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Why Swimming Year-Round Can Be Hazardous To Your A Race

19 November

Swimming holds a unique space in triathlon. It’s the shortest of all three distances on race day, yet it often holds the highest level of stress. From our perspective as coaches, swimming is also the most costly training activity you can engage in. For these reasons, we strongly recommend that you implement a swimming ban in the winter and focus your swim training within the final 20-26 weeks leading up to your “A” race.

#1 – The Average Swim Session Is Twice the Time for Half The Work

Think about it: 30 minutes drive + change, 60 minute swim, 30 minutes change + drive. Do this three times across a week and your 6 hours of time is only netting you 3 hours of training.

Contrast this with a bike or run session from your home, where an hour long workout takes just that — an hour.

But it gets more challenging. Most swimming pools aren’t open at “regular” hours that fit your basic schedule. Most triathletes have to be at the pool between 5 and 7 in the morning to get in their swim, meaning an early morning wake up call, reduced sleep at night, and complicated pre-work logistics.

FInally, the cost of swimming is highly variable across the year. Waking up and starting a cold car three times per week at 5:30am in January to swim for an hour after a very long triathlon season, while training for a race in September, is much more costly than that same investment applied in July, eight weeks out from your race.

#2 – Event Race Day Swimming is a Technique-Oriented Endeavor

For most triathletes, proper swimming is about 70% technique. The remaining 30% is the fitness required to sustain that good technique for your race distance. This makes it incredibly muscle-memory dependent—meaning that unless you are a human rock in the water, your swim time is much better invested closer to your actual race season—when you can build your skills and fitness and then put them directly into a race situation.

Because such a significant part of swimming is about technique, you can take large amounts of time completely off from swimming—bringing your swimming fitness to near zero—without becoming dramatically slower than your PR swimming self.

This is because you still have the good technique of efficient swimming. What’s missing is swim fitness, and that comes back very quickly.

Your swimming speed also comes back very quickly, even after a long layoff. Again, your technique is there, you just need to shake off a little rust, regain your “feel for the water,” and rebuild some fitness to apply to your technique. In our experience, this process of going from Zero to PR/Hero takes between 12 and 16 weeks of focused, consistent, quality swimming.

Ironman Florida 2013 Swim

Face It, You’ll Never be a Real Swimmer

True swimmers have been in the water since age five. By the time they are twenty, they have been putting in 25, 50, even 75,000 yards per week! They have swum more in the first 15 years of their career than you or I could ever hope (or want!) to, given our jobs, lives, and multisport focus.

But at the end of the day, those 15 years of swimming might earn them a 54-minute Ironman swim…maybe only 12 to 20 minutes ahead of you. You can make that up with a solid bike and a smart run…and you got to watch all those episodes of the Smurfs and the A-Team while they were swimming away their youth.

Still Want to Get Faster? Consider the Return on Your Swim Investment

In terms of actual swim times, we break down the swim ability spectrum as follows:

Beginner Swimmer HIM > 40 mins IM > 80 mins
Intermediate Swimmer 30 mins < HIM > 40 mins 65 mins < IM > 80 mins
Advanced Swimmer HIM < 30 mins IM < 65 mins

> = Greater Than < = Less Than

This swim breakdown is based on observations of over 100 Ironman events, where age groupers trickle out of transition up until the 65-minute mark. Suddenly it’s total mayhem for 20 minutes as the bulk of the field finishes the swim and heads out on the bike course. Then the flood tapers off as the remainder of swimmers make their way into T1.

If we had to break it down, we would say 10% of any given field is “advanced”, 50% is “intermediate” and 40% is “beginner”.

What Will a Serious Swim Focus Net You Across a Season?

Beginner Swimmers: Massive gains (15-45 minutes or more for Ironman) depending on how “challenged” you are at the start and assuming you make a significant time investment with a quality technique resource. This improvement will help reduce race-day anxiety and make your overall experience a great deal more fun. You will want to focus on swimming more than the baseline 20 weeks that we advocate here, but no more than 30 or 35 weeks of your season.

Intermediate Swimmers: Moderate gains of 5-7’ minutes for Ironman, assuming you continue to apply significant resources to refining your technique as well as building powerful swimming fitness. Our no-swimming guidance is really targeted at you; very few age groupers can justify swimming more for performance reasons. Improving by 5% in an Ironman swim, for example, will move you from a 1:05 swim to a 1:01:45. Put that same 5% improvement into a 6-hour bike split and you’ll be flying to a 5:42 (that’s 18 minutes faster!).

Advanced Swimmers: Tiny, tiny gains. Swim, swim, swim, all season, to net 1-3 minutes on race day. The only reason we can see here for applying great amounts of time to your swim is strategic—you want to make a certain group for the bike, or you need to 1-3 minutes to pad the run and help you get that Kona slot. This is very common at the professional ranks where coming out of the water 8 minutes off the main group in Kona, for example, means the end of your race. Otherwise you have the luxury of really not swimming much at all; instead of our baseline 20 weeks of swimming, you might be able to get away with as little as 12 weeks of swim training.

“But Coach, swim fitness reduces the cost of the swim and helps the bike and run!”

Absolutely! Note that we’re not saying “don’t swim” before your race. Rather than saying “I am a Triathlete, ergo I must swim, all the time!” we encourage you to think a bit more critically about your swim, and consider tweaking the nature and timing of the investment you make in the sport.

In summary:

  • Time invested in the swim, from a cost perspective, is not the same as time invested in the bike and run—significant admin time per unit of training time, highly variable cost as a function of time of year, etc.
  • The returns you see on race day for time invested decrease dramatically as your swimming ability increases. Therefore, Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced swimmers each have their own set of considerations they should use when making their decisions.
  • However you decide to invest your time, that investment is most powerful when it is applied and weighted to the period closer to your race.
  • Finally, the fact is that there are more potential time gains to be had on the bike and run, especially for Ironman athletes. Our advice then is dedicate about 14-26 weeks per season to significantly improving the bike and run. Not swimming during this period frees up recovery resources that enable massive cycling and running gains.

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23 Responses to “Why Swimming Year-Round Can Be Hazardous To Your A Race”

  1. Harmless Harm November 20, 2013 at 7:01 am #

    From time management perspective you guys are correct, but to convey complete story keep following in mind:
    - we are triathletes and there is a reason for this, otherwise we would be doing duathlons (or running races )
    - being said that, we love to bike, run and swim
    - many age groups are doing office work (seating hours), and it has general health benefits to exercise upper body part as well
    - regular swims are healthy for respitorial system, e.g. breathing improves
    Don’t get me wrong, I have bought 2014 season plans, but I modify it little bit:)

    • Rich Strauss November 20, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      Yes, we are triathletes but that shouldn’t mean that we simply swim, bike, run. We believe that we all, as busy people living and working in the real world, should consider the value of our time and what exactly we are getting from it’s investment. That said, people certainly find swimming therapeutic and good for the mind and that’s often reason enough to swim, as that is part of their personal time valuation assessment.

      Your other points:
      –Upper body strength: ok, but so do pushups, pullups, and lots of other easy to do, 0 admin time activities.
      –Dunno about that, but cycling and running are certainly aerobic as well.

      Thanks again,

      Rich Strauss

  2. Wayne November 20, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    Good article, very true indeed and all the extra swimming for most will have very little impact on their overall race. The key is to have enough swimming so the shoulders remain loose. We did 30 long swims in a row for the triple deca Ironman race last month in Italy and none of us wished we had done more swim training:-). Thanks for posting this article, great content for all triathletes!

  3. Davd Althoff November 20, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    alot to think about.. foir me off Seeson swim stays the same Twice a week but I cut back on the Bike and the Run.. I stay fit.. but take the pounding and stress of the legs so that they can heal and be ready when the training starts back up.

    • Rich Strauss November 20, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      Thanks for the comment. Once key thing to mention here is that you call it OffSeason, we call it OutSeason. For us, you out of your racing season, but you are not “off.” This is the best time of year for you to focus on becoming a much faster cyclist and runner because, at this time of year, we don’t also have to build your endurance.

      So ^this^ perspective of what this time of year is all about, for our athletes, informs our approach to swimming the OUTSeason :-)

      Thanks again,

      Rich Strauss

  4. Mike November 20, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    I hope my competition see this and buys into so that when I beat them buy 5 minutes because I am not only an equivalent cyclist and runner, but am a better swimmer. For those not looking to do the best across all 3 sports, this is great. Go for it!

    • Rich Strauss November 20, 2013 at 6:12 pm #

      In the end we are talking about our athletes not swimming from about the end of October through the middle of February. Some the end of January, depending on their ’14 schedule. During this time the 5000+ athletes we’ve put thru this program since 2007 have recorded an average 10-15% gain in Functional Threshold Power on the bike and similar gains on the run.

      In February they generally pick up our normal swim schedule, which is 3x swims per week, @2500-4500m/yds per session, all pretty hard interval training and technique work. Think a season of swim workouts written by a former D3 All-American distance swimmer.

      So while you’re doing what you do, my athletes are crushing themselves 3x/wk on the bike, 4-5x/wk on the run, for a total of 5-8hrs per week. More importantly, by them not swimming for a total of about 14-16wks out of 52wks in the year, they have 2 days off per week to absorb the hard bike and run work they’re doing. They’ve also greatly reduced their mental and admin costs, so they can have those resources to spend closer to the race.

      See you on race day! :-)

  5. Bryan Kraham @ BSX Athletics November 20, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Interesting perspective . I usually swim mid-day and even though the gym is fairly close to the office, it always ends up being 1.5 hours minimum. Swimming seems to be the “warmup” in many peoples minds. I still think it is a 3 event race and yes, while you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, you certainly can lose it.
    Bryan Kraham
    BSX Athletics

    • Rich Strauss November 21, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

      Ok, but we are talking about backing away from a sport for 14wks out of about the 48wks of the year that you could be training. And more specific to our Team, our Advanced swimmers get in 8-12wks of swimming before their A-race, Intermediates ~14-18wks, Beginners 18-20+.

  6. Jackie November 20, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    I guess the take home message is all triathletes are NOT created equal.
    We should gear the training plan for the individual and that athlete’s ability in each area of the sport. This helps me think about realistic volume for the three levels of ability and is useful to free me up from feeling like I ‘should’ give the athlete the’usual’ amount of swims per week. This way we can truly focus on better bang for their time spent, including hitting the strength and functional movement work. Thanks guys!

  7. Nicktris November 20, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    As a swimmer turned triathlete, I feel like this is a joke. Who lives 30 minutes from a pool? How long does it take to get on your winter riding gear, ride, take it off, clean bike, shower, stretch and foam roll? I also love knowing at lunch that I woke up early and got an ass kicking in. In the winter, I find the weather makes swimming by far the easiest form or working out. Now I hate swimming in a lonely pool just like everyone else, but its 10x’s better in my opinion than riding a trainer.

    My 2 cents

    • Rich Strauss November 20, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

      * 30′ from a pool: you’d be surprised, given AM/PM traffic, especially in the dark during the holiday season. So call it a 15′ drive with admin time on the front and backend to pack, shower, etc.
      * Winter riding gear, etc: the bike portions of our OutSeason plans fit very, very well with riding on a trainer — roll out of bed, through leg over trainer, warmup, mainset, cool down, done in about 60′ total. Same with the run, none of our weekday sessions are longer than 45-60′.

      I’m a former swimmer also and probably used to think you. I trained like a swimmer for my first IM, IMFL’00, and swam 52:1x, I think 16th out of the water. Bike and run didn’t go so well because I underestimated how much it wasn’t about the swim :-) 10:55. For IM Cali’01 I think I probably swam a total of 8-10x’s before the race. Swam 53-54′ and went 10:19 on a much slower course. I then took about a year or more off of swimming before ramping up for IMWI’02…and probably swam about 20x’s total. Swam 54′, I think, but 10:05, 4th AG and KQ.

      Somewhere along that progression I began to think critically about what and where I was asking my athletes to invest their time and what we were getting out of it. In ’06 I coached a guy to IMCDA who had swam 48:xx at IMCDA’05, his first triathlon (for real), was 3rd OA out of the water…then rode 6:4x and ran over 5hrs. For ’06 I forbid him to get in the water until May 1st. He swam 52:xx but PR’d by about 2hrs.

      My advice to you, as a fellow fish, is that if you want to become a faster triathlete, put that swim in the closet and make yourself a faster cyclist and runner. The OutSeason, right now, is the best time for you to do this, to make yourself a dramatically faster cyclist and runner, because you don’t also have to make yourself a farther cyclist and runner. Train like a 40k TT cyclist, a 5-10k runner, and put that swim in the closet so you can sleep in and absorb that hard work. You’ll be a dramatically faster cyclist and runner come March. Take that swim out of the closet, do the work you know how to do to get 95% of your ’13 swim back, but crush your triathlon PR’s simply because there is more time to be gained on the bike and run, especially for you.

  8. Jenn van der Schee November 21, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    So, during my IM training, I swam so much that my hair practically turned green. I think over the winter, I took maybe 5 seconds off my 100m free (over long sets). I should have invested way more time on the run, which is by far, my worst event.
    Thanks for the advice!

    • EN Blogger November 21, 2013 at 11:14 am #

      @Jenn, with everything there is a time and a place. Your work isn’t for naught, it goes into your lifetime swim “bank”…but we can do a better job of distributing the work that will impact your performance. Good luck in 2014!

  9. Mike November 21, 2013 at 1:03 pm #


    I get what you are saying and you certainly have very valid points. Anyone who argues that the swim leg is not the least important part of the race has not been successful in a race. You point out a number of examples in your comments below. However, I think what is also for certain, and I am sure you would agree to some extent, is that the personal goals of the racer have to be taken into consideration when determining their priorities. If a triathlete is looking to improve their overall time, and their is room for significant improvement, there is no question that they should focus heavily on the bike (first in my opinion) and the run (in close second). As you point out, swimming like a fish will only next a very small gain in margin. However, again, if the triathlete is competing for the top spots, then swimming becomes equally as important because the field is so tight.

    My point is that one should qualify their current position in their training, before claiming that swimming throughout the year, or as often, is not important.

    • Rich Strauss November 21, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

      Hi Mike,

      Yes. This is one blog post. Within our team, and with any good coach, we are able to have a more detailed conversation and assessment of an athlete and what is the best path for them. But we want really, really want to accomplish to have people THINK critically about what they are doing when, why, and what they expect to get out of it. In our opinion, “I’m a triathlete, ergo I swim, bike, run all the time” is counterproductive. Nothing else in life works that way. Stop and think why you’re doing what you’re doing. You may very well arrive at a completely different conclusion…and that’s cool because hopefully that conclusion is based on your experience and an informed self-assessment of what’s best for you.

  10. David Gutnick November 21, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    Fascinating. i basically had to learn to swim to do Ironman, am now an intermediate swimmer. i think what you say in terms of competition time and results is true. i do want to add other dimensions though – the dimensions of self-discipline – i think of first learning how to swim and then the actual practice as almost a spiritual exercise as well, i do long-distance races to know myself better, to be a more mindful person, to be joyfully connected to the world as a sweat and strain (sorry if i sound a little weird here);Swimming brings me into a another, different universe, i must not fight water – which frankly i am slowly learning not to fear, but befriend it. i swim to learn about my body, to own a sport i can carry with me for the next 30 years (i am in my late 50′s). I learn not to dread early morning bus rides to the pool in the middle of a Montreal winter, but rather to see it as an opportunity to be open to new experiences. ETC..(not the least of which is able to be amazed by the university swim team as they zip along in the other lanes.
    i think that as a later life athlete i am trying still to be whole, and if i drop swimming to run and bike more i will be cutting myself off from a part of the experience of why i do triathlon in the first place.
    One more thing…..stay with me. There was recently an election here, and one candidate won by …one single vote. So if i can improve my swim time by just a bit……..

  11. George November 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    For what it’s worth, the last scenario you mentioned–spending a lot of time in the water in order to make a group on the bike–is precisely why I’m spending so much time in the water right now even though I’m an intermediate age-grouper rather than an advanced pro. I made Kona in CdA last year on the strength of my bike and run after a mid-pack swim. When I got to Kona, the entire field swam away from me, and I was in the water for a loooong time. Having qualified again for Kona in 2014 (this time with a “front of the mid-pack” swim and a strong bike and run), my goal now is to attempt to improve my swim to 1:08 or so in order to be in the thick of the Kona pack and reap the benefits both of swimming and riding with others. I think that I’m doing the right thing given my particular situation. Would you agree?

  12. Jay November 22, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    Well after reading this article I know now why WTC started the swim safe initiative.

  13. Ítalo December 3, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    Hello, how about short courses, like sprints and olympics?

  14. Mike December 20, 2013 at 4:36 am #

    Great talking point. We’ve got quite a good triathlon tradition in the GB. One of our Pros when asked what was the biggest single thing that she would recommend about training she said “time management” (at the time she was an undergraduate in her final year at a prestigious Uni and leading the world rankings). No one is saying abandon swimming here. It’s about the best use of time. I have read elsewhere that across the three disciplines swim fitness returns the quickest after lay-off. So, if you’re maintaining only at the moment, fewer and shorter swim sessions might be a better use of time ahead of ramping up for season toward your A race but do what works for you. In the end Tri is about being responsible for and to yourself on race day. If that means a focus on swimming now to improve it’s a decision you can evaluate as part of your planning including time management.

    • EN Blogger December 21, 2013 at 8:13 am #

      @Mike, thanks for the insights. I personally love swimming given the mental focus on technique and it’s direct correlation to speed (as compared to just hammering the bike); but the time associated with swimming is what gets me. We have some new “concentrated” swim resources for the Team in 2014…excited to see how we can continue to do more with less. Enjoy your holidays…

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