The case for swimming
by Dan Empfield 8.29.06

If there is one goal I'd like to establish for all Slowtwitch readers for this year upcoming, it would be that you all (we all) get faster in the water.

I'm aging up to the 50+ next season. I didn't do a single triathlon this year. But I knew all along I would do my best to hit my new age-group hard and early next year.

Now, it should be stated that I took better than a decade off altogether from racing triathlons (the decade of the 90s), and since returning to competition I have not taken the swim seriously. I will have to change that, should I have any hope of competing at a high level once I start racing next season.

One thing I know from prior experience: I can't get fast in the water in a month or two. It's going to take me six or eight months to get fast. Of course, fast is relative, but here's the thing: I'm not overwhelming in any activity. When I was at my very best in triathlon, I was pretty solid in all three activities. I'm not talented enough to be able to dog the swim and make it up somewhere else. I have to be near the front out of the water, or I haven't got a prayer of winning anything.

And there's more to it than that. Speed in the water is incredibly important, and I'm going to explain why that is, so that you who read this will understand why I think as I do.

I'm going to state the obvious, right at the outset: Swimming represents the least amount of time you'll spend in any single activity comprising the race, as little as 10 percent in an Ironman or 70.3, perhaps as much as 20 percent in an International distance. Half or more of you racing time is spent cycling. A fourth to a third is spent running. So why fret about a little time lost or gained in the water? Isn't it more fruitful to ride the bike more often instead?

Obviously, you've got to be fit in all three sports, but the short answer is no, one ought not to rob from swimming the appropriate amount of time spent. Below I'll describe why this is, but first let's talk about how much improvement needs to be made.

It is my contention that very good athletes -- the top 10% of the age-group field in an average race, the top 25% in a championship race -- swim about 3 minutes slower, on average, than they should in a 1.5k, 40k, 10k event. They swim about 4 minutes too slow in a half-Ironman, and about 8 minutes slow in an Ironman. The men should be swimming 22-23 minutes in a 1.5k, 27 to 29 minutes in a 1.2mi, and 58-61 minutes in an Ironman swim. The women should be swimming a minute slower in the shorter distances, and two minutes slower over an Ironman swim. Of course it's fine to swim faster, it's just that it's not fine to swim much slower.

Again, though, I wouldn't expect these swim times for everyone, it's that the average time of those in the sharp end of the age-group field ought to be in this range, and as an average they're nowhere near.

The primary reason triathletes ought to pay a lot more attention to the swim is that it's free speed. Because it's a technique-based sport when you make that drop in time from 27min to 24min over a 1.5k swim, there is no metabolic cost associated with the increased speed. In fact, you'll probably find it's an easier swim, and you'll be at it for a shorter period of time. Fast swimmers exit the water with more in their tanks, not less.

Furthermore, the incremental time savings is more easily achieved in swimming than in the other two sports. Let us again consider a top-10-percent age group male. What will he run for his 10k? Does 40 minutes seem about right? Maybe 41 minutes? Yes, the run takes more time than the swim, so on paper there's more room to hack some time off of the run than off his time in the water. But how much work would it take for him to get from 40 minutes to 37 minutes over a 10k run? An extra 20 miles per week, or 25 miles maybe? Could he ever get that fast in the run?

Okay, let's say he takes it out of his bike ride instead, and drops his 40k split from 1:06 to 1:03. How much time is that going to take? Yes, the bike leg is by far the longest leg, but improvements also require the greatest training time investment. Does this improvement require an extra 50-mile ride per week? Or an extra 80 miles?

Yes, perhaps an extra 2 to 3 hours per week running, or 3 to 5 hours on the bike, might get this athlete the extra 3 minutes he'd otherwise get in the water. But remember, this is already a very good athlete, so are these 4 minutes really available to him in his land-based sports? Has he already bumped up against a pretty significant wall? And if he increases his mileage on the bike or the run, will something else suffer?

Investing this time in the swim instead actually turns out to be quite economical. Let's say that this typical top age-grouper swims about 6000 yards per week (3 workouts of 2000 yards). Were he to double this yardage, it would cost him an extra 2 hours per week, and this is about what it would take to get him this 3 to 10 minutes he needs, depending on the distance raced. He does not necessarily need to go to the pool more often. He can make his leap forward in speed by swimming smarter, and by covering more yards per workout (swimming 3000 yards 4 days a week instead of 1500 yards 4 days a week, or 4000 yards in 3 weekly workouts).

It would take 2 or 3 months of regular swimming to build up to 3000 or 4000 yard workouts, if 1500 to 2000 is what you're used to. But you'd be surprised how fast 3000 yards goes by in a master's team workout.

Another plus that comes with choosing to make your big jump in the swim is that it's not weight bearing. You only have so many weight-bearing miles in you. You can't simply decide to start running 30 miles a week instead of 20. Well, you can, but your legs might have something to say about that. Ironically, not only is swimming physically "available" to you when additional running might not be, swimming is physically therapeutic. You might actually get an extra 5 running miles a week out of your legs by swimming more often.

Finally, you learn a lot about your ability when you come out of the water closer to the front. During the 1980s I thought I was quite the overcoming cyclist. I passed everybody like they were standing still. Then I became a good swimmer, and I found out I was actually quite mortal on the bike. It was all I could do to hold my own, because very good triathlon swimmers are just very good triathletes, on average. You learn a lot more, very quickly, about how fast you need to go on the bike to be competitive. It's like being thrown from AA ball to the big leagues. You're forced to get better on the bike in a hurry, and you do.

How do you get better as a swimmer? There are a variety of articles in Swim Center on how to do this. More are coming, including one on the "heels" of this one (pun intended) on the value of kicking, and another on setting your pulling surface directly after the catch.

Perhaps I am energized to write about this because I've been in the pool steadily for some weeks now and with each week I reacquire, without consciously trying, an element of technique I'd forgotten about. "Oh yes!" I'll say to myself during a swim set. "That's what I did when I used to swim faster!"

As previously mentioned, the value in getting onto a vibrant master's team can't be understated. There is no single thing that will make you faster. Not because you'll get a lot of great coaching, but because you'll be 2500 yards into the workout by the time you come up for your first breath of air.

Another element to good swimming is watching other good swimmers. I well remember the year I made my "big jump." That was the year an extremely good swim team had use of the pool just in front of our master's team. I'd come a half-hour early on many days, just to watch them swim and drill into my motor memory how it was they executed their techniques. Nowadays we're internet connected, and you can see a lot of this on the computer. The World's best distance freestyler, Grant Hackett, has posted some of his competitive swims videos online. I've got his 2005 400m, 800m, and 1500m World Championship swims serving to a Quicktime window on my desktop. I look at them every now and then, to see the stroke to which I aspire.

I find going to the pool not that hard these days, because I'm making progress reasonably quickly. I'll write about what I'm doing as the Fall approaches and commences, and how it is I make my own progress toward the day I take the plunge in my new age-group. Maybe some of you will take the plunge as well, and we'll all exit the water next year with a group of athletes we won't hardly recognize.