For many triathletes, swimming is the necessary evil before the bike and run legs of a triathlon.
When it comes to training for the swim, the shortest leg of a triathlon, triathletes often take the mentality that it doesn’t make a huge difference in their overall performance, so why bother? Instead of three hours in the pool, they may as well spend three hours on the bike.
To understand the importance of swimming to a triathlete, you need to understand the context of the athlete asking that question. For example:
- The swim is critical for a short course, draft-legal racer
- The swim is critical for an athlete trying to make a cut-off for a long course race
- The swim is critical for an athlete looking to qualify for an AG team or a World Championship if it is their weakest discipline
- The swim is not critical for a competent swimmer wanting to do their first triathlon
- The swim is not critical for a mid-pack triathlete with room for improvement across all disciplines
- The swim is not critical for someone who has limited time to train and can “swim the distance”.
These come with the coach’s caveat that it depends on the athlete and the circumstances. It is a lot more nuanced than dismissing swimming as unimportant.
If you compare a pure swimmer’s training diary to a triathlete’s one, you would see 1-2 swim sessions per day of between 1-2 hours, six days a week, and gym sessions on top of them. With most triathletes braving the pool 2-4 times per week, it is not hard to see why pure swimmers are better in the water; they spend more time in that environment.
However, they are gaining the many physiological improvements from swimming that triathletes can get from other sports; aerobic endurance can be built on the bike, not just in the water. So triathletes shouldn’t also aim for 12 swim sessions a week!
How much should a triathlete train then?
Training effectively for three sports means that there has to be some optimisation for the athlete to ensure that they perform at their best in the three sports. Triathletes often treat each sport individually, but the winner of a triathlon is the person with the fastest overall time. We have to get the best possible outcome allowing for all three variables.
Training load should be the minimum dose for the desired effect. Training any more than necessary is wasted time, which for most age groupers is not something they have. For any sport, the frequency of sessions is more significant than the total duration i.e. it is better to do 2x30min sessions than 1×60 min session in a week.
This is because there is a reduced gap between sessions, which means less muscle memory loss. For swimming, this can mean additional “faff” time as you prepare or travel to the pool compared to a bike or a run. Nevertheless, the following generalised guidance may prove useful:
- One session per week – Enough to keep swimming memory, but no more.
- Two sessions per week – enough to maintain fitness in the water. No real improvement, no regression.
- Three session per week – will see improvement in swimming ability and fitness.
- Four or more sessions per week – will see significant improvement in ability and fitness.
The duration of the sessions is the next consideration. Again, there may be a time and a place for extensive, long sessions. However, the main thing is to ensure quality movement and an ability to change pace. If you are swimming so long that you can’t do either of those, then chance is that your training sessions are too long, and you are over-reaching.
For most triathlon swimmers, 45-60 mins in the water is an adequate session, even for long-course athletes and easy to fit in. That, coupled with a high frequency of sessions, will enable a good progression from session to session. For most triathlon distances, the swim leg will only last up to 50 mins. If you are looking to save time, why spend longer in the water? As discussed above, you stand to gain more by increasing the frequency of time in the water.
At either extreme, it may be worth deviating from that 45-60min session. For learners or beginner swimmers, shorter sessions would be more appropriate. They should swim to the point that they get tired and lose their technique. This may be 20-30 mins, but it enables them to swim with good technique and focus on their own skill development.
For stronger swimmers or those racing long-course, then longer, 90-minute sessions may also be beneficial. However, there has to be the ultimate question – what are you trying to achieve with that time. If you are someone pushing to make the cut-off in a long-course event, then again, a higher frequency of sessions will be more beneficial for you than fewer, longer sessions. But, it is worth doing a couple of longer steady swims to see how your endurance is coming along.
How much swimming should triathletes do?
Hopefully, the above points have helped you navigate what may be a contentious question. To simplify it, you should swim enough to optimise your overall triathlon time and overcome your limitations to success. For a very average answer, 3×45-60-minute sessions would work well. If this is too much, you may choose to phase swimming at various point of the season.
Often, triathletes do more swimming in the off-season when the weather is less favourable for outdoor workouts. Then, they plateau their swimming to have more time (2 sessions per week), which is when they would focus on their cycling and running. When the open water becomes more tolerable, a third session is added to prepare for the race season. Ultimately, the other important factor is that it needs to be fun. You should enjoy the number of sessions you spend training, that will make the most significant difference to your overall performance!
Philip Hatzis is a BTF Level 3 qualified coach and Ironman certified coach. He is the founder and head coach of Tri Training Harder.
Philip has taken many of his coached athletes to World and European Championships in all distances, including both Ironman and ITU, to both medal and compete. As an athlete he has competed at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
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