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Technique and Training / Triathlon

Slicing the Triathlon Training Pie

What percentage of triathlon workout time should be spent on swimming?

Terry Heggy | June 3, 2015

If you’re an experienced, professional IRONMAN® competitor, you should spend around 15 to 20 percent of your training time in the water. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Well, yeah, for those guys, maybe. But what about the rest of us? It might not be quite so simple for those of us who have to shoehorn our training in around jobs, families, and annoying household chores. Because the swim leg is so much shorter than the bike and run, it might be tempting to cut way back on the swim training. But there’s more to it than simple stopwatch math.

Fitness and Feel

Swimming uses different muscles than the other sports, and swimming fast requires a fine kinesthetic knowledge of your drag profile in the water and how you’re applying force to move forward. To develop and maintain the specific strength and muscle memory to swim well, you must swim regularly. For most people who have achieved basic swim fitness and feel, it takes three swim sessions per week to maintain it, and at least four swims a week for continued improvement. Each session should be at least 30 minutes.

Improve your technique and power by adding swim equipment and weight training to the mix. In the gym, focus on flexibility (ankles, shoulders), core strength (balance ball exercises), and paddle-muscle strength (triceps, lats, deltoids).

Focus and Feedback

Slogging steadily up and down the pool until your workout time expires merely constitutes garbage yardage. Make sure your swim workouts have a purpose, such as learning to swim at your race pace, fine-tuning body position, or improving your drafting technique, etc. There are lots of swim workouts and drills posted online, and plenty of triathlon coaches who will email you training plans.

But don’t rely solely on web resources; make sure you get frequent visual stroke feedback to ensure that you’re practicing proper technique. The best approach is to join a Masters program, but you can work with any good coach who will periodically watch you in person or provide video analysis to correct flaws and improve efficiency.

Your pace clock (or sports watch) also provides valuable feedback. Learn how your perceived effort relates to actual performance by doing regular, timed sets (at least once every two weeks) to track your progress. Some good triathlon training sets include:

  • 4S (Sustained Steady Speed Set) = 8 x 100 on the fastest sendoff you can hold (FSYCH). The goal is to swim each 100 at the same speed with very little rest. Example: Swim each 100 in 1:31, and leave on a 1:35 sendoff.
  • Sprint-to-Cruise = 1 x 500, with the first 100 very fast, then 400 at a steady cruise pace. The goal is to spend no more than about 50 yards recovering from the hard sprint and settling into a consistent race-pace speed for the remaining distance. This simulates the metabolic stress of the mass-start frenzy while teaching you to avoid slowing down later in the swim. Breathing correctly is the key to a quick shift from maximum effort into sustainable speed. Look at the clock on every 100 to be sure that your actual swim pace really is steady.

Don’t forget recovery. Swimming can help you recover from the pounding your body takes in run and bike workouts, but you also need to remember to recover from your swim effort with stretching, massage, foam roller work, etc.

Reality Check

Allocate time throughout the season to train for race day conditions. 

  • Get comfortable in open water at the temperature you expect during the race. Run down the beach with your goggles on. Develop good sighting and drafting techniques, etc.
  • Understand everything about your wetsuit, cap, and timing chip. Know how to avoid chafing, peel everything off, and wriggle into your bike gear while you’re wet, cold, and panting.
  • And make sure you are confident you can swim the entire distance required, or at least have a good bail-out plan.

Finishing the Pie

Yes, swimming is the smallest part of a triathlon, and you should spend more hours running and cycling. But do not neglect the swim. If you use your swim time wisely to learn good stroke technique, pacing, and race strategy and swim regularly enough to maintain swim fitness and feel for the water, you’ll have a significant edge on your competition.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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