How to teach yourself to change gear in the water

Racing triathlon is rarely single-paced, so you need to be able to change gear to respond to what's going on around you. Here's how to learn to do that in the swim

Woman training front crawl in the swimming pool

While most of our training is usually controlled and measured, racing is unpredictable and you can never know what to expect. 

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If you’re unable to respond to the race strategy of other athletes, you might find yourself in the wrong pack when starting the race, dropped from the pack mid-swim, or out of position when trying to take the shortest line and navigating buoys.

Any of one of these events might mean a slow day in the water due to the inability to race effectively.

To be successful in managing the racing environment, you need to be able to make a move, either creating your own or when responding to a competitor. You must have to ability to switch gears to generate the speed to create separation or to stay in contact.

The more you practice this skill, the more speed you’ll have and the better you’ll be able to recover from these surges. It doesn’t do you much good if you switch gears and are then exhausted for the remainder of the race!

You have to develop the fitness to be able to create the speed and recover from these efforts so that you can continue to race effectively. Below are some strategies to learn how to do so.

Blast

To be able to change speeds, you need to have some speed. The first step in learning to switch gears is to practice swimming fast. Short sprints of 15-20 seconds fit the bill here.

Make sure you’re getting enough rest between each sprint, something like 45-60 seconds. It doesn’t take much volume here, as 3-4 efforts performed 1-2 times per week is sufficient. The key is to go fast!

Build it up

In a racing environment, you generally want to build your speed rather than simply go full tilt right away to make or match a move. It’s a lot more draining to make a sudden move as opposed to a more gradual one.

To learn how to do so, you can perform repetitions where you build your speed within each rep. You can either perform short builds of 25-50m, or you can perform longer builds of 100-200m.

In both cases, you’ll start with a conservative effort and slowly increase your speed until you’re really moving.

In the shorter repetitions, you’ll increase your speed much quicker, and you’ll do so more gradually over the longer repetitions. This way, you learn to increase your speed in a manner that saves you energy.

Descend it down

Like building efforts, you’ll increase your speed during descending efforts. The difference is that the speed changes from repetition to repetition rather than within a repetition.

For instance, you can perform 4x50m with each repetition getting faster. With shorter distances, you’ll increase the speed faster and with longer repetitions, you’ll increase the speed more gradually.

You can really push the pace on the final repetition. Descending efforts can be good for those that like consistent feedback as getting your times will let you know how much you’ve increased your speed by.

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Image credit: Jacob Ammentorp Lund/Getty Images