Swimming for triathletes can be one of the biggest reasons that even very fit athletes, give up triathlon. Many say they just “can’t get their breathing right”.
In most cases it is not lack of fitness, rather lack of technique.
To be brutally honest, a lot of it stems down to lack of patience and lack of practice. Good athletes usually pick up sports quickly and easily so become frustrated when after two weeks they have not mastered it :)
Triathletes sometimes forget that swimming is a very technical sport.Just blasting up and down the pool, getting better at the same inefficient stroke, may burn some calories but it will not make you a faster swimmer.
Working on your technique and learning some drills will help you crack the elusive “effortless” swim stroke.
It is useful to have a friend video you swimming once in a while. You may be able to pick out a few points to work on to improve your stroke that you were unaware of.
Why is it breathing so difficult in the water?
Just because you are fit, it does not mean swimming will be easy. You still need to master each individual component. This requires doing your drills.
If you miss one of them, you will struggle in the water.
Do you hear yourself say things like “I’m just a bad swimmer”
“I can’t get the breathing”
“Swimming for triathletes is just not natural”
You CAN master it. Try to “feel” the water and understand the swim stroke rather than blast up and down mindlessly.
You Cannot Fake Technique!
If you are struggling with your breathing, my suggestion is slow down, review your drills, try these techniques below but also get some lessons. It is also a good idea to get some feedback from a friend who can swim or a coach.
Remember -getting faster at the wrong thing is not a clever use of your time. Pushing through the laps with poor breathing, poor body roll and massive body drag will just end up with you getting rotator cuff tendonitis instead of a coveted podium place.
So what should I think about in the water when I am swimming for triathlon?
First forget times and splits. Focus on technique.
If you struggle with breathing, you will not be relaxed, you will have poor body position, poor body roll, asymmetric strokes and poor kicking.
Swimming for triathletes in open water is even more challenging as other swimmers will simply swim over the top of you if you are on their way.
Big problems occur if you have too much rotation or too little.
Too much rotation will mean, you are breathing facing the sky. Besides practically flipping over to your back, this will result in arm cross-overs, poor kicking, poor balance and a massive slowing down in forward speed.
Check out this video from our friends at Effortless Swimming to observe over-rotation and how to correct it
Too little rotation will result in having to crank your head a long way to the side, getting a stiff neck and gasping for breath. With good body rotation, you barely have to move your head at all to breathe- easy!
Breathe in the “magic zone”
When you do your triathlon swimming training in the pool, turn your head, you need to keep your lower goggle in the water. When you do this, you create a “pocket of air” for you to breath. Practice finding this. If you lift your head out of the water- you lose this pocket of air. The pocket of air is similar the the bow wave caused by a boat.
Do not hurry this. Practice slowly and mindfully. “Feel” the water. You do not have to sprint to feel this pocket- even swimming slowly, it will be there. Do not lift your head.
If you lift your head, you will not find the trough, you will be forced to lift your head. This will send your legs down and you will struggle to breathe and become exhausted.
Practice either in the shallow end standing up and bend forward doing practice strokes with your head in the water.
Or by holding onto the side and kicking- practice keeping your head still and turning to breathe.
Keep your head in the water and your neck relaxed.
Do not lift your head- force yourself to keep it IN the water!
If you are struggling to find the trough, right next to your ear, try swimming with fins. Swim with the lead arm out in front, other arm by your side. Swim with your head facing the bottom of the pool, then turn your head to breathe, without lifting it. Trust that it will be there.
Remember to keep your lower goggle in the water and your lower ear in the water. Keep your head still during the stroke, then gently turn it to the side to breathe.
When swimming for triathlon, lifting your head, will cause your hips and legs to sink. This will result in lots of extra drag and cause your body to snake. When you lift your head, you lose the trough and disrupt your body mechanics.
If you have a friend handy – get them to video you for a few seconds so you can see what you are doing. This is very valuable.
Swimming for triathletes key tip: Exhale fully
Another common error is holding your breath. It is almost impossible to breathe in when you have not exhaled fully.
This is a major reason why many swimmers in triathlon have to over rotate to allow them enough time to quickly breathe out then quickly breathe in in the same stroke before their head returns to the water.
Instead focus on relaxed breathing. Breathe all the way out, so when you turn your head , all you need to do is breathe in.
If you are struggling with this, try practicing this at the side of the pool, kicking and doing strokes, relaxed, breathing all the way out and only breathing in when you turn your head.
When you are confident you are doing this, you can try swimming with fins as it should make the whole process easier until you have mastered this then go back to normal swimming maintaining the same technique.
Even if you are a good triathlete swimmer, check you are not holding your breath under water at the beginning of the stroke.
If you do hold your breath, you will have to do an explosive exhale before breathing in which will make you breathless before long.
Imagine running like that! Holding your breath for half the race!
Try it next time you run. Hold your breath for 3 seconds then do a quick exhale and inhale in 1 second then hold your breath for 3 seconds and repeat. This is exhausting!
You would not last long and would end up walking very quickly.
Constant breath holding also causes a build up of CO2. No wonder people end up gasping for air. The other effect this has is keeping your chest full of air. This causes your legs to drag and makes it much harder for you to keep your head down. It is also much harder to swim requiring even more oxygen and panicked breaths.
No wonder swimming holds no pleasure for many triathletes.
Swimming triathlon Drills, drills, drills
Break each step down and practice the basics as above.
Remember there is no shame in drills! Olympic swimmers do drills every session– to make sure their technique is faultless and they are as efficient as possible. Here are some of the best drills when swimming for triathletes to master.
For triathletes who are often swimming in open water, it is even more important that your technique is as efficient as possible as you may be fighting tides, currents, choppy water and other athletes swimming over you.
If you have weak technique in the pool, open water will exaggerate all your faults and inefficiencies.
Focus on relaxation
For ANY sport, power comes through relaxation-running, swimming, shooting, gymnastics.
Every time I watch the greats- whether it is Olympic swimmers or elite marathon runners- they look like they are so relaxed, they are not even trying.
When I observe amateur runners in the park or the beginner swimmers they are trying so hard with so much tension, it looks like they are fighting against themselves. It does not look fun…. And it gives them no power.
In the pool, you often see skinny 12 year old girls gliding effortlessly past muscle bound men who are thrashing about in the lane but getting no where fast. You cannot muscle your way to glory in the pool- slow down, relax and breathe.
In any drills you do- practice exhaling, relaxing your breath and relaxing your stroke. As strange as it sounds mental rehearsal will accelerate your learning drastically too. Take just 5 minutes a day to visualise the perfect technique. It will start to lay down the correct pathways in your brain so your body will know what to do next time it is in the water.
In triathlon swimming, take the time to master your technique. Get the simple things right, it will pay massive dividends and is time well spent.
It will enable you to start the bike leg, without being completely exhausted….and maybe even exit with the top bunch!
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