Return on Investment Series, Part II: The Swim

Triathlon swim start

Triathlon swim start

In Part I of this series we introduced you to the concept of using “Return on Investment” to make decisions on how you invest your limited resources of time, headspace, Spousal Approval Units, and money towards triathlon training. These constraints are simply part of being an Age Group triathlete.

To help you navigate your own particular circumstances effectively, we recommend you continually ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What returns on race day will I see for this investment?
  2. Is that return worth the associated costs?
  3. Can I achieve a similar or better return with a smaller or similar investment ? In other words, can I do less, do something different, not incur this cost at all, or buy this vs that?

In this second installment of the ROI series, we continue our exploration of maximizing the average Age Group triathlete’s training by applying these questions towards the investment required to become a faster swimmer.

Question #1: What returns can I expect to see on race day for the time, headspace, SAU’s, and money I invest in becoming a faster swimmer?

First, the training focused required to become a faster swimmer changes as you improve. Our general observations of the types of investment required along the swimming spectrum are:

  • If you are slower than about a 1:15 to 1:20 Ironman® swim, or a 38 to 40 minute Half Ironman® swim, becoming a faster swimmer, for you, is like learning to play a musical instrument: it’s 95% technique and the fitness required to sustain that technique for the distance of your ace. That is, you don’t need to bang for hours on the keyboard to develop finger fitness. You need to work primarily on technique for a focused period of your season. In swimming parlance, it’s all about the shape of your boat (speedboat vs barge) vs the size of the engine.
  • Between about 1:05 to 1:15 for Ironman, or about 32 to 37 minutes for Half Ironman, swimming begins to have a larger fitness component. That is, your barge is almost a speedboat and swimming faster begins to be about putting a bigger engine in the boat — learning the technique of grabbing more water and then developing the fitness to sustain that more powerful pull.
  • Faster than about 1:02 for an Ironman, or 31 minutes for a Half Ironman, it definitely becomes about swim fitness. You need to have turned your barge into a speedboat and then developed the fitness to maintain a powerful stroke/engine for the length of your swim.
  • Obviously, there are caveats to these general guidelines above based on sex, age, natural talent, confidence in the water, etc, but the point here is to show you where the proper training investment is to be made as you progress.

Second, the nature of the appropriate investment for each group of swimmers changes as they move along the swimming improvement spectrum:

  1. Beginner Swimmer: A very, very large percentage of your swimming time and resources should be spent developing the skill of swimming…and then about 12-16 weeks out from your goal race, developing the fitness required to sustain your best possible stroke for the length of the swim. For these swimmers, small, incremental technique improvements can yield huge gains on race day. If you’re a 1:45 Ironman® swimmer, the difference between you and your 1:20 Ironman® friend is technique first and fitness a very, very distant second.
  2. Intermediate Swimmer: Technique is becoming dialed in but swimming also shifts slightly to be about grabbing more water; this is your fitness component. After making massive gains in your first season through the judicious use of a local technique coach, future gains will now be:
  1. Much Smaller — It is now a game of working all season to shave 5-7 minutes off your swim, not 20-30 minutes.
  2. Much More Costly — These smaller gains come at the cost of many 1:1 sessions with a coach to find _that_ technique improvement that just clicks, and/or 3x swims per week at 1 hour each + 30 minutes of admin time on each end of those sessions = a 6hr total time investment each week for a 5-7 minute gain on race day.
  • Advanced Swimmer: Long gone are the days of the 20-minute swim PR. That 5-7 minute PR is a fond, but also distant memory. It’s now a game of 1-3 minutes saved on race day for the same seasonal investment of our Intermediate Swimmer above. Do you have the goal of swimming faster than 58 or 29 minutes for your next Ironman® or Half Ironman? Standby because, unless you’ve got some serious talent, that’s a very, very tough goal for the triathlete who became a swimmer as an adult.

So, to the question “what returns can I expect on race day for the typical investment in the swim?”

  • Slower Swimmer: Massive gains (15-45 minutes or more) depending on how “challenged” you are at the start and assuming you make a significant time investment with a quality technique resource.
  • Intermediate Swimmer: Moderate gains of 5-7’ minutes, assuming you continue to apply significant resources to refining your technique as well as building powerful swimming fitness.
  • Advanced Swimmer: Tiny, tiny gains. Swim, swim, swim, all season, to net 1-3 minutes on race day.

Question #2: Is the return, listed above based on your ability, worth the associated cost?

Consider that every swim session, regardless of length, is typically accompanied by 45-60 minutes of total admin time — pack a bag, drive, change, shower, change, drive again…it adds up. Also, since you are subject to the hours of pool availability (ie, you can’t just toss on your suit and knock out a 30 minute swim from your door like you can with your run), you likely compromise other areas of your life to fit in these swims — a very early wake up to make that 6am masters workout, for example. Finally, incurring these swim costs month and months before your goal race, soon after ending a months and months long triathlon season, can have significant motivation implications later in the year. 6am on the pool deck in January or June for a September race are two very different scenarios.

We believe that you should make your own personal assessment of these costs, as they relate to your situation, and determine what investment of your time and effort is worth the expected gain on race day. You perform this cost/reward assessment in many other areas of your life and we believe that triathlon swim training should be no different.

Question #3: Can I achieve a similar or better return with a smaller or similar investment?

This is the question we as coaches asked ourselves in about 2007 when we first started Endurance Nation. As coaches, the question was framed from the perspective of what we could legitimately ask of our athletes: “Before I ask someone to invest into an activity, what is the expected rate of return on race day, based on our experience of having coached hundreds of Ironman® athletes? Are there better return on investment activities?”

In our experience:

  1. 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 loonngg triathlon season, while training for a race in September, is much more costly than that same investment in July, eight weeks out from your race.
  2. 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.
  3. Your swimming speed 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 was about 16 weeks of focused, consistent, quality swimming.

Based on this assessment we made the following changes to the swim training of our athletes:

  • We eliminated swimming altogether from our OutSeason® (Winter) training plans, their training solution from October/November through February/March.
  • By eliminating or greatly reducing swimming from 4-5 months of their season, we could now apply these recovery resources (ie, two to three days off per week, days that you would otherwise be swimming) to making them much faster cyclists and runners.
  • We then encouraged them to make their own cost/reward assessment. If they did decide to swim during the off-season, we bundled for them…
  • Our “Swim Clinic eBook” so our athletes could have a high quality technique resource regardless of the availability of a quality local technique coach.
  • A comprehensive schedule of very solid, make-me-faster-through-hard-work swim workouts

So Does This Approach Work?

We’ve applied this approach to thousands of triathletes since 2007. These have been their experiences and comments:

  • Swim speed and fitness comes back very quickly — many of our athletes have taken months and months off from swimming. They’ve reported that they are usually back to their past season swim PR form within about 3 months of focused swimming. Still more become much faster swimmers as they apply our technique + fitness solutions above to the swim training much closer to their races.
  • This approach allows them to focus on becoming much faster runners and cyclists, where the potential gains on race day are much, much better. Not swimming 2-3 times per week creates the opportunity to bike and run VERY hard, taking 2-3 days off per week to recover from those workouts. They then apply their much improved bike and run fitness to the much longer, by comparison to the swim, bike and run courses, reaping massive PR’s.
  • By not requiring themselves to make a large head investment months and months away from their race, they report much less mental burnout and the ability to maintain their motivation across a very long triathlon season. They are then more able to make a concentrated investment in improving their swim technique and fitness when it will do them the most good: about 14-16 weeks out from their goal race.

Please go here to read Coach Patrick’s “everyman” take on this approach.

In summary:

  • As you move from Beginner to Advanced swimmer, the flavor of the investment you need to make in additional improvements shifts from technique to fitness.
  • These improvements become smaller and smaller and at a greater cost.
  • At some combination of swim ability, time of the year, and potential swim gains on race day, we recommend you suspend or significantly reduce the investment you make in the swim and consider applying that time to becoming much faster on the bike and run, where the potential for race day gains is much greater.
  • If you do decide to continue investing in the swim, use our examples above to determine where you should make those investments — technique and/or fitness.

Swim Ebook ImageWe’d like to help you: go here to download, for FREE, our Swim Clinic eBook — 25 pages of swim instruction, video drill demonstrations, poscasts and more, used by thousands since 2005 as their go-to swim technique resource.

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10 comments
  • Kevin
    REPLY

    I see where this idea makes sense- especially when you lay out the time commitment of getting to the pool, showering, etc. And definitely, I wouldn’t recommend someone go crazy with heavy duty swim workouts in the off season. However, I have 2 bones to pick here:

    1. For beginners, the off season is actually the perfect time to spend in the pool. However, like you mentioned, they would be honing in their technique. Many beginners will take months to get their technique up to an adequate level anyway. So December, January, February….are great months to make these type of gains in the water, drilling and improving technique. Otherwise, the technique work is rushed during the season and it becomes tough to find a balance between getting in swimming shape and getting better at swimming technique.

    2. The feel for the water is a big issue for me…and I think for lots of others too. I can lose it in about 3 days. 3 months and I feel just completely wrong in the water. It takes a while to bounce back, but perhaps in my case I’m focusing on swimming-only events, where as triathletes may be able to get to that “adequate” point faster, which is all that is potentially necessary, depending on their goals.

    Anyway, good topic, interesting read…I definitely am learning from you guys!

  • Kevin
    REPLY

    I see where this idea makes sense- especially when you lay out the time commitment of getting to the pool, showering, etc. And definitely, I wouldn’t recommend someone go crazy with heavy duty swim workouts in the off season. However, I have 2 bones to pick here:

    1. For beginners, the off season is actually the perfect time to spend in the pool. However, like you mentioned, they would be honing in their technique. Many beginners will take months to get their technique up to an adequate level anyway. So December, January, February….are great months to make these type of gains in the water, drilling and improving technique. Otherwise, the technique work is rushed during the season and it becomes tough to find a balance between getting in swimming shape and getting better at swimming technique.

    2. The feel for the water is a big issue for me…and I think for lots of others too. I can lose it in about 3 days. 3 months and I feel just completely wrong in the water. It takes a while to bounce back, but perhaps in my case I’m focusing on swimming-only events, where as triathletes may be able to get to that “adequate” point faster, which is all that is potentially necessary, depending on their goals.

    Anyway, good topic, interesting read…I definitely am learning from you guys!

  • Frank
    REPLY

    Guys very interesting article with great information, though I agree with Kevin, once an athlete establishes “feel for the water and how to move their body successful through it, I would like for them to retain that relationship. A term used in swimming is simply “staying wet” in the off season, great time to work the feel and technique. From my experiences every triathlete is looking to improve in the swim no matter what their ability.

    Great work

    • patrick
      REPLY

      Thanks! We’ve found that most triathletes want to improve everything all at once…while losing weight, learning Chinese and volunteering at the food pantry (and staying late at the office). 🙂 Most times, it’s a function of bandwidth…if we can cut something (Swim training) with minimal cost, we can greatly improve other areas (bike / run). Of course, we work with our folks wherever they are at to make the most of their schedule, goals and fitness. Thanks for commenting!

  • Frank
    REPLY

    Guys very interesting article with great information, though I agree with Kevin, once an athlete establishes “feel for the water and how to move their body successful through it, I would like for them to retain that relationship. A term used in swimming is simply “staying wet” in the off season, great time to work the feel and technique. From my experiences every triathlete is looking to improve in the swim no matter what their ability.

    Great work

    • patrick
      REPLY

      Thanks! We’ve found that most triathletes want to improve everything all at once…while losing weight, learning Chinese and volunteering at the food pantry (and staying late at the office). 🙂 Most times, it’s a function of bandwidth…if we can cut something (Swim training) with minimal cost, we can greatly improve other areas (bike / run). Of course, we work with our folks wherever they are at to make the most of their schedule, goals and fitness. Thanks for commenting!

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    As the season planning guy and “Swim Guy” in the Haus, I’d like to talk about what our athletes do when they swim, and put that within the context of their seasons.

    An EN athlete doing IMCDA, for example, will start their OutSeason® this Monday, Oct 29th. 5-8hrs of training per week, bike and run, 2 day off, high intensity, low volume focused on making themselves a faster 5k, 10k, half marathon runner and 40k TT cyclist. That cycle will end on Feb 3. Then, depending on whether or not they have a an early season triathlon or not (Wildflower Long Course in early May, for example) they will either do a six week single sport block (bike or run) or our eight week Get Faster. The SS block puts their stronger sport (bike or run) in maintenance mode while focusing on their weaker sport. The GF plan is a balanced plan, like a half-Ironman lite plan, with solid, hard swimming.

    Throughout all of ^this^, about 20-22wks (OS + FP / GF) they have access to our Swim Clinic eBook, for solo technique work, and a schedule of 20wks of Beg, Int, Adv swim workouts. If they choose to swim during this time, they use these resources. If not, if they choose to not swim at all, OS + FP athletes will start swimming in (does calendar math in head) early March. OS + GF athletes in early February. So these CDA athletes will have ~16-26+ weeks of swimming, if they choose to not swim at all during the 14wk OS plan.

    And let’s talk about the swimming 🙂 I put on my 80’s NCAA D3 miler’s hat on when writing the workouts. VERY interval based. Lots of short fast intervals, lots of middle distance intervals, constantly swimming, constantly working, 3x/wk. No “60′ swim swim, your choice of pace, get comfortable with the water.” Nope. Everything from 50’s to 600’s at a range of paces. My ears are definitely burning 3 mornings per week, March through November 🙂

    All of this to say is we have a very well thought out plan for how our athletes move through all three disciplines across their seasons. They are supported by incredibly detailed tools, and they are always a couple hours away from having a detailed conversation with Patrick or me about what is best for their personal combination of swim (in)ability, time constraints, and ROI equation.

    At the end of the day, what we really want for out team is for them to think critically about the time and money they invest in the sport.

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    As the season planning guy and “Swim Guy” in the Haus, I’d like to talk about what our athletes do when they swim, and put that within the context of their seasons.

    An EN athlete doing IMCDA, for example, will start their OutSeason® this Monday, Oct 29th. 5-8hrs of training per week, bike and run, 2 day off, high intensity, low volume focused on making themselves a faster 5k, 10k, half marathon runner and 40k TT cyclist. That cycle will end on Feb 3. Then, depending on whether or not they have a an early season triathlon or not (Wildflower Long Course in early May, for example) they will either do a six week single sport block (bike or run) or our eight week Get Faster. The SS block puts their stronger sport (bike or run) in maintenance mode while focusing on their weaker sport. The GF plan is a balanced plan, like a half-Ironman lite plan, with solid, hard swimming.

    Throughout all of ^this^, about 20-22wks (OS + FP / GF) they have access to our Swim Clinic eBook, for solo technique work, and a schedule of 20wks of Beg, Int, Adv swim workouts. If they choose to swim during this time, they use these resources. If not, if they choose to not swim at all, OS + FP athletes will start swimming in (does calendar math in head) early March. OS + GF athletes in early February. So these CDA athletes will have ~16-26+ weeks of swimming, if they choose to not swim at all during the 14wk OS plan.

    And let’s talk about the swimming 🙂 I put on my 80’s NCAA D3 miler’s hat on when writing the workouts. VERY interval based. Lots of short fast intervals, lots of middle distance intervals, constantly swimming, constantly working, 3x/wk. No “60′ swim swim, your choice of pace, get comfortable with the water.” Nope. Everything from 50’s to 600’s at a range of paces. My ears are definitely burning 3 mornings per week, March through November 🙂

    All of this to say is we have a very well thought out plan for how our athletes move through all three disciplines across their seasons. They are supported by incredibly detailed tools, and they are always a couple hours away from having a detailed conversation with Patrick or me about what is best for their personal combination of swim (in)ability, time constraints, and ROI equation.

    At the end of the day, what we really want for out team is for them to think critically about the time and money they invest in the sport.

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