Training for Triathlon – Part 1

Ok so as promised here is my blog entry on open water specific swim training. I will now over the coming weeks conduct a series of articles titled ‘Training for Triathlon’. This entry will be part 1 in that series. During the last part in the series I will announce something very special. This announcement will then ensure you’re road to the top does not have to be a lonely one. Thanks for all your support. Enjoy.

As many of you are aware Triathlon as a sport is growing massively across all distances. Initially many Triathletes believed that in order to be the best Triathlete on the planet you would have to swim like a swimmer, cycle like a cyclist and run like a runner. How times have changed!! A recent study on ‘Science in Triathlon’ concluded that Triathlon is to be perceived as a sole sport and therefore many training techniques need to be adapted and developed in order to assist in the growth of the sport. I want to see the sport grow therefore with out expert guidance we are all pretty much alone out there.

This adaption and development has been in the sport for some time now. I would like to give you some training methods and advice that can hopefully help with open water swimming. It is no secret that my swimming ability is very rarely shown when in open water. As the level of this sport is changing rapidly I knew something had to change in order to ensure I stood the best chance of improving my open water swimming. So I sat down with my coach (Michael Kruger) and partner (Ben Powell), who both have an amazing knowledge of the sport and a great ability to adapt, to a) Identify the reasons why a good pool swimmer is not necessarily a good open water swimmer and b) develop training methods to aid the transfer from pool swimming to open water swimming.

After many days of research combined with months of observations we concluded the key differences between pool swimming and open water swimming. I have listed three below and will indentify how you can alter your pool training to cater for this certain area.

These, now, as time goes by become more and more obvious.

The cadence of a good open water swimmer is predominately higher than the cadence of good pool swimmer.

As I said above this, now, as time goes on becomes more and more apparent. A perfect example of this is those Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Johnny. Open water they are up there with the best and also in the pool they are very good. Technically compared to an Olympic level swimmer there is a huge difference, the only way to describe it would be slow and smooth for the Olympic level swimmer and fast and hectic for Alistair and Johnny. This is simply because those boys know that in order to tackle the ‘washing machine’, get out of trouble, bridge a gap their cadence needs to be high. This is a perfect example that swimming like a swimmer is not necessarily the way to go in terms of open water swimming.

In order to assist you with a higher cadence in the water one area to focus on is the catch phase of your stroke. If you have been taught by a swim instructor then you have probably been advised to enter smooth and reach long focusing on the high elbow. This I could not agree more with if pool swimming is your sport of choice. In regards to open water swimming however I would advise to adopt a more instant catch, focusing on the front end of your stroke. Still adopting the same principles of high elbow during the recovery and catch phase but instead of gliding out on your catch phase focus on catching instantly. To get started focusing on the front of catch rather than finish of stroke is a good way to gain a higher cadence. You can then focus on the finish of stroke when you are confident you can adapt your stroke frequency. A good way of doing this is to complete sets of 100m where you add 4 – 6 strokes every second 100m so for example. 8 x 100m = 1st 100m count strokes (84), 2nd 100m increase 4 – 6 strokes (88 – 90).

Another training method is to create drag while maintaining the correct body position in the water. The use of finger paddles, pull buoy and band (inner tube around the ankles, inner tube with towel attached when you get good) is extremely beneficial. When adding drag it is required that we catch instantly in order to maintain our forward propulsion. If we seek the long gliding style during this method of training then we will encounter a pause in our forward propulsion. This is one of the biggest elements we should always avoid when trying to swim effectively. It is very important to contract in your core body when using this method as you are then able to hold the correct body position.

Pace set in the pool compared to open water is much more consistent. In short meaning that open water swimming (when racing) is unpredictable in pace. Closing gaps, staying with a break, gaining clear water at the start, swim exit. All of these are phases that requires a rapid change in pace.

Many of you at some point while racing have experienced early build up of lactic acid. On more than one occasion I have felt this after 200 – 300m and I am sure some of you have even earlier (I feel for those of you who have experienced this at an early stage of an Ironman…ouch!!). A successful open water swimmer will be able to tolerate this lactic build up, recover and then tolerate more at later stages in the swim. Lactic acid can build up from many different factors 1) Starting hard – too hard, 2) Bridging a gap, 3) Being caught in the washing machine and trying to fight your way out, 4) Accelerating around a buoy and so much more. In order to aid with the tolerance of such build up I now regularly complete two types of swim sessions that are purely targeted at the tolerance of lactic acid levels and also the ever changing pace of a 1500m ITU swim. You can adapt these sessions to suit you also.

Fartlek session. I complete 1 x fartlek swim per week this is a hard session and is regarded as a key session for me. As the pace in races goes up and down this can be very interrupting for my rhythm. A fartlek session is exactly this, a session aimed at interrupting rhythm and recovering on high lactic acid levels. It is very important that I get used to my rhythm being interrupted it then helps come race day. One session that we came up with over the winter period is a session of 800m, 600m, 400m, 200m during that specific distance regularly change from race pace, above race pace, threshold, steady just totally mix it up. Many different intensities are thrown into the one distance so in simple form 800m as 25m Steady/25m Race pace, 50m Threshold/50m Above race pace….and so on. Complete throughout the 600m, 400m, 200m taking about 30 – 40 seconds break between each one and you have yourself a killer session which is extremely beneficial.

-Lactic tolerance training. These sessions are brutal. There is no other word to describe them. This type of training is designed as being extremely hard with very big rest. Enhancing your lactic tolerance levels and the ability to produce lactic acid. This then assists when racing, firstly mentally you would have been in this place before that is always, in a strange way, comforting. Secondly your body has now become better at recovering with high lactic levels in the system therefore being able to swim more consistently despite working hard. A typical lactic session for me would be 6 x 100m max efforts – all out nothing in reserve with between 3 – 5 minutes rest. Sounds easy and short but believe me after two they hurt. Maybe you should try to feel my pain?!

I would advise to conduct at least 1 x Fartlek session per week and 1 x Lactic tolerance session every 2nd week. These sessions assist greatly in helping you adapt to the uncertainty that is open water swimming.

Open water is very rarely as calm as a pool; there is often a current to deal with and people who will do their upmost to interrupt your rhythm.

This one is a simple one either practice race scenarios in a pool or better still get out into the open water and practice there. One time per week, during the cold months, the Danish National squad have an open water specific session in doors. We extract all the lane ropes from the 50m pool and place 4 buoys to help create a 100m swimming area. The squad then conducts a main session of around 1500m which is very tough but great fun. No room to move, fighting for space, closing gaps all factors that we all encounter when racing open water. In the summer months we conduct the same type of session but outdoors in the many lakes we have in Denmark. This type of work is highly recommended especially as race season approaches. Of course you may not be able to take all the lane ropes out but for sure you can get a group of 4 – 5 of you in one lane and conduct sessions of 50m’s, 100m’s, turns at the flags etc, hard 15m easy 35m. All whilst getting used to be enclosed just like race day.

I very much hope you have found this article of interest. Hopefully it has made you aware of certain points that seem so simple but are not actually visible unless pointed out. My simple advice is seeking help off those who are able to help, never feel you have to do things alone. Working with someone with experience is far more beneficial than working with someone without.

Keep following for the next installment of ‘Training for Triathlon’

1 Comment

  1. When looking for your first event keep close to home. No need to travel many miles unless you live somewhere that does not have races close to home. If your race is close to home it gives you a chance to check out the course or better yet do some of your training on it. This can help alleviate some race day stress because you are already somewhat familiar with the course.

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