Pro Triathlete, Swim Coach and S&C Instructor Andrea Ramos comes from a swimming background, and was introduced into the world of triathlon as a strong swimmer. In todays article, Performance Coach Steve Davis and Andrea share their thoughts and views on the importance of the swim in both professional and age group racing, and how to gain the biggest advantage in the swim leg.
It is no secret that if you come from a swimming background, everything will be much easier in triathlon at a professional level. From experience, I can tell you, that this is absolutely true.
I started swimming when I was only 4 years old. At first, I didn’t really understand why learning to swim was so important and I guess that’s something with time that I would begin to understand. Swimming not only helped me stay fit and healthy, but it also gave me the opportunity to open many doors for myself as an athlete.
Young swimmers are often very attractive to triathlon coaches, as coaches of elite triathletes know the huge advantage that swimmers already have compared to children learning to swim at an advanced age. This is exactly what happened to me when I was 12 years old. I was recruited by a Triathlon coach and we worked together to improve my bike and running fitness.
Being a swimmer for more than 20 years has given me a huge advantage in professional triathlon. Back when I was competing at an elite level, the rule was that you swim fast or die trying.
You would think that a gap of 10 seconds behind the leaders out of the swim is nothing, but at the elite level, you can lose the race in the swim leg by missing the bike bunch by a few seconds. The perfect example of this is the world triathlon series where the best short distance athletes race. The dominance in these races is controlled by the swimmers. They not only lead the swimming stage, but also the rest of the race.
Many years ago, swimming was not that important because the best runners were the ones who were winning. However, when triathletes like Javier Gómez and Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee appeared, they showed that it was not only necessary to be a great runner but a great cyclist and swimmer. Their dominance was brutal and new generations like the current world champion Vincent Laurent, Henry Schoeman and Jake Birtwhistle continue to show us how important it is to be a complete triathlete.
Having said this though, in long distance racing, things are very different. Whilst being a good swimmer is always a great advantage to have, it is not the most important thing for the longer course events. In long distance racing, swimming is, by percentage, the much shorter leg which makes the bike and the run far more important. However, there are things you can always do to improve your swimming leg and set yourself up for the best race possible.
- Starting Position: The way you position yourself on the starting line can give you a big advantage. Take note of the wind direction, the longest, shallowest route that allows you to run and porpoise for longer, the ability of the athletes around you, the location and direction of the first turning buoy
- Porpoise (also known as Dolphin): A swim course recon is always a must. This will help you know how shallow the water is so you can run, then porpoise, before you begin to swim. Running is faster than porpoising or swimming, so you should run for as long as possible, until you either fall over, or until you reach water that is over knee high. Porpoising, while slower than running, is still faster than swimming. You should porpoise until you no longer feel like it is an efficient forward propulsion, and this generally occurs once the water reaches hip height. Only after you have moved out into this depth of water should you start your swim stroke.
- Swim at your own pace: As I mentioned previously, long distance swimming is much less of the total of the whole race, therefore, you do not want to spend all your energy in the leg that will provide the least return on investment. Once up and swimming, you need to find your own rhythm and pace. Whenever you get a chance to swim alongside someone who is a little faster than you, go for it, just make sure to swim alongside their hips. The popular belief is that the best place for drafting in the swim is on the the feet of the person in front of you. In fact, it is along side the hips of the faster swimmer that is the best position to increase your chances of keeping up with them. Relax into the swim, and swim to be efficient rather than fast.
- Sighting: This is a skill you can never practice too often, however, it is important to not focus on it too much just because you are in the open water. You don’t necessarily need to sight every 3 to 5 strokes as you are generally coached to do. Check how choppy the water is, where the turning buoys are, what other landmarks are around, and based on that information, you may only need to sight every 9-13 strokes. Regardless of how efficiently you are able to sight, you will still swim faster if you sight less often (as long as you swim straight!).
- Turning Buoys: When it comes to turning during the swim leg, don’t rush or try to do it as close tot eh buoy as possible. You are swimming with up to 50 or even 100 other swimmers and they all have the same goal at that turning buoy. Swim to avoid the mess and turn around the buoy out a bit wider in clear space. This will reduce the risk of tangling with other athletes and eliminate the kicks in the face, the dunkings, the leg pulls and the risk of losing your goggles.
- Swim with Porpoise: Excuse the pun, but when turning into the final stretch of the swim, the same rules apply; porpoising is faster than swimming, and running is faster than both. Don’t want to waste time and energy swimming in shallow water, but also, don’t stand up too early or your ability to porpoise will be negated. Keep swimming until you feel the sand on your finger tips through a normal stroke. The fingers touching the sand signals that it’s time to stop swimming and to start your porpoise dives. Once you feel the water is too shallow and you can no longer porpoise efficiently, get up and run. Note that you may need to go back to porpoising and even swimming again, depending on the depth of the water. This is why is it imperative that you do a course recon before the race, so that you know what is coming and you can plan your mode of attack.
- Removing the Wetsuit: Once you get out of the water, the first thing you want to do is find the wetsuit strap, unzip your wetsuit and start taking it off and pulling it down to your hips. Know how long the transition run is, and take as much time as you have to keep running at a good pace while removing the wetsuit from the top half of your body. Run with a high cadence, trying to calm your heart rate and control your breathing as the blood rushes back to your legs. Once at your bike use your legs and feet to remove your wetsuit completely while simultaneously putting on your helmet, sunnies and gathering your bike.
The takeaway points are to regularly practice what you will do on race day and always ensure that you do a course recon before you race. Know the water depth, the the evenness of the ocean floor, the position of the sun, landmarks and the transition route. As with any race, it is important to relax and put into practice everything you have done over and over in training. If you need help or guidance on anything we have talked about today, then you can contact our Melbourne triathlon club, or our Cork triathlon club for more information about training days.