To those passionate about cycling and who have no desire to ever complete a triathlon, and who likely did not open the article after reading the title, come back to this when you're looking to do some cross-training in the off-season.
Now let me preface this article. I am not a professional triathlete nor have I trained extensively and exclusively for a series of triathlons in my life. I have however, spent the majority of my life training and racing against some of the best swimmers in the country, many of whom went on to incredibly successful careers including a few gold medals. After finishing four years of collegiate swimming, I went on to compete in a few triathlons before turning my attention solely to cycling for the years thereafter. So I will not be writing the article on running. This article is to help you come up with some basic steps to bettering your swim time and your technique.
1. Sometimes you need to take five steps back to take ten steps forward
During my Junior year of swimming at Penn State a new individual had joined the team as one of the top recruits in the country. While he had an incredibly successful high school campaign, when he stepped on-campus the coaches identified numerous inefficiencies in his stroke. The only way to reach his full potential was to completely deconstruct his technique and re-learn how to swim more efficiently. Needless to say, his first year on the team was quite challenging.
The first Big Ten championships were filled with mediocre results. It would have been an easy time to throw in the towel and proclaim "it clearly didn't work." Changing your technique and way of doing anything in life is challenging and takes substantial investment and time. Fast forward through his remaining career and they were filled with multiple school records, NCAA finalist, Big Ten finalist, and one of the most decorated athletes in program history. Five steps back, ten steps forward.
2. Every Practice - Drills
Drills are intentional and exaggerated movements intended to isolate and improve the basic fundamentals in a sport. Assuming you are limited with time during your swim workout, take 10-15 minutes during warm-up and incorporate some drill work. Examples of drills can be the following:
A) One arm drill (5 x right arm, 5 x left arm, 5 x both arms - repeat)
B) Finger tip drag (drag fingertips on top of the water during recovery keeping your your elbow higher than your wrist which is higher than your fingertips)
C) Catch-up (One arm always stays in front of the body until the other arm completes a full stroke, then next arm goes. Focus on having a long streamlined body for more efficient movement through the water)
D) Kick & glide (3 strokes & glide on side for 10 kicks + 3 strokes & glide on other side for 10 kicks. Focus is on full body rolls with hips perpendicular to ground during the kicking portion)
In 15 years of swimming, every single practice had some portion devoted to drill work. Your swimming will vastly improve with drills as opposed to "crushing" your workout every. single. time. Keep it interesting and do not be afraid to switch it up.
Ask any great swimmer how their practices are structured and I can guarantee you it will be based around intervals. Set paces and intervals which are in line with your goal for each set. During the main set, determine a pace which is in line with your goal for the particular day. Intervals are typically structured around three basic workout groups:
A) Threshold - Longer sets, but the speed of your swimming is not beyond what many refer to as their "red zone" (150-165 beats per minute (bpm)). Aim for 10-15 seconds rest between 100's or 5-10 seconds rest between 50's
B) V02 Max - Shorter sets, increased speed, similar rest length to threshold sets. Expect a heart rate anywhere between 165 - 180 bpm. You will feel pain and you will get faster. If you are doing multiple sets, give yourself roughly 2 minutes to recover in-between each set.
C) Quality (Sprint work) - The focus is on each individual effort. Intensity and recovery are both maximized in quality sets. Sets focusing on quality will help your speed quicken and also help you deal with intense discomfort when your body begins to reach failure. Give yourself a few minutes in between each effort to recover.
4. Do the little things like they are the big things, and the big things will take care of themselves
Focus on doing the little things correctly and the big things will follow. Little things such as drill work, sticking to your plan, avoiding short cuts, and keeping a healthy diet all add up to something great. Discipline + consistency = greatness.