Strength Training for Triathletes

I was on an Ironman Facebook page once and someone mentioned that all of us could swim 2.4 miles, then bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles but couldn’t do one pull up. It’s true many triathletes, especially those who go long, ditch their strength training in favor of running, biking and swimming sessions. There’s only so much time in the day. The problem with this approach is that it cuts out a key component of a triathlete’s success–developing power. Speed drills can only get you so far. You need jetfuel to light that engine. And strength is one of the areas that can light that fuel fire.
In Triathlon Science, a book edited by the Triathlon god Joel Friel, a research study is quoted that showed men over age 50 increased their endurance and their efficiency on the bike when three strength sessions a week were added. Another study showed  strength training yielded extra performance benefits for female, younger and older athletes. Not so much for elite athletes.

So what exactly does strength training do for the endurance athlete? Let’s separate some proven fact from fictionalized gut feelings.

Facts on strength backed by research

  • Strength training can increase power.
  • Strength training can increase economy.
  • Strength training can increase endurance.

The following is an article by Ironman god and triathlon hall of famer Mark Allen. It includes some great tips on tri-specific exercises. (Originally printed in Triathlete Magazine.)

By Mark Allen, Triathlete Magazine ©

I have a few questions for you.

Are you over 35 years of age? Do you have a limited amount of training time? Do you want to reverse—or at least slow down—as many aspects of the aging process as possible? Are you an endurance athlete looking for an extra edge? Do you want to boost power, reduce fatigue, guard against injury and increase your late-race energy reserves?

Well, who doesn’t? And strength training can be the tool to help you accomplish each of these universally sought-after benefits. In fact, strength, or resistance, training is one of the most commonly overlooked means to improve endurance athletic performance.

All too many triathletes sacrifice strength training in favor of additional swim, bike or run sessions. This is unwise. In fact, a well-executed strength-training program can allow you to carve up to 25 percent out of your swim, bike and run volume while improving performance and enjoying better race-day results.

I fought going to the gym for years until I reached my mid-30s. Suddenly, speed work started to look more like steady-state training, and I could no longer override a lack of power on climbs with desire. My race performances started to suffer. I could see that even with a huge volume of miles out on the roads, my fitness was not what it was in my 20s.

Adding resistance training was the next step, but I had a problem. I had no idea how to design and integrate a strength program into triathlon training. I was also intimidated by the gym because I felt like the scrawny weakling on the beach compared to the hulks pushing around weights that would crush me. So there I was, the Ironman champion, embarrassed to go into the gym.

But my desire to win was even stronger than my embarrassment. I was introduced to a top strength coach, a woman named Diane Buchta. She led me through an entire season of weights, focusing on building overall body strength and, eventually, muscular speed.

The results were dramatic. In the first full season I used the program described below, I won the Triple Crown of Triathlon: the Nice International Triathlon, the Zofingen duathlon and the Hawaii Ironman.

Getting With the Program

I have boiled the program down to what I consider the 12 key exercises to develop overall body fitness for a triathlete. The workout is done twice a week throughout the year, and each session takes about 45 minutes. Separate the two weekly strength sessions by at least one day. The exercises, their order, the muscle groups they work and their sport-specific benefits are as follows:

1. Lateral Pull-downs (upper back; improves pull phase of swim stroke)

  • Beginning position: Grasp bar with arms straight and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Push chest forward; arch lower back
  • Ending position: Pull bar in front of head down to shoulder level

2. Leg Extensions (upper legs/quads; supports weight-catching phase of running and builds additional muscle mass necessary for half-marathon distances and up)

  • Beginning position: Sit on machine. Rest shin pad just above ankle. Line knee with pivot point of machine
  • Ending position: Extend both legs fully to straight line

3. Leg Curls (upper leg/hamstring; boosts pull-through for both cycling and running)

  • Beginning position: Lay face down on machine bench. Place leg pad just above ankles. Keep legs slightly bent
  • Ending position: Contract hamstrings fully. Keep stomach on pad at all times

4. Bench Press (chest; improves pull phase in swim)

  • Beginning position: Lay face up on bench, hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Bar in line above mid-chest
  • Ending position: Lower bar to one inch above mid-chest. Keep lower back on bench at all times

5. Squats (glutes and quads; generates power for cycling and strength necessary for hilly running)

  • Beginning position: Stand with legs wider than shoulders. Find neutral spine posture. Keep weight over heels at all times
  • Ending position: Lower butt toward floor as though you’re sitting in a chair. Bend knees until thighs are parallel to floor

6. Lateral Dumbbell Raise (shoulder joint; supports healthy shoulders to prevent swimming injuries)

  • Beginning position: Hold a dumbbell in each hand, elbows even with the plane of your body and slightly extended away from your torso
  • Ending position: Extend arms out sideways, keeping elbows still in the plane of your body. Stop arms parallel to ground

7. Calf Raises (lower legs/calves; helps push-off for running)

  • Beginning position: Place one foot on a step and the other raised off the step just slightly. Hold the weight in the arm on the same side as the calf you are working
  • Ending position: Lower the heel until you feel a moderate stretch

8. Dumbbell Pullover (works all muscles in catch phase of freestyle stroke)

  • Beginning position: Lay face up on a bench. Clasp dumbbell between both hands with arms extended straight toward the ceiling
  • Ending position: Arms fully extended behind your head, with weight touching floor, if you are that flexible

9. Backward Lunges (adductors and glutes; targets all muscles used in push phase of hilly running)

  • Beginning position: Stand with legs together; rest the bar comfortably on upper back
  • Ending position: Step back, extending leg out behind, and lower your body into a split squat. Drag the toes of the extended foot on the floor on the way back up to the starting position

10. Bicep Curls (front of upper arm; assists in part of the pull phase in the swim and provides climbing leverage on the bike)

  • Beginning position: Grasp a weighted EZ-curl bar with both hands, using an underhand grip. Elbows tight against the sides of your body and arms slightly bent
  • Ending position: Elbows fully flexed, bar raised up to collarbone height. Make sure to keep elbows locked tight against your sides

11. Tricep Extensions (back of upper arms; maintains form through back half of swim stroke)

  • Beginning position: Kneel one leg on the bench, place the other foot on the floor. Bend forward 45 degrees from the hips. Place the weight in the hand on same side as the leg that is on the bench. Keep elbow tight against your side. Begin with weighted arm bent.
  • Ending position: Arm extended back fully in straight position

12. Leg Press (glutes and quads; most important exercise for developing power on bike)

  • Beginning position: Start seated on the sled with your knees bent and feet roughly shoulder width apart
  • Ending position: Legs extended fully

Each exercise should be done on a count of two on the contraction (or lifting of the weight) and a count of four when lowering the weight. Form is of utmost importance when doing the exercises. Isolation of each muscle group is the goal.

Breathe out on contraction and in when lowering of the weight. The one exception is the dumbbell pullover, where the breathing pattern is reversed: breathe out when lowering the weight and in when lifting it. Rest 90 seconds after each set.

Finish your strength-training routine with:

  • Sit-ups
  • Stretching

On the sit-ups, work all areas of the abdomen (lower, middle and upper), but don’t go overboard. It is important to strengthen the abdominals because they help prevent lower-back problems and support the diaphragm.

However, overdevelopment of your abdominal region may restrict your ability to breathe during intense exercise. An effective breath comes from expanding your abdomen, not from raising your shoulders. If your abdominals are overdeveloped, you cannot get a relaxed, deep breath. My rule of thumb is no more than five minutes of moderate abdominal work twice a week.

Optional Additions

There are countless other exercises that you can use to develop overall body strength. If you have any specific needs or areas that require extra attention, feel free to add in up to three more exercises to help create balance among the three sports.

A short list of additional strength-training exercises includes:

  • Incline press
  • Reverse flye
  • Back extension
  • Any core strength and balance moves

If you have a question on how to do any of these exercises correctly, consult a personal trainer. Proper execution of each lifting move is significantly more important than the weight that you use. Not only does improper form reduce the effectiveness of each exercise, but it can also put you at risk of injury.

The Four Phases of Strength Training

The strength program cycles through four distinct phases. Each one is designed to work different aspects of your overall strength and will ideally match up to the different phases of your aerobic training throughout the season (pre-training, base, speed and taper).

Phase One: Adaptation (1 x 12-15 repetitions) — During this phase, the goal is to adapt your body to lifting. Each exercise is to be done as follows: one set of 12 to 15 repetitions. The correct weight choice for each exercise will allow you to feel like you could complete an additional one to three repetitions with good form. The weight is too heavy if you feel a strong burn in the muscles at the end of the set.

The adaptation phase can last two to four weeks. Go to the Endurance Phase once you can complete the Adaptation workout without feeling sore the next day.

Phase Two: Endurance (2 x 12-15 repetitions) — During this phase, increase the number of sets to two, with each set still consisting of 12 to 15 repetitions. Again, the correct weight is one that allows you to complete the two sets knowing you could have done one to three more repetitions with good form and without any major burning in the muscles. Each set should be challenging without requiring maximum effort.

This phase can last four to 12 weeks. How long you extend this phase depends upon when your first big race is on the calendar. Count back nine weeks from your next A-priority race. This will mark the end date of the Endurance Phase and the beginning of the Power Phase.

Phase Three: Power (three sets: 1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6) — Feel the burn! This phase is where the largest improvements in strength occur. It is also where the sluggishness that weights can cause will carry over most into swimming, cycling and running. So don’t expect to feel like Carl Lewis at the same time you’re lifting like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During the Power Phase, you will divide your exercises into two groups. On the first strength workout of the week you will include the following four exercises: lateral pull-down, leg extension, leg curl and dumbbell pullover. These exercises are done in three sets instead of two, and the repetitions change to one set of 10, one set of eight and a third set of six.

The correct weight is one that will require you to give your maximum effort in the final repetition. The remaining eight exercises are kept at two sets of 15, just like in the Endurance Phase.

Then, on the second strength workout of the week, perform the following five exercises in three sets, as above, again completing the final rep at maximum effort: bench press, squat, biceps curl, triceps extension, and leg press. As in the first strength workout of the week, all remaining exercises are performed as in the Endurance Phase, at 2 x 15 repetitions.

The Power Phase is about maximum effort. You will probably find that the weight needed for this phase is 10 to 25 percent more than the weight you were using with good form during the Endurance Phase.

Power Phase Sets

Day 1

  • Power lateral pull-down (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Power leg extension (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Power leg curl (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Bench press (2 x 15)
  • Squat (2 x 15)
  • Lateral dumbbell raise (2 x 15)
  • Calf raise (2 x 15)
  • Power dumbbell pullover (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Backward lunge (2 x 15)
  • Bicep curls (2 x 15)
  • Tricep extensions (2 x 15)
  • Leg press (2 x 15)
  • Sit-up
  • Stretching

Day 2

  • Power lateral pull-down (2 x 15)
  • Power leg extension (2 x 15)
  • Power leg curl (2 x 15)
  • Bench press (2 x 15)
  • Squat (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Lateral dumbbell raise (2 x 15)
  • Calf raise (2 x 15)
  • Power dumbbell pullover (2 x 15)
  • Backward lunge (2 x 15)
  • Bicep curls (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Tricep extensions (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Leg press (1 x 10, 1 x 8, 1 x 6)
  • Sit-up
  • Stretching

This phase should last three to six weeks before you move on to the Chisel Phase.

Phase Four: Chisel (2 x 12 repetitions) — In this phase, you take all the strength you have gained and hone it with repetitions that simulate the speed of muscle contraction experienced during racing.

In the Chisel Phase, you will reduce the weight back down to a level equal to or slightly less than you used during the Endurance Phase. Do two sets of 12 repetitions to the count of two on both the contraction and the relaxation.

Chisel Phase Sets

  • Power lateral pull-down (2 x 12)
  • Power leg extension (2 x 12)
  • Power leg curl (2 x 12)
  • Bench press (2 x 12)
  • Squat (2 x 15)
  • Lateral dumbbell raise (2 x 12)
  • Calf raise (2 x 12)
  • Power dumbbell pullover (2 x 12)
  • Backward lunge (2 x 12)
  • Bicep curls (2 x 12)
  • Tricep extensions (2 x 12)
  • Leg press (2 x 12)

Note: To compound the positive effect of the leg press during this phase, do each of the two sets with one leg at a time, instead of using both legs together.

During Phase Four, the Chisel Phase, the weight should be chosen so it feels light yet becomes challenging at the end of set two due to mild lactic acid build-up. Fatigue is caused mainly by the speed of the move, not the load you are lifting. Again, focus on good form, and make sure that there are still one or two repetitions left in you at the end of the second set. The rest period between sets is dropped from 90 seconds to about 30 seconds.

This phase should ideally be three weeks but can last two to four weeks and should end about three weeks before a major competition. The anaerobic intensity of this phase makes it sustainable for only a short period of time.

Tribike Versus Road Bike The Research:

When people start triathlon they often have a question as to whether they should get a road bike versus a tri bike. Folklore is tribike geometry makes it easier for you to to run off the bike. The idea is that different muscles are used on the tribike than the road bike making it easier to run.
Here’s an excellent article testing the different muscle group theory. The study tested the different effects on resistance, speed, muscular changes in road vs tri bike dynamics. Sifting through the mumbo jumbo I found what I suspected…the better the cyclists the better the speed. Bike not the issue. And basically there was no difference on muscle effects with each design. But cyclists had more power on the tri bike but it was suggested they had more power anyway. Also they were able to pull up more on the pedal (ie., stronger hams and quads) and tri bike made it easier to go faster. But you guys read and let me know what you find. Great research though.

CHECK OUT THE RESEARCH HERE: pedalpositionresearch
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What Is She Saying? A Guide to Swim Language

Dale and Ovetta at ITU

Masters Swimming Clubs are great for fellowshipping and training with you fellow swimmers. But often it can be intimidating for new swimmers who do not know the language of swimming. Below is a short glossary of words frequently used in swim workouts and what they mean. You find the entire list here: http://www.swimsmooth.com/glossary.html! Thanks Swim Smooth!

Warm-Up: First part of every workout usually consisting of drills or other short swim sets to prime the engine for a tough workout.

Cool-Down: Last part of every workout designed to help swimmer recover from tough swim set and relax.

Drill: Exercises performed in the water to practice an aspect of the swimming stroke.

Catch-Up Drill: This is my favorite drill for swimmers who are struggling with their stroke so rest assured it’ll be in your workouts. A drill where one arm is held fully forwards until the other arm has performed a complete stroke and returned to the front.

Streamline Position: A body position for minimizing drag. The most common being a torpedo push off performed off the wall.
This streamlined position allows you to hold your speed off the wall for as long as possible – it’s faster than swimming!

Time Trial: A flat- out test of your speed against the clock. A TT is an all out effort like a race but normally performed without competition.

Read more terms at: http://www.swimsmooth.com/glossary.html

The Numbers

25 yards: length of the pool

50 yards: length of the pool out and back

100: 4x length of the pool

Abbreviations

FR: Freestyle stroke
BR: Breaststroke
BK: Backstroke
Fly: Butterfly
IM: Individual Medley (Fly, Bk, Br, Fr in
order)
IMO: IM Order – swim the reps in the order
above
RIMO: Reverse IM Order
Ch: Choice (whatever stroke you’d like)
Dr: Drill
EZ: Easy
w/up: Warm-up
c/d: Cool-down
:20R: Rest interval of :20
Pull: Swim using a buoy
K: Kick
K/Fins: Kick with Fins
Hyp (5): Hypoxic (number of strokes
between breaths)
Bld: Build – getting progressively faster
PP: Pull + paddles
N/S: Negative Split – swim the second half
of the distance faster than the first
Desc: Descending – swimming each rep
increasingly faster (sometimes indicated by
a down arrow)
Asc: Ascending – swim each rep
increasingly easier (sometimes indicated by
an up arrow)
RT/LT –Right arm only/Left arm only.
RT/LTx25 – 25 Right arm only, 25 Left arm
only

 

Making the Impossible Possible…Repeatedly

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Photo taken by Louise one of the amazing Point Swimmers. So glad I found this amazing group!

My motto in life is making the impossible, possible. When I see something that I want to do if someone tells me that it’s impossible to do, I spend energy, time, effort and brain power trying to figure out a way to do it. That’s just how I’m wired. Seeing what others don’t, charting courses others can’t fathom, going places where most do not…that’s my MO. It is not anything special it’s just me.

But in the past my sense of adventure, my apostolic spirit as one Christian mentor called it, has pushed me from one goal to another. I rarely do anything twice unless it pays the bills or I’m repeatedly asked.

Not so with swimming. I have been swimming for 30 years and in that time I have had millions of victories. Swimming has always been one of those activities that I have never truly mastered or am satisfied with my progress. I have had dozens of swimming milestones…big swimming victories from swimming 25 yards without stopping to swimming 2 miles in the ocean with no wetsuit at the start of my Ironman Cozumel race. So I am not new or particularly unacquainted with this sport.

Yet each spring when I don the goggle to go out to open water I feel as if I’m starting over. The good news is that when I started swimming with the Point Swimmers here in Chicago I discovered that when it comes to this hesitancy about open water I am not alone. Seasoned swimmers who literally swim every day out in Lake Michigan every year must go through this ritual of being reacquainted with the water.

I tell my athletes that when you swim open water you’re entering an ecosystem that is offering you a tremendous opportunity to dance with magic. But like anything otherwordly there are rules.

She (water is always a she in my mind) controls the tempo of the dance. She controls the direction. She controls the rhythm. You can only control yourself and sometimes even that’s tough and you just got to roll with it.

I believe the struggle I have with open water isn’t about my swimming ability at all. It’s about my inability to relinquish control.

So each spring when I go to dance with magic I must get reacquainted with the water and myself. I must repeatedly do something new…give up my control and let the water do what it needs to while I chart a course that matches its rhythm so I can get what I need to get.

It is a partnership, not a dictatorship and I must remember that.

But for some reason I thought this year would be different. Hell, I had done an Ironman, there is nothing to fear in open water if you’re successfully able to swim 2.4 miles without stopping in a reasonable amount of time…less than 1 and some change. So when I walked to Promontory Point that first day and they told me it was a half a mile to the pier and a half mile back of course I thought, “Hell, I can swim that.” But then I didn’t.

When I first saw the Pier from the Point my voice said, “Oh, it’s not that far.” But my mind said, “Holy shnitz that’s far.” Even though I’ve swam twice the 1 mile distance to the point and back in my Ironman, and more in my practice the idea of swimming to the Pier seemed overwhelming. 

Today was a pier day. Swam from Promontory Point to the pier

Today was a pier day. Swam from Promontory Point to the pier


I have a healthy respect for water but in the past that respect has turned to fear. But there is nothing to fear if you respect the water and your ability and if you’re trained. Training is everything. Not just the mechanics of the swim but really the mind. Swimming is a mind game and if you don’t plan, strategize and set a plan to get where you want to go you can end up in trouble super fast. I have quieted that Open Water fear over the years by becoming an adequate swimmer but more importantly a thinking swimmer. Each body of water I purview I decide my exit strategy right away. Today I needed those weapons.

I had no intention to swim to the Pier. I was tired. Bone tired. I had my first true build training weekend this weekend, long bikes and runs back to back and basically walking around Racine being an Iron Sherpa for the amazing Nikolett! Who rocked her 70.3.
But I was tired. I woke up at 5 a.m. and knew I wanted to swim at the Point. My plan was just to flop around for around and do something for fun. I lollygagged so I had to hop on my bike and I got there just past six. Most of the Point Swimmers were ready to get in the water. Pay attention folks because right here is an ingredient for success…not overanalyzing. Swimming to the pier was not even remotely in my mind when I showed up to the Point on Monday and yet by the end it became my only thought.
After I arrived, late, most of the swimmers were dressed and ready to get into the water, this couple, after a hard night of drinking and doing the stroll of shame I suspect, walked by us and asked what we were doing. The guy was clearly drunk the girl, who knows.  Both  were black.
A couple of the swimmers told him we were going to swim.
“Where?” he asked.
“To the pier.”
“What? That pier right there? Aww…helll naw…really?”
“Yep.”
Then the girl looked at me.
“You swim too?”
“Yes. I said smiling.”
“You go girl.”
I chuckled. Then the guy.
“I want to take a picture of y’all. Will you take a picture with us?”
Some swimmers looked hesitant but I was like fine. The couple was clearly inebriated but they seemed enthralled. Then the guy said something sad.
“I love to swim but I’ve never swam in Lake Michigan.”
I thought all about that. Not only do I love to swim but I swim whenever I want. I can swim everyday if I want and that for me is freedom. To be able to do what you love each day whenever you want when others can’t it’s true independence. It’s freedom and that’s a freedom you need to honor and respect by repeating.
I can’t say if it was seeing that couple. But when I got into that water I decided I wasn’t going to stop until I touched that pier.
I swam, and I swam, what seemed like forever. I stopped. I made a complete 180 turning back toward shore and then turned around again. I began to feel imaginary leg cramps and I couldn’t breathe. Seeing how far I was away from shore got my heart racing. I had to calm down. I wasn’t physically tired but as the song says, “My mind was playing tricks on me.” So I had to calm down and I had to sing “Wade in the Water,” and my heart rate plummeted and I began to breathe normally.
I swam and swam and saw Susan and followed her to the pier. And then just before I got there I looked and my heart began beating faster “I’m here, I’m here.” Well not quite. It’s like they moved the pier or something. It kept getting farther and farther. But finally there it was and I was touching it. I kissed my hand and slapped it on the pier. Rested for about 30 seconds and celebrated with Susan and Theresa and then boom turnaround and came back.
Swimming back was much hard. The current was pushing me out toward open water away from the beach. I swam and looked up to see a buoy. What the hell am I doing over here? Swimming in Open Water a straight line is not always the best way to get from point A to point B. So I had to turn and swim across current to get back to shore. I didn’t panic but it was a bit crazy.
Finally I touched the ladder. I’m sure the couple was long gone but it didn’t matter. I had done what I came to do and all was good.

No Swimmer Is An Island…The Advantage of the Draft

 

Open Water Swim Practice

Open Water Swim Practice

When I swam my first Open Water race it was as if the 20 years I had spent swimming melted away. I panicked. I couldn’t breathe. I got hit in the face. I swam too close. But not close enough to other swimmers. It was a mess. And six years later it was still a mess.

It got so bad that I turned into a swimming hermit. I would wait on the beach until every one was in the water and then I would swim. But my swim times were abysmal. I mean super slow. Which was frustrating because swimming was the only skill I thought I know how to do in triathlon. All that swimming alone, by my myself was making the swims long and boring and more than a little tiring.  This is what I call “Swimming in the Abyss.” You’re swimming. You’re swimming a long time. But you seem to be going so slowly that you’re swimming uphill. This is what swimming alone can do.  During races, I found out I was swimming like miles extra cause I was out there alone.  I was wasting a lot of energy.

Then I signed up for Ironman Cozumel. And the first thing I learned was that it was a non-wetsuit legal race. This means it was a race that I couldn’t wear a wet suit. A wet suit is like a security blanket to triathlon swimmers. It’s to keep you warm during cold swims but it’s made out of neoprene a material that also keeps you buoyant in the water. With a wetsuit you don’t have to kick as hard to maintain a parallel position in the water and that means you can usually swim faster with less effort.

But I wouldn’t have that advantage. I had to do my 2.4-mile swim on my arms and legs alone. So my coach said straight up, “Learn to draft.” I had to pick between two evils: Swimming next to people. Or missing the cut off swim time. I chose A. It was the BEST DECISION.

I learned, that If you time it right, you can swim without a scratch when you draft and not have to swim alone. Swimming alone is the hard way. Drafting is better. Research shows drafting saves a swimmer between 18 to 25% on energy. That’s like the free speed you get on the bike when you’re going downhill. (You work those downhills too but that’s another blog.)

 

THE ART OF THE DRAFT

What does it mean to draft?

Drafting is swimming in the shadow of another swimmer. You swim in their slipstream, reducing the drag on your swim and thereby making you faster. When you draft you literally float in the bubble that a swimmer makes that carries you swiftly across the water. Drafting is the closet thing to flying in the water. Legally, in most triathlons you can draft on the swim. As long as you do it without disturbing the other swimmer. This is the best swim etiquette and also least likely to get you kicked in the face. 🙂

So just how do you draft without getting injured? You learn to do it properly.

Drafting is also a skill. Just like breathing, kicking and arm stroke. You have to learn how to draft and then practice it.

Generally, there are three drafting positions that can help you swim faster but avoid injury or disrupting the other swimmer:

  • Swim on the lead swimmer’s hip (So your arm doesn’t go past their hip flexors)
  • Swim in between two lead swimmers (also on their hips)
  • Swim in a straight line behind the lead swimmer (on their feet…this is the best position to get the most effect)

PRACTICE DRAFTING

Here’s some tips on how to practice drafting:

  1. Grab some friends.
  2. Jump in one lane.
  3. Swim together without hitting each other.

Watch the video above for the demonstrations on all the different ways to draft. But keep this in mind…just like a car don’t follow too closely.

When I trained for IMCoz, I trained with a group. I was the only girl doing an Ironman. All the guys did theirs before me. But they woke up and came to my last 5 a.m, swim practice and all four of them jumped in the same lane with me. We swam like that for an hour, one guy swimming slowly in front of me, another swimming next to me one behind me and one underneath believe it or not. I learned I can swim fast when I wanna’ and that I can navigate. Swimming in the pool has its drawbacks because you don’t learn navigation skills. Learning how to navigate around slower swimmers, or even fast swimmers who overtake you is an excellent skill to have. 

BUT I’M AFRAID OF TOUCHING PEOPLE

Yes when drafting you can get hurt if you don’t do it right. That’s why it’s all about timing and practice. I spent years swimming on my own island. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a great place to start especially for the nervous swimmer. But what lessens anxiety in the water? What’s the number 1 thing that helps you relax? 

I call it being in the know. When you first swam in the pool putting your head in the water was weird because you hadn’t done it before. But once you got “in the know,” you hardly think about it.

Same with kicking. Stroking. and Drafting.

When you practice swimming with other folks I guarantee you, you learn how not to get hit in the face. (Unless someone is being a jerk then you learn how to hit back…LOL) When you swim alone you don’t learn. It’s like any skill. It’s amazing I swam my Ironman without a scratch and drafted the entire way using timing and being aware of what’s around me. I’ve been hit plenty but you learn how to avoid it or swim through it. But you can’t learn those things swimming alone.

Drafting at the hip is a great way to start to learn that skill…but it definitely reduces the draft advantage.

As time goes on you’ll get more adventurous because you’ll become more accustomed to it. Like I said I didn’t start drafting until I did my first half Ironman back when horses and buggies were out. I wish I had learned that skilled right away my swim times would have been a lot better. But it’s an acquired skill.

Don’t get me wrong…I love swimming…but the longer you’re out there the more risk you take. You don’t have to be a fast swimmer…just a smart one. I am not the fastest swimmer, but I pay attention and that’s what’s made the difference. Learning to find lane lines, slip streams, drafting lines and navigating buoys will help you 10x more than swimming long, arduous hours in a pool. 

Learn the tricks of the trade and you’ll be great on race day and beyond.

 

Put the Happy Back in Swimming

A group of African-American Swimmers
Me and the Original Ebony Mermaids

So have you heard of that song “Happy”? You know that one that is so infectiously fun that everyone from the President of the United States to the homeless guy on the corner sing and dance to it? I recently discovered Pharrell’s song and have been bopping along to it for days now. Today as I was dancing down the streets of downtown Chicago I started to really meditate on the song to see why I love it so much. And that’s when it hit me: Pharrell’s “Happy” song has a lot to teach us about swimming. In particular, that when learning to swim there are three key components that this song embodies:

    • Simplicity
    • Repetition
    • Positivity

Keep It Simple Silly

I had a swim coaching client this morning and like most of my clients she’s earnest. She’s determined to do what it takes to be prepared for her first outdoor triathlon on June 8. She’s so earnest that she’s spent countless hours in the pool, sacrificing time with her kids, sleep, laid-back work days and whatever to get in her swim, bike and run training. I totally admire her dedication and commitment.

Yet, all that time in the pool did not yield her the results she wanted. She would swim 25 meters and just be plain exhausted. She had several different swim tips from all kinds of folks rolling around in her head every time she took the pool.
“Kick”
“Don’t Kick!”
“Rotate your hips.”
“You’re rotating too much.”
“You’re lifting your head.”
“Breathe.”
It was like a nightmare of drill sergeant commands playing over and over in her head each time she went to take a stroke in the water.
No matter how earnest you are it’s tough to learn to swim like that. You can learned to be overwhelmed. But rarely what you need to learn to feel confident in your swimming.
Swimming is an ecosystem. There are literally thousands of motions a good swimmer performs when she takes to the water and swims a set. Most of the motions are imperceptible to the naked eye and many are just so subtle you miss them. Which is why I don’t waste a swimmer’s time trying to teach them things people have taken years to perfect. Instead, I do a lot of curing of what I call “Adult Onset Swimming.”
Adult Onset Swimming or AOS, is an affliction by which the swimmer tries to do EVERYTHING perfect all the time before even learning what he or she needs to do. My first cure for AOS is simplification.

Like that Happy song, simple is better. The song only has two verses and repeats its highly infectious bridge SIX TIMES. The song is only four minutes long. It is quite possibly the most simple song every made. But simple is not to be confused with less than. It’s simplicity is its genius. This song breaks songwriting down to its bare essence and injects that simplicity into you with brute force that makes it tough to resist. It’s the same with swimming. Simplicity in swimming allows the swimmer to think of swimming as a well-honed ecosystem rather than a sum of dozens of moving parts. When you break swimming down to its essence you learn why you’re doing what you doing and can correct bad form more easily.

THE SACRED THREES

I  break down the 1000s of swim mechanics into three simple ones:

    • RELAXATION
    • BALANCE
    • FINESSE

Relaxing in the water cures many ills incurred by AOS. It cures kicking too hard, short arm reach, low hip syndrome, dropped elbow, high head lifts and off kilter kicks. By relaxing in the water a swimmer can concentrate on the proper mechanics of swimming — a strong catch, a level and strong but not too fast kick and remaining parallel to the water. The goal of swimming is to move forward in the water. The best way to do that is to stay parallel as possible because you have to breathe. If you didn’t have to breathe you could swim faster underwater but alas we don’t have gills.

Balance is important because it keeps you parallel to the water which aids you in moving through the water faster. When your hips are too low your legs sink creating drag or resistance and hampering your ability to move through the water at a high rate of speed.

Finesse is my own twist but basically it means drop the brute force. Don’t beast your swims, make them smooth and creamy. The less fight the more finesse the easier it is for you to move through the water.

RELAX, BALANCE FINESSE REPEAT

So how do you master your swim ecosystem? Well, like Pharrell shows us in “Happy” you find the groove then repeat. In his song he only has two verses, a chorus and a bridge. Like songwriter Carly Jamison points out in her blog, Pharrell repeats the bridge THREE TIMES and the chorus SIX TIMES in a song thats only 240 seconds long. Wow. That’s a lot. But listening too it only takes about a minute before you can sing along automatically without even thinking about it.
That’s what repetition does to your swimming. It takes what used to be filled with effort and makes it effortless. This is why you need to do repeat 50s and 100s instead of long, slow 1000 m swims. Short repetitive swim sets create muscle memory and allow you to get better faster as a swimmer.

Put the Happy back in Swimming

So all this brings me to my ultimate weapon in swimming better, faster: POSITIVITY. It is my opinion that you can’t get better at anything that makes you unhappy to do. You have to love it to want to improve. So when you swim don’t forget that it’s supposed to be FUN. It’s not all work. Play a little. Swim with friends. Find your favorite watering hole and jump and and splash around. Make swimming fun. Swim with your kids. Take your dog, whatever makes you happy. Do that at least once a week. Inject a bit of fun in all those hours and hours of black-line staring. You’ll find that your swim will not only get better but you’ll like swimming more and more.

Drill Baby Drill Beats Long Swimming Everytime


Video of Chicago Triathlon Club member Bryan Mason swimming at an indoor triathlon. Videographer and fellow CTC member Charles Wu analyzed Bryan’s swim stroke. Bryan swims at about a 22 min per mile pace. Look at his head, arm and hip position. That’s pure beauty. You don’t get that from swimming aimlessly in a pool for long periods of time. You get that from perfecting your technique.

So a lot of newbie swimmers I see are using plans I call “Zero to One Mile.” I was seeing those plans so much that I thought I’d take a look at them. Most of them emphasize distance with no regard to technique. As a swim coach this seems a bit off to me. A mile is not a mile, is not a mile. Some miles are more than a mile because of inefficiency. Swimming, unlike running and cycling is more of a “finesse” sport than a brute force one. And though I know distance is important, it isn’t if your swim technique is all wrong. Sure you can learn to swim a mile in six or eight weeks but without focus on your technique that mile will take you minutes longer than it could if you were focusing on correct technique instead. This is guaranteed. Nothing builds speed and endurance in proper swimming than correct technique.

Technique is secondary in running and cycling. You focus on those when you want to get dialed in and really improve. But technique is paramount in swimming. It is the only thing that matters for new swimmers. For newbie swimmers, workouts should emphasize technique right now.

As a new swimmer technique is as important if not more important than distance because the better your technique the better your endurance. Speed isn’t of the essence. That will come later. But if you aren’t breathing properly, if your head position is off, if you don’t have strong pull and a proper kick…well let’s say you’ll be swimming a lot longer than 1600 m come race day or at least you’ll feel like it. That’s because you’ll be wasting precious energy.

1654297_10152048523806925_1800876976_nSo how do you improve technique. DRILLS, DRILLS AND MORE DRILLS! Every swim workout should have some sort of drill set.

If you’re swimming 3x a week your workouts should look like this:
Day 1: Focus on technique – breathing, arm and head position. WU 100-200 m, MS 300 (100 arm drills, 100 kick drills, 100 arm/kick drills) CD 150-200 free style . This should give you about 700-750 m. Drills to help you: Catchup Drill (ABSOLUTELY IMPORTANT catch more water) Fingertip drill, (high elbow drill) Fist drill (elbow and forearm vs shoulder drill) You can find more here: http://www.dixiezone.org/Drills/Freestyle_drills.html
Total=750ish

Day 2: Long Swim
WU 100 m freestyle, 3×50 drills
MS 3×400 with 15-20 sec rest between 400
CD 100 m breast or back whichever you can do
Total=1550m

Day 3: Intervals
WU: 150 m, 100 m kick
MS 10 x 50 (try to maintain pace throughout each 50 should be +-3 seconds. Count strokes every 4th lap. Try to maintain same stroke count throughout)
CD 150
Total=900

Look you can’t do drills all the time. Yes you have to get some distance in there. So if you’re contemplating how to become a better endurance swimmer I saw mix it up. Do drills to help technique. Swim long to help endurance. Swim fast to push your boundaries. But of all swim happy!

If you’d like more info about swim plans or my virtual swimming packages e-mail me at faithinspiredtriathlontraining@gmail.com!