Triathlon Coaching PSA #132: No Winter Swimming

Polar Plunge
photo credit: k.steudel

Auth Note: PSA = Public Service Announcement

Attention Triathletes: Do Everything You Can to Avoid Swimming This Winter

If you are like me, you don’t like to wait. We live in an on-demand world, and nowhere is this more true than in the realm of our performance, where we seek out incremental speed gains by dropping cash on wheels and carbon widgets. If you are planning on being faster next season, and are ready to do the work to get there, here’s the single best tip we can give you this winter: Stop Swimming.

Swimming in the winter is the fitness equivalent of voluntarily waiting in a really loooooong line at the post office.

You are effectively saying some version of the following:

  • I don’t need to recover or rest in the Winter.
  • I don’t need to do quality bike and run sessions that will boost my fitness.
  • I will do the same work now, in the winter, that I do during the regular tri season, and I will hold out hope (against all odds) that I will see different results by my next race.

Training Isn’t Complicated: If you want to be fast, you have to train fast.

Since 2007 we have helped over 5,000 triathletes build the baseline strength and speed over the winter months that has carried them to personal best performances during the regular season. Let’s take a closer look at our No Swim Policy and what it means for you.

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 house (or in your basement) 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 our basic schedule. Most triathletes have to be at the pool between 5-7 in the morning to get in their swim, meaning an early morning wake up call and reduced sleep at night.

The real rub on swimming? Swimming is a technique-oriented endeavor. For most of us triathletes, proper swimming is about 80% technique and 20% fitness. 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.

And the final straw? Swimming is the shortest leg of any triathlon. 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!).

Real Swimmers Don’t Have It Better

True swimmers have been in the water since age 5. By the time they are 20, 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 55 minute Ironman® Swim…maybe only 10 to 15 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.

But…But…But…

Everyone has their own reasons for swimming, and we certainly respect that. Outside of it being a powerful social activity, there is no real reason to suffer through the winter and miss out on better bike and run training.

#1 — Social Butterfly: If swimming is the only place you get to hang out with and get your tri-mojo, then cut that back to 1x a week in the winter. Think about it…if you save the other 4 hours, you could get stuff done and then actually have time to go out for a social night!

#2 — The Ambitious Upstart: After one year of racing, you are ready to pour your heart and soul into getting better. You have figured out how to squeeze the most time out of your week by cutting back on social stuff, curtailing family time and leveraging the trust of your employer to be a bit late (or leave early)…combined with a few well-placed sick days, you are ready to train 20 hours a week for the next 8 months….YEAH!

With an IM swim time is slower than a 1:15, you aren’t a rock but you do need to focus on swimming. Don’t waste the better part of your winter in the pool…get faster on the bike and run while you research a good 1:1 swim coach in the area and plan on starting your “real” tri season in the spring with a few good weeks of multiple 1:1 sessions. Done.

#3 — The Rock: Yes, you. You are a great athlete, able to defy gravity on the bike and the run…but there’s something about the water that makes it your personal kryptonite. You are the sole exception to PSA #132 — you can start to work on your swim stroke.

That said, instead of signing up for a masters program with tons of hours but little personal attention, we suggest you find a swimming workshop (think Total Immersion) that will get you the fundamentals.

Then put those into practice 2x a week during the winter…keep the sessions to technique only so these days are very similar to a day off. When the season is nearing, you can begin to look at the guidance for the Ambitious Upstart listed above.

The Background

We launched the “No Winter Swimming” policy with our 2007 OutSeason® training plans to a great deal of buzz. A triathlon coaching company who say don’t swim…people thought we were pretty crazy. We had to do a lot of damage control, as folks assumed we meant never, ever swim (not true)…and we even capitulated and now offer swim workouts and our swim ebook with all of our triathlon training plans, even the winter OutSeason® plans. As the results trickled in from the 2008 season, we saw athlete after athlete who took 14 to 20 weeks off from swimming and swam just about the same speed as the previous year.

The real rub, however, was that these folks had taken their newly found free time and used it to recover better and get stronger on the bike and the run. The net being a season full of PR performances ranging from 10 minutes to almost three hours!

This cycle has since repeated itself every winter, with a new host of Team EN athletes taking the no swim pledge and making the most of their focused winter training.

If you are interested in taking your triathlon game to the next level, and know that swimming 5k three times a week in January for a September Ironman® event just ain’t right, then please check out our OutSeason® Training Plans here.

Interested in learning more?

Please take the Endurance Nation FREE five-part “Rethinking the OutSeason” Email SeminarWe’ll cover these topics above in much greater detail while also teaching you the basics of training with power, pace, annual scheduling, and much more. Join the more than 5,000 athletes who have benefitted from the EN approach to winter training!

Yes, I Want To Get Faster This Winter!

20 comments
  • Mwilsey
    REPLY

    You forgot about a segment of the population – the ones that use swimming as a recovery workout. There are those of us who want to workout almost everyday – with a day off perhaps every 8-10 days but who have enough age on their bodies that, without swimming, doesn't allow us to recover well enough to do this. So… I for one will continue my winter swims – they are not as intense but they are 3x per week & have helped me with my bike & run times as well.

  • Mwilsey
    REPLY

    You forgot about a segment of the population – the ones that use swimming as a recovery workout. There are those of us who want to workout almost everyday – with a day off perhaps every 8-10 days but who have enough age on their bodies that, without swimming, doesn't allow us to recover well enough to do this. So… I for one will continue my winter swims – they are not as intense but they are 3x per week & have helped me with my bike & run times as well.

  • Patrick Mccrann
    REPLY

    In general the best recovery workout is…no workout at all. That's true recovery and doesn't cost 30 minutes on either end to and from the pool. But that's my perspective with kids, work, etc. At the end of the day, as I mention in the article, it's really a personal choice if you want to make the sacrifice re: your time. But to be clear, recovery swims aren't about getting faster in the pool…and I have yet to see a study that links recovery swims to improved bike or run times…but it's the personal nature of how we each respond to our training, and manage that response, that matters the most. Happy Swimming!

  • Patrick Mccrann
    REPLY

    In general the best recovery workout is…no workout at all. That's true recovery and doesn't cost 30 minutes on either end to and from the pool. But that's my perspective with kids, work, etc. At the end of the day, as I mention in the article, it's really a personal choice if you want to make the sacrifice re: your time. But to be clear, recovery swims aren't about getting faster in the pool…and I have yet to see a study that links recovery swims to improved bike or run times…but it's the personal nature of how we each respond to our training, and manage that response, that matters the most. Happy Swimming!

  • Scottgt3
    REPLY

    I've been swimming most of my life, and really enjoy it. Quite frankly, other than running out my front door, swimming is 15 minutes away, and takes less time than biking where I do have to drive at least 20 minutes to 30 minutes to get to a suitable bike location to avoid crazy traffic. I understand you're perspective on where the most time is to be gained, and do not disagree. On the other hand to say take the winter off swimming is a narrow perspective from my viewpoint. Cut back….maybe….stop swimming….no way! Ever think some people enjoy swimming? This could be debated 10 different ways, but in the end, it comes down to personal perspective on why a person does triathlons, and what their goals are, not necessarily one viewpoint. I agree with many of your philosophies, but not this one!!

  • Scottgt3
    REPLY

    I've been swimming most of my life, and really enjoy it. Quite frankly, other than running out my front door, swimming is 15 minutes away, and takes less time than biking where I do have to drive at least 20 minutes to 30 minutes to get to a suitable bike location to avoid crazy traffic. I understand you're perspective on where the most time is to be gained, and do not disagree. On the other hand to say take the winter off swimming is a narrow perspective from my viewpoint. Cut back….maybe….stop swimming….no way! Ever think some people enjoy swimming? This could be debated 10 different ways, but in the end, it comes down to personal perspective on why a person does triathlons, and what their goals are, not necessarily one viewpoint. I agree with many of your philosophies, but not this one!!

  • Patrick McCrann
    REPLY

    Scott, I hear you. Remember, I wasn't writing this as some chlorine-allergic, lane-sharing hater…just saying that swimming year round for the average bear just isn't worth it from a training to racing standpoint. Even if I got wicked fast at swimming…that would only translate to another 3-5' in the water (I am a 1:00-1:04 IM swimmer)…and I can make up that time in plenty of other places on race day very easily. Now if you are a poor swimmer, then your 5-10% gain could be much bigger. Hope that makes sense…happy laps to you!

  • Patrick McCrann
    REPLY

    Scott, I hear you. Remember, I wasn't writing this as some chlorine-allergic, lane-sharing hater…just saying that swimming year round for the average bear just isn't worth it from a training to racing standpoint. Even if I got wicked fast at swimming…that would only translate to another 3-5' in the water (I am a 1:00-1:04 IM swimmer)…and I can make up that time in plenty of other places on race day very easily. Now if you are a poor swimmer, then your 5-10% gain could be much bigger. Hope that makes sense…happy laps to you!

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    Posted to our forum, in answer to a trial member's questions:

    Our experience, across hundreds of athletes who've been in your position right now, is that, yes, you could not swim until April, pick it up again, and be right back where you left off this week, and swim a 1:20 on race day (let's just pick a number). Or you could swim now, through the winter, doing form and technique work and swim about 1:15-17 on race day. Also, while the pool is only 5' away, there is a time investment involved in getting ready to swim, actually swimming, showering, adjusting your schedule to get you to the pool during their hours, as well as the mental cost of you diving into the pool in January with your head wrapped around the notion that what you are doing right now, in January, is preparing you for a race in July. In our experience, that is a legit cost that takes it's toll after months and months.

    We simply encourage you to factor all of _those_ costs into that 3-5' possible, not guaranteed, swim gain on race day. And balance this against the benefits of giving yourself two complete days off per week instead of swimming = more recovery time to absorb the high intensity running and cycling training we have you do, etc. We have people putting up 1-3hr Ironman PR's, as a function of improved fitness (we are very good at making people much faster) and improved execution skills (we are very good at teaching people how to apply their fitness to a race, properly). Swim PR's are a very, very small fraction of that 1-3hrs.

    In the end, Patrick and I are just time investment advisors. You're sitting across our desk and asking for our advice on how to invest your time. We can either repeat the same advice that everyone else reflexively gives, which is triathlon = 3 sports = you must swim all year long, period. Or we can sit back, reflect on our 20+ yrs of IM training and coaching experience across thousands of athletes and tell you what we've learned.

    But if you do decide to swim, please realize that EVERY ONE of our training plans includes complete Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced swim schedules, plus our Swim Clinic eBook. Basically, we have the best swimming resources anywhere, for the money, this from a team that encourages you to not swim in the OutSeason. Just sayin'

    Rich Strauss

  • Rich Strauss
    REPLY

    Posted to our forum, in answer to a trial member's questions:

    Our experience, across hundreds of athletes who've been in your position right now, is that, yes, you could not swim until April, pick it up again, and be right back where you left off this week, and swim a 1:20 on race day (let's just pick a number). Or you could swim now, through the winter, doing form and technique work and swim about 1:15-17 on race day. Also, while the pool is only 5' away, there is a time investment involved in getting ready to swim, actually swimming, showering, adjusting your schedule to get you to the pool during their hours, as well as the mental cost of you diving into the pool in January with your head wrapped around the notion that what you are doing right now, in January, is preparing you for a race in July. In our experience, that is a legit cost that takes it's toll after months and months.

    We simply encourage you to factor all of _those_ costs into that 3-5' possible, not guaranteed, swim gain on race day. And balance this against the benefits of giving yourself two complete days off per week instead of swimming = more recovery time to absorb the high intensity running and cycling training we have you do, etc. We have people putting up 1-3hr Ironman PR's, as a function of improved fitness (we are very good at making people much faster) and improved execution skills (we are very good at teaching people how to apply their fitness to a race, properly). Swim PR's are a very, very small fraction of that 1-3hrs.

    In the end, Patrick and I are just time investment advisors. You're sitting across our desk and asking for our advice on how to invest your time. We can either repeat the same advice that everyone else reflexively gives, which is triathlon = 3 sports = you must swim all year long, period. Or we can sit back, reflect on our 20+ yrs of IM training and coaching experience across thousands of athletes and tell you what we've learned.

    But if you do decide to swim, please realize that EVERY ONE of our training plans includes complete Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced swim schedules, plus our Swim Clinic eBook. Basically, we have the best swimming resources anywhere, for the money, this from a team that encourages you to not swim in the OutSeason. Just sayin'

    Rich Strauss

  • Pro Cyclist
    REPLY

    Triathletes need to do intense trainings so as to enhance their performance. Different sports has different training approach because they have different goals. Some are doing indoor trainings and some are outdoor. Some are using bicycles, treadmills, fluid trainer and the likes.

  • Pro Cyclist
    REPLY

    Triathletes need to do intense trainings so as to enhance their performance. Different sports has different training approach because they have different goals. Some are doing indoor trainings and some are outdoor. Some are using bicycles, treadmills, fluid trainer and the likes.

  • Jon
    REPLY

    I am a good swimmer and this year did IMWI. I had a 1hour 15min PR and got a PR on all the legs including the bike. And I did all that with NO swimming from Sept through March

  • Jon
    REPLY

    I am a good swimmer and this year did IMWI. I had a 1hour 15min PR and got a PR on all the legs including the bike. And I did all that with NO swimming from Sept through March

    • patrick
      REPLY

      Great question! Our bias is towards building bike and run fitness in the winter without the “cost” of swimming adding some interference. If you are a competent swimmer, you could start your OutSeason® in November, exit in early February and have about 6 weeks to use a Half Iron plan (our winter plans have you ready run 13.1 already); so the final weeks are bike volume and consistent swimming. You could add a swim on a Monday or a Friday if you had to during the OS, but you could also do consistent swim cord work as well if you have some baseline technique! Hope that helps…

    • patrick
      REPLY

      Great question! Our bias is towards building bike and run fitness in the winter without the “cost” of swimming adding some interference. If you are a competent swimmer, you could start your OutSeason® in November, exit in early February and have about 6 weeks to use a Half Iron plan (our winter plans have you ready run 13.1 already); so the final weeks are bike volume and consistent swimming. You could add a swim on a Monday or a Friday if you had to during the OS, but you could also do consistent swim cord work as well if you have some baseline technique! Hope that helps…

  • Paul Howell
    REPLY

    This is a fantastic article and something I’ve been doing and advising athletes to drop to one session every 2 weeks in the off season. Very interesting you’re saying the same thing but more to the extreme. I completely agree 100% on what you’re saying. Thanks a million for this. 🙂

  • Paul Howell
    REPLY

    This is a fantastic article and something I’ve been doing and advising athletes to drop to one session every 2 weeks in the off season. Very interesting you’re saying the same thing but more to the extreme. I completely agree 100% on what you’re saying. Thanks a million for this. 🙂

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