in reverse with respect to hydrodynamic drag. Want to go four times faster while outputting the same amount of effort? Then figure out a way to reduce your drag by half.
You will be amazed, with diligent practice and by studying your own swim mechanics, at what you can achieve in spite of the water’s determination to slow you down.
‘Perception,’ the connection between your mind and your body while swimming, is a critical ‘key’ to a faster triathlon swim. To this affect, we all face several challenges. Competitors are deprived of the ability to monitor heart rate, a key indicator of perceived exertion, while swimming. In addition, the rushing water, the typical ‘surge’ of adrenaline and the swarm of flailing bodies on race day make it seem impossible to accurately perceive your level of physical effort during your event.
As a result, a majority of us meet the starting gun at full throttle, starting and completing the swim leg at a heart rate (and effort level) well above our intended pace.
Very few triathletes have mastered the ability to gauge how hard they are swimming during a race, in part because of the usual frenzy at the swim start, but also due to the fact that even during practice, they haven’t taken the time to mentally evaluate their training and racing pace in the context of their target triathlon distance.
The table to the right shows finishing times for the swim leg of half-ironman and ironman distance events and the pace (per each 100 meter swum) required in order to achieve them. As you approach faster finishing times it becomes more critical that you be aware of how fast and how hard you are swimming (by feel) so that you can accurately access your capacity for sustained power output over your target race distance.
The quickest way to improve this critical mind-body awareness is through diligent practice and focused study during your weekly swim training.
The ‘Descending 100s’ workout is designed to help you improve your technique and to make you more mentally aware of your body position, your swim mechanics and your pacing in the water. Done properly, it is as much a mental workout as it is a physical one.
To get the most benefit from this workout will need a means by which to time your individual 100 meter intervals while you swim. A poolside clock will work, but my preference is for a waterproof wristwatch featuring a stopwatch that records individual ‘splits.’
Warmup – Swim easily but with focus and awareness. Easy doesn’t mean ‘loose.’ Hold your form and remain controlled. Use this time to think about your technique and areas that you have been focusing on improving.
Drills – Time to pick it up a little. Think ‘power’ but not ‘speed.’ If you’ve been focusing on a specific technique improvement, now is the time to practice it. If not, focus on long, potentially powerful strokes. This is not a time to swim hard. Rather it is a time to ‘think about swimming hard.’
Descending 100s – Here’s where the meditation and mind-body experience begins. Swim your first 100 meters at a very relaxed pace. Focus on good swimming form. Time this interval and make a mental note of your percieved level of exertion as well as your finish time. Rest 30 seconds and repeat, swimming (and timing) each interval with the intention of completing each 100 with a faster pace than the one before. Be acutely aware of how each interval ‘feels.’
Do NOT compromise form for speed. Gradually increasing your pace will allow you to remain ‘aware’ as your body begins to work harder with each interval.
During your 7th 100 meter interval, swim at your fastest possible pace (while holding proper form.) By timing each of these intervals and by noting your percieved level of exertion, you will create a wide, mental ’spectrum’ of effort that you can apply to the chart above. This will help you predict a realistic finishing time for your next event.
Rest 2 whole minutes after the 7th 100 and then swim 3 additional 100 meter intervals at your target race pace, based on your desired finish time from the chart above.
It is probable, after examining your split times and comparing them to the pace chart, that you will find it takes less effort (with a higher level of mind-body awareness) to accomplish your time goal. Additionally, you may begin to sense that you could have finished the swim leg at your last triathlon with a lot more gas left in the tank than you had on race day.
Cooldown – Relax, but hold your form. Proper swim technique is critical under fatigue. The only way to guarantee that you’ll be able to hold it together when you’re super-tired is to ‘get super-tired and then swim.’ Don’t let your workout end until your workout has ended. Make every stroke count, right up until the very last one.
On race day, several additional factors will conspire to cloud your judgement during the swim leg.
Your wetsuit, for instance, will deprive you of the sensation of the water rushing past your body, making it much harder to percieve your speed. Be mindful though that what your wetsuit deprives in sensation it returns several times over in bouyancy and hydrodynamics. Wetsuits make you FAST!
Complicating things further will be the challenge of navigating a sea of thrashing bodies during the swim start of your race. Position yourself carefully, before the starting gun fires, based on your skill level and comfort in the water.
And finally, your own internal excitement (and resulting surge of adrenaline) will make it virtually impossible to control your urge to ‘bolt’ at the sound of the starting gun. Make a specific plan before your race and execute it as carefully as possible.
With practice, strict discipline and complete mental focus, you will be amazed with your performance during the swim leg of your next triathlon and with how your improved efficiency translates into energy ‘earned’ toward the bike and run.
Swim safe and remember… only ‘perfect’ practice makes perfect.