Triathlon is not Swim + Bike + Run – Part One

Looking at great champions like Michael Phelps (swimmer) , Fabio Cancellara (cyclist) and Haile Gebrselassie (runner) – all great athletes with many gold medals and World Championships under their belts. These athletes are very skilled and efficient in their specific sports. Obviously many years of training is necessary to reach the levels they have achieved.

Check out Triathlon training plans from Sergio here.

PhelpsAll three sports require a high level of skill, particularly swimming and running. Athletes like Michael Phelps, for example, have spent over 15 years developing their skills, training an average of 5 to 8 hours per day. All of this time and work is required to develop skills in A SINGLE SPORT!

Our sport includes all three: swim, bike, and run. Many athletes and some coaches see triathlon as three separate sports: Swim + Bike + Run. However, triathlon is ONE sport and should be seen as swimbikerun, in which every sport interferes or influences the others.

When training for triathlon, athletes usually make the mistake of seeing it as 3 different sports. Triathletes think that they should train for swimming like swimmers, bike like cyclists and run like runners. Athletes should not seek individual sports’ PR’s but instead, an overall faster result. Saving energy on the swim, reducing aerobic taxing and neuromuscular firing on the bike and teaching your body how to run on fatigued legs on tight muscles and reduced range of motion is triathlon!

Swim for Triathlon

If you look at swim training for triathlon, for example, the average triathlete swims between 2 and 3 times per week and about 1,500 to 2,000yds per swim. This swim training volume does not give the athlete, enough time in the water to fully develop the skills as a swimmer. As I mentioned above, Michael Phelps has probably spent around 21,600 hours in the pool! To develop the “similar” skills that Phelps has developed, the average triathlete would need 75 years of swim training!!!!.

Here’s just a few reasons why a triathlete should not train like a swimmer:

#1 – Triathletes will never get to the same skill level as a swimmer. Triathletes don’t have enough time to devote to one sport only.

#2 – If you only swim 2 to 3 times per week and about 2,000yds each workout, you should ONLY use this time to develop the ability of swimming freestyle, no other stroke or kicking.

#3 – Practicing drills in the pool all the time, will NOT make you a faster swimmer. For the same reason explained on #2, the average triathlete can’t afford to spend half of his workout time doing drills, leaving aside important components like motor skills, strength and speed.

#4 – An unskilled swimmer uses way more energy to cover the same distance as a skilled swimmer, therefore they need to swim LESS volume but more frequently (usually opposite happens as we know)

#5 – An unskilled swimmer should not swim longer sets (i.e. 3 x 500yds) until they develop proper skills. Swimming longer sets will not be as productive to the unskilled athlete as their stroke will fall apart after 100yds or so.

#6 – An unskilled swimmer should use equipment like pull buoy and paddles to aid with body position and to reduce aerobic taxing, facilitating the athlete to develop a better stroke.

#7 – Triathletes usually over-use their aerobic system and under-train important components like skills, strength and speed.

im startOn top of all that, we know that open water swimming is very different than pool swimming. When racing with 1,000 other bodies hitting you, your stroke will have to be adapted to the situation that might also involve currents, waves and sighting. High elbow recovery, glide and other details that make you a faster pool swimmer, might not work in triathlon racing where your space is limited and conditions are usually rough. In Ironman races, you might be swimming with over 2,000 competitors and it won’t be about a “pretty swim stroke” but a powerful, driven by momentum stroke.

Another misconception is that triathletes don’t need to train for swimming as it represents a small part of the race. A weaker swimmer will have a huge fatigue carryover effect. If you are fitter on the swim, you might not always have faster times, but you will definitely be fresher, setting you up for a good bike and run.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this article where I’ll explain the difference between the bike and run training as isolated sports vs.for triathlon where conditions and characteristics of the races are totally unique.

Happy Training!