Swim short. Swim Long.

Can you deserve to overlook the swim leg regardless of race distance?

Here’s one of my favourite articles on swimming – from a race point of view – that I wrote a few years ago:

The swim leg of a triathlon is something that divides the sport’s athletes; both in emotions and approach. Ask a cross-section of professional triathletes how they view the swim portion of an upcoming race and you will be met with much the same reaction as you would receive from a random selection of age-groupers: a mixture of smiles and groans.

Love it or loathe it, the ‘getting wet bit’ will always pose challenges from the physical to the emotional, but can the swim leg play an important part in race success? Is it possible to approach the swim portion of a triathlon – no matter what the distance – in the same way and still yield results?

Does the athlete first out of the water ever win the race?

The triathlon fraternity seem to have a slogan for many things. Spending a reasonable amount of time around the multisport community should offer up a statement like this one: “You can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you sure can lose one”.

There is little doubt that this philosophy had its place in the sport for many years, or that it forged a confidence and belief in those athletes lacking in the swimming department. If we continue to subscribe to this theory, athletes new to the sport will assume that the swim is simply something to endure or ‘get through’ before the real racing begins. Depending on the chosen race distance, this assumption could be the undoing of an athlete.

As one of the fastest growing sports in the world, triathlon has recently attracted both media and corporate attention – just look at the ‘M-Dot’ phenomenon with the Ironman company changing hands again recently for a very handsome price. This promotional buzz means numerous event organisers and governing bodies are queuing up to arrange and supervise races all over the world. When addressing the importance of the swim leg across different triathlon distances, we must also look at the format of competition and therefore the controlling bodies.

First off, the International Triathlon Union [ITU] has for some time been the governing body for the pinnacle of Olympic [Standard] Distance racing. The ITU not only stages events for the finest triathletes in the world, but also crowns the annual World Champion. As a forward-thinking organisation, the ITU have expanded into mixed relay triathlon as well as considering rule changes to make the sport more spectator-friendly. There are two major changes which have affected this branch of the sport in the last decade: draft legal bike racing and a ‘Grand Prix’ format for the season. No longer does the World Champion herald from just one race; the season is punctuated by a handful of events where points mean prizes – the World Champion now has to be the most consistent athlete.

This change in design has further increased the divide between Standard Distance triathlon and its big brother, The Ironman. An exciting aspect resulting from the rule changes is that it brings forth a new breed of athlete:  The Swim/Runner. Without draft legal racing, the bike portion of the race becomes much more important; a flat-out solo time trial is where strength and power rule while the weak are left – sometimes minutes – behind. In ITU racing it is now perfectly acceptable to find one or more close bunches of athletes riding at average speeds close to that of a Tour de France time trial which – in turn – allows similar tactics and games. Apart from a stern glare from a fellow competitor (Read ‘Alistair Brownlee’), there are now no rules stopping an athlete sitting at the back of a bunch of riders while saving energy for the run.

Male Standard distance athletes of years gone by were quite simply big units – think Spencer Smith or Simon Lessing. We don’t have to cast our minds back too far to recall the 2016 Olympic Triathlon and the realisation that those first across the line in the men’s race were lean and wiry – these boys have the appearance of 10km track runners.

Often found in the lead pack of swimmers or exiting first was Alexander Bryukhankov who is clearly a very powerful swimmer with an exceptional feel for the water in addition to being useful enough on the bike to enter T2 in the top 10. You could be forgiven for thinking some ninety minutes after the gun that he had received a harpoon squarely to the back of his thigh but with the ridiculously high quality of swim/runners in the field it just looks that way.

To highlight the issue anecdotally: Pre-London 2012 Chris “Macca” McCormack – Australian Tri legend – attempted to re-join the Olympic Team. I think he will be first to admit that the calibre of racing in the Standard Distance format had developed immensely since he won the ITU World Champs in 1997 and departed for Long Distance racing. He didn’t make the team.

If we accept that the build of the Standard Distance triathlete has evolved into that more akin to a pure runner – and that racing is often nullified during the bike portion – how then does the race winner guarantee success? Surely not during the swim?

There are some naysayers who look down their noses at the current ITU format of racing, claiming that it is now just a running race and in fact quite formulaic. For a moment, we can examine this theory assuming that all athletes arrive at T2 together and set off on a sub 30-minute 10km run. This is of course only partly true. To arrive at T2 with competitors who display the biggest threat to race glory, triathletes must arrive in the first pack exiting the bike course which in turn means commencing the bike leg in pole position with a handful or athletes working together.

The importance of the swim to success within Standard Distance triathlon racing has increased significantly.

If indeed the naysayers were correct – and races ran to this very simple formula every time – we would continue to see athletes leaving the water first, sitting in the front bike pack and then blitzing the run only to cross the line first. This would then allude to the assumption that the fastest swimmers have increased chances of winning the race but studies would indicate otherwise; it may well be the MANNER in which we swim rather than the speed that cements our fate.

During the early years of triathlon, many sports programmes around the word would pluck single sports athletes from their swim, bike or run backgrounds in an attempt to produce outstanding triathletes. It was not uncommon for pro athletes – already accomplished in their single sport fields – to take up triathlon racing with some success. Do fast swimmers make good triathletes?

We have already witnessed an evolution in Standard and Sprint Distance athletes; from now on, the pro field will be filled with pure triathletes who grew up wanting to be just that. Races will be won not because the winner has a specialty or strength, but because they do not have a weakness. For this reason, the swim leg must be looked upon as part of a triathlon and NOT as a swimming race.

It is well known that many age group athletes complete their training with local masters swim squads in an effort to become faster and reduce swim times. The mistake here is that pure swimmers train for a very specific reason – to win swimming races. An average masters swim session will involve fast interval repeats together with a large serving of threshold abuse. The only training being accomplished here is to condition the body for an all-out effort before reaching the end of the pool, but pure swimmers don’t have a ride and run to complete. For triathletes to win races, they must train and compete for the holistic sport.

A 2009 study by the School of Sport and Science at the University of Western Australia has shown that those triathletes swimming at a sub-maximal workload (80-85% of time trial effort) are more likely to succeed in the overall outcome as opposed to those eager souls who are conditioned to work very hard from the gun. These athletes will very likely enjoy a period of clear water and a handsome lead, only to fade in the latter stages of the race or even fail to finish. We can see two examples of this, each from a different triathlon format.

During Kona 1996 super fish Lars Jorgneson shook up the race by posting the swim course record. Having clearly gone out too hard, he would never recover and pulled out of the race sometime afterward.

In more recent times at the 2012 Olympic women’s triathlon Lucy Hall from Great Britain streaked ahead and posted a time just over 18 minutes for the 1500m. First out of the water by some margin, she would later finish in 33rd Place after a run of just 38 minutes and change.

This illustrates one similarity between the short and long distance formats – those going out too hard on the swim will soon come unstuck. The rush of adrenaline experienced by the fast swimmer who finds themself in the lead will mask the effects of rapidly depleting fuel stores and a heart rate which will never recover. The ecstasy felt from the applause and reaction on the beach is as good as their day is going to get. In addition, in the Draft Legal ITU races you will often see the solo cyclist sit up waiting for some help to form a group of riders together… deciding that the huge effort to leave the water first may well have been a waste of time. You will struggle to find an example where a solo rider stayed out front without being caught.

Arriving as we have at Ironman distance racing, we find another similarity between the swims of various race distances: rules and Governing Bodies have the ability to change the events completely.

Take a glance at the typical M-Dot race while the pro athletes prepare for the horn to sound. Now imagine the same time at an ITU World Cup or Series event. There is a very visible difference to the format even before the athletes get wet. Typically, the ITU men and women do not seem to be wearing wetsuits; the Ironman race however seems to present hundreds of identical seal-type figures.

On the off-chance that wetsuits are permitted in an ITU race – in Germany or Austria for example – the outcome of the race may be slightly affected; however, in the Grand Prix format the points table may be upset for a week or two and then return to normal. The Ironman World Championship is a very different beast: athletes have but one chance to make an impact on the scene in Kona, Hawaii every year. The chances to qualify are beset by the same governing body, and this means the chances of a wetsuit swim are higher, almost certain.

Wetsuits are permitted in Ironman races within water temperatures up to 24.5 degrees – that is just a couple of degrees shy of your local swimming baths. An ITU race has a ruling temperature which is more than 3 degrees lower.

The impact of wetsuits on an Ironman swim is not simply that the swim splits are faster for everybody. No-one could argue that swimming is the most technique-heavy portion of a triathlon, and pure swimmers must take tens of thousands of strokes in the right manner to imprint this on their muscles. Triathletes do not have such a luxury of time and training time for an Ironman is paramount.

It has been seen that when studying Olympic-winning times for the men’s 1500m freestyle, the figures have made a gradual but definite decline over the past 10 years. Compare this to the swim splits at the Ironman World Championships and suddenly these seem reluctant to change, sluggish even.

The advent of faster, more flexible and more streamlined wetsuits could easily be assumed to make marked differences to the swim splits at the major Ironman races but the data seems to contradict this. The best swimmers in the pool spend hours repeating strokes where the smallest alterations can find or lose hundredths of a second. Today’s sport science for swimming is based upon reducing drag and increasing efficiency. Like triathlon, the days of muscular, triangular-shaped athletes are gone. The podium is now filled with tall, lean specimens who apply a ‘whole body’ approach to swimming freestyle. This whole body approach uses gentle movement of the body together with the synchronising of the kick with the rhythm of the arm stroke. The ‘Total Immersion’ method of swimming (RIP Terry Laughlin) – specifically aimed at open water and triathlon swimming – is based on such principles. In fact, the very things that Total Immersion claim will NOT increase your speed in the water are the tools we have become so used to using, the tools which purposefully split the body into ‘fore and aft’, ‘propel and pull’ like kick boards and pull buoys. Certain pro triathletes have also been using a ‘no gear’ policy during their swim sets to great effect for years.

Once we have established the importance of a ‘whole body’ approach to swimming freestyle – along with the hard work, time and skill it takes to master it – we can truly see the benefit of the wetsuit to the Ironman athlete. The reluctance of Ironman swim splits to greatly reduce over the years could well be down to the high performance wetsuits permitted in almost all Ironman events. With a maximum thickness of 5mm, the buoyancy afforded from wearing such a suit all but cancels out the need to master the type of kick utilised by elite swimmers to keep the hips high and the body elevated in the water. Swimming in a wetsuit places nearly all of the stroke emphasis on the pull, which saves the legs for hours of high tempo riding. The key here is that it helps all players, not just the fast swimmers which shifts the focus onto the ride and then the marathon.

It could be argued that the science applied to pure swimming events simply does not account for the use of wetsuits in Ironman competition and therefore the swim splits will only improve at a remarkably slow pace. Furthermore, the decrease in times may not be attributed to more efficient swimming at all but rather other lessons learned about nutrition, recovery and “tapering” (don’t get me started on the use of this word!!).

These are key elements to appreciate when assessing the importance of the swim leg to varying distances of triathlon. One final factor is perhaps the most simple of all to explain: expressed as a percentage of race time spent swimming, Ironman athletes aren’t in the water for as long as their Standard Distance counterparts. The wetsuit is a great ‘leveller’ on the Ironman circuit meaning athletes can shift their focus to many hours of riding – the true key to success in long distance racing.

The bad news for Short Course triathletes? Your success may just hinge on those pool sessions in the off season which hone your efficiency and economy in the water. The lesson here is that greater swim economy allows a sub-threshold swim which in turn protects energy reserves for that blistering run. If you have ambitions of competing in the ITU Short Course Age Group World Championships, the Sprint Distance is now a Draft Legal event and the above might just change the way you train and race!

W.

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