Since the swim portion of a triathlon is considerably shorter than the bike or run portions, there is not much of an incentive to spend a lot of time and effort improving swimming abilities...at least on the surface.
For many, if they can make it past the swim, then the 'real' race begins. A common rationale - and a valid one on the surface - for not focusing more on the swim segment is that the advantage gained by the end of the swim can be taken over very quickly by another athlete on the bike. However, there are other competitive factors to take into consideration if performance is one of your goals:
(1) competition with a faster pack,
(2) stress reduction,
(3) aerobic conditioning,
(4) time savings,
(5) physical recovery
Competitive Advantages: In general, the better athletes finish the swim leg faster, although there are always exceptions. So if you can place yourself in a faster-moving pack against better athletes, you will be in the thick of the race longer and may find yourself with fewer competitors around you.
Additionally, the faster you are in the swim, the possibility increases to avoid the masses and possible traffic jams in and coming out of the T1 transition. Speed and experience in the open water also enables you to more likely swim on the sides of the pack and zip past the slower swimmers, largely avoiding the knocking, bumping, pulling and elbowing by hundreds of slower and less experienced triathletes who have problems swimming straight.
It is also extremely beneficial to work on your swimming technique, even if it does not immediately lead to speed improvements by a dramatic amount. Improved technique will result in a much more efficient stroke, which in turn allows you to conserve more energy and exit the water in a more energetic and comfortable state. Without the proper technique and more experience in the open water, you are likely to waste valuable energy that could instead be utilized during the bike and run portions.
Stress Reduction: Faced with less jostling in the water and smoother transitions, stress during the first part of a triathlon can be reduced. All things considered, the balance of the triathlon on your bike and run will be more likely improved.
Aerobic Conditioning: As every triathlete and marathon runner has experienced while doing an intense swim workout (and vice versa when swimmers do a track workout or hard bike ride), aerobic conditioning is different in the horizontal position in the water than in the vertical position while running or cycling on land. To improve in one environment (water) will help in the other (land).
Time Savings: Improved technique will also enable you to swim further in the same amount of time. The difference between maintaining a 2 minute per 100 pace versus a 1:30 per 100 pace for a 3000-yard workout is a whopping 15 minutes. Assuming 3 swim workouts per week and that difference translates to a total of 3 hours of workout time per month. For many triathletes who lead extremely busy lifestyles, an extra 3 hours per month can inevitably be put to invaluable use.
Physical Recovery: Training for a triathlon, particularly if you a professional, is a full-time job. Triathletes need to be in their greatest aerobic shape with plenty of endurance and ability to withstand everything from cold water temperatures to humid air temperatures. It is no surprise that this amount and intensity of training is extraordinarily difficult on your body. In particular, the running puts your body through a pretty good beating with all the miles spent pounding on the pavement.
In contrast, swimming is extremely forgiving and can be ideal recovery training for the stress that your legs absorb on the streets. Your joints, tendons and other body parts do not face nearly the same amount of pressure from swimming as they do from running.
Confidence Building: For most triathletes, the easiest discipline to achieve improvement is swimming. For many, they can most quickly and impressively improve your 100m or 1-mile freestyle time than you can improve your strength, speed or stamina on the bike or run. With a focus on swimming and time spent in the pool and open water, those significant time drops inevitably lead to an increased confidence and positive mental outlook.
Thus, swimming can be a great way to achieve a variety of positive benefits that will lead to improved performance in the open water and course: (1) competition with a faster pack, (2) stress reduction, (3) aerobic conditioning, (4) time savings, (5) physical recovery, and confidence building.
Photo shows open water swimmer-turned-triathlete John Kenny.
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