'=mx + b: Prepare for Triathlon Success

January 25, 2017

Dave Sheanin


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Here’s an opportunity to use the math you learned in high school. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. What does this have to do with triathlon? A lot, especially during the swim leg.

Most of us log countless pool laps during the winter months focusing on technique or volume or intensity (or some combination). It’s pretty easy to swim in a straight line in the pool. Follow the black line beneath the smooth, crystal clear water to the “T”, then turn around and repeat. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prepare us for navigating the more complex open water environment.

We all have stories about swimming off course or seeing other athletes doing the same. At a 70.3 distance race couple of seasons ago, the swim was a simple out-and-back along a buoy line. If there ever was a chance to swim a true 1.2 miles, this was it. I got out in the lead pack with two other guys and settled into a nice draft in second position. The athlete in front was unquestionably a faster swimmer than I was and I was working hard just to stay on. Despite his speed, he was a terrible navigator and about halfway out to the turnaround, he was moving so far off course that the drafting advantage was worthless when compared to the extra distance we were swimming. The other guy and I peeled off, swam straight to the turn buoy, and navigated a straight line back to the beach. We never saw that early leader again. I have no idea where he was headed, but he sure was headed there fast! Checking the results, he hit T1 about 90 seconds behind me. Here’s a guy who would dust me in a pool who now had to try to chase me down on the bike.

So, assuming you can’t practice in open water during the winter, what can you be doing now to prepare for the challenges of open water? Integrate the following drills/techniques into your pool swims.

Practice sighting. There are two ways to sight. Practice both and remember that it’s fastest to continue breathing to the side—don’t use sighting as an opportunity to take a breath.

o When the water is calm, you can just lift your head until your goggles are out of the water without taking your whole head out. Twice per length of the pool, take your eyes out of the water and sight the end of the lane. Be sure you actually focus on the end of the pool, the blocks, or a cone on the deck. You’re not just looking up or forward—practice with purpose.

o When the water is choppy, you may need to lift you head completely out of the water. Practice as above. This is where having a solid catch and a strong kick will pay dividends!

Check for stroke imbalances that pull you off course. Push off right down the center of your lane and swim with your eyes closed until you reach the far end of the pool or bump into a lane line. Do this at least a few times. Do you always pull to one side? Is it connected to the side you breathe on? A couple of cautions: Know your stroke count—if you make it a long way down the pool, be sure to open your eyes a couple of strokes before the wall. Also, make sure no one is coming toward you in the lane!

Practice buoy turns. You can practice u-turns within your lane by turning around at the flags instead of the wall. If you have the opportunity to swim in a pool without lane lines, you can practice 90 degree turns as well.

Practice swimming in traffic. Get 3 or 4 of your friends in your lane with you and push off the wall all at once. Be sure to rotate positions each time you push off so sometimes you’re in the middle and sometimes on an end.

Practice drafting. Swim right on the feet of the swimmer in front of you. (Do this with people you know. Strangers get a little worked up about this sort of thing…) If you have multiple friends, you can swim leapfrog style where each swimmer leads for a set distance (e.g., 50 yards) then stops at the wall to let the group pass before jumping on the back. Remember that you have to be very close to the swimmer in front of you to get the full advantage of the draft. You can practice drafting off the hip as well as following behind.

Finally, don’t forget about your wetsuit. You can practice any of the skills above or just swim a regular workout (or a portion of it) in your wetsuit. Check with the manufacturer of your suit just to be sure, but as long as you don’t swim in it a lot and always rinse it out thoroughly afterwards, the chlorine shouldn’t be a problem.

Integrating open water skills into your off-season pool swims will give you an advantage into T1. Fast open water triathlon swim splits are the result of speed AND good navigation. Don’t wait until your first race of the season to practice. ~ Coach Dave Sheanin

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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