I’m sure you gathered from the subject line that the topic today is swimming, specifically for triathletes. If you’re a triathlete and the subject interests you, cool, keep reading. If not, no worries we’ll connect next time around.
So, I’ve been chatting a bit recently about swimming and getting faster, with a lady I’ve coached for, um, about 6 years. She’s smart and experienced, and pretty darn “good,” if you consider being a course record holder AND winning your age-group at the Ironman World Championships in Kona FOUR times, good. 🙂
Our conversation, which included a little friendly bantering, got me thinking…
…Most triathletes struggle to get faster in the water. The question is, why?
There are a lot of options and a ton of information available online if a triathlete wants to become a faster swimmer. The problem is, non of the “experts” agree on the best approach. Read enough and you’ll hear the secret is the right drill, until you read the article that says drilling is a waste of time.
The volume debate always gets the conversation heated up! Swim more? Swim less? Swim with a band and paddles or no, get rid of the “toys” if you want to improve. There’s just not much agreement. Not coincidently, there’s also a healthy debate right now in a slew of online forums and among coaches on the topic.
While I haven’t counted, it seems to me there’s enough websites, coaches, clinics, swim programs, instructional DVDs, AND opinions….to fill a very large ocean (no pun intended). 🙂
So if it’s not a lack of information, resources, or expert opinions, then what’s the real reason for such widespread struggle?
Something is clearly missing.
Well-known tri-coach Joel Filliol, in an article entitled “The Top 20 Rules For Faster Triathlon Swimming,” and on a recent podcast episode he did with coach Paulo Sousa, makes the argument that triathletes waste time drilling…that drilling doesn’t work. According to them both, conditioning trumps technique. To quote Sousa, “working on your fitness works on technique,” while the “opposite is not true.”
A slightly different viewpoint comes from internationally-renowned swim coach and triathlete (and one of my own mentors), Haydn Wooley of Future Dreams Swimming in New Zealand, who is well known for stating that “technique sets the upper limit to how far your fitness will take you.”
After literally beginning my own swimming journey by learning to overcome a fear of the water and taking my first swimming lesson as a 36 year old, 20 years ago, I’ve come to discover there are a lot ways to skin a cat, or to put it the way a Swede would, “Alla sätt är bra utom de dåliga” which means… “all methods are good except the bad ones.” 🙂
So let me ask: If you want to get faster, should you attend a clinic or get your hands on an instructional DVD and start drilling in an effort to improve your skills? OR, should you simply increase your volume and frequency, just swim your ass off, and just tweak your stroke as you go?
Duh! We’re all different.
Triathletes the world over come from so many different backgrounds. It’s always seemed somewhat counterintuitive to me to think that any ONE approach is the right one for every triathlete.
Hell…there’s some percentage of those who line up at the starting line of a triathlon who are so freaked out about being in the open water, thoughts of anything except how to survive and cope with the panic, are completely forgotten. (Who gives a crap about technique when you’re nearly drowning!) 🙂
So what do you think?
For me and the athletes I work with, we begin with this simple mantra: Commit to never taking another bad stroke.
Of course, you and I know that making sure every stroke we take is absolutely “perfect,” just isn’t possible, right?
How we learn: experimentation, repetition, imagery, exaggeration
When it comes to learning a new skill or trying to improve upon our existing skills, all of the current science says that for most of us, experimenting – dancing on the edge of our abilities, going “too” far and slipping and falling only to get back up and try again, are universal concepts that hold true.
“Chunking” skills into small bits, seeing a picture or image in your mind’s eye of how a skill should ideally be performed and then trying to replicate it, and even exaggerating the opposite of what you’re trying to do, also seem to have merit.
We also know that grooving a skill is easy, but changing that groove is hard. Really hard.
Which is why it’s SO difficult to change after having taken thousands (millions?) of, shall we say, less than “perfect” strokes.
Conditioning or technique, which is more important?
Coaches Filliol and Sousa have a point: There’s very little chance a triathlete looking to get faster is going to achieve it by mindlessly practicing and “perfecting” drills. Clinics too, are often a big waste of time, without the essential followup work, repetition, and effort required to change.
And while I wouldn’t agree completely with Sousa and his belief that conditioning trumps technique, a lack of “enough” conditioning to practice effectively hurts many triathletes who are trying to get faster. Why? Fatigue erodes our ability to concentrate and hold on to good form.
Can you “change” in a single practice session?
The images on the left are from a 1 on 1 coaching session I did with a woman I coach. She made some dramatic improvements in a very short period of time, as you can clearly see when comparing the “before” clip on the left, with the “after” clip on the right.
In the image on the left, she is pressing down on the water (not an effective way to “catch”) and is also overloading her shoulder.
The image on the right shows a much more effective “catch.” It’s no surprise that her “lat” (the large back muscle you see inside the yellow circle) is literally exploding as she sets up her pull.
(A picture, or in this case video, is worth a thousand words and it doesn’t lie. Which is one reason why this athlete was able to change on the spot – AND why I never go to the pool to coach without my underwater camera). 🙂
So what’s the bottom line?
It’s simple, really: There is NO single approach that will guarantee success for everyone.
Yes, there ARE universal concepts that apply to just about everybody. Things like…
- Attentive repetition: Over and over and over. Working in the sweet spot on the edge of your capability. Relentless. Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and 10,000 hours?
- Interweaving and chunking: Do it, then take a break, then do it again.
- “Deep” practice: fully engaged in the process, instead of focused solely on an outcome.
- Being mindful: fully present in the moment.
Are YOU doing what YOU need to do, to improve?
I think coach Filliol was on target when he hinted that those with solid technique who aren’t getting faster are simply not working hard enough. For those folks, lengthening the “main” sets and getting in more volume are key. For example, even with solid technique, expecting substantial improvement on a dose of 1 or 2 hours per week of swim training just isn’t realistic.
Conversely, it’s also true that some triathletes have very little understanding of the difference between effectively “catching” water…and “catching” a head cold. 🙂 For those folks, a deeper commitment to learning more, to be better equipped to decipher the difference between good and bad swimming and information is where to start.
And there are also some, that are so lacking in the necessary flexibility in the shoulders and back, any attempt to swim “correctly” will result in nothing but a whole lotta frustration.
Have we come to any conclusions as to why so many struggle?
One thing I believe we have learned, is that too many athletes waste valuable time and energy working in the wrong way and using the exact opposite ideal approach. Or they simply do not KNOW what the ideal approach is!
The real answer to our question is simple, but not necessarily easy:
Find out what the optimal approach is for YOU, and then… work relentlessly and mindfully with dogged determination. Take advantage of regular, objective feedback from someone you trust to help review and assess your progress, and then take what you learn, “tweak it” where you need to, and get back to work.
So let me ask you a question….
Do you know what the best approach is for you?
Do you care?
If you DO, then maybe you would be interested in working with me in a small group coaching format. CLICK HERE to let me know you’re interested in learning more about what I have planned.
Within this group coaching program, I will…
- help you learn the OPTIMAL approach to getting faster.
- program AND guide your practices and training.
- review your video and offer specific guidance on how to improve.
- work directly with YOU to find the best ways for you to get faster.
If this sounds interesting, know right up front that it won’t be “easy” – you’ll have to work hard AND you’re going to have to be accountable.
There aren’t any real swimming #hacks. (I wish there were!) Real improvements will come from commitment, hard work, and us working together as a TEAM. So, if you aren’t willing to hold up your end, don’t waste your time OR mine.
Here’s WHY you might want to jump in and take advantage of this opportunity:
- You want to finish near the front of your AG instead of at the back.
- You’ve been swimming for years but still go slow compared to your training partners.
- You want to look forward to the swim portion of the races you do, rather than dread them.
- You get out of the water at your races, tired and hardly ready to attack the bike and run.
- Your shoulders are sometimes sore, or worse, downright painful after your swims.
- You’re tired of going to the pool over and over, and never getting faster!!
- You believe having some guidance and feedback from someone who has walked the walk would help you and save a lot of trial and error.
If any of the above bullets resonate with you, CLICK HERE to let me know you’re interested. There is no commitment required right now, I’m simply assessing whether there is enough interest to run the group.
Do you REALLY want to improve? No Bulls**t. I’m very serious about this. If this speaks to you, CLICK HERE.
PS: Speaking of groups, I mentioned to you earlier about the group kettlebell training – I’ve had some really great interest in it. There’s still time to get in on this but don’t wait too long, January will be here before you know it! If you’re interested in learning more, CLICK HERE.