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.
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.
- 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.