Coach Mat with the squad in Gran Canaria. 

Transitions from sport to sport is the key feature in triathlon, where the preceding activity will affect the succeeding. As a rule of thumb, the less energy consumed in the previous leg, the more energy you have for the following.

Swimming is arguably the most energy consuming of all 3 sports and since it’s the first event of the race, it’s critical to be properly conditioned, have sustainable bio-mechanics and develop a more efficient energy system. Improving on those 3 basic parameters will delay the on-set of fatigue, keep the blood acidity low and heart rate controlled.

This makes reaching your best bike split not entirely about increased riding fitness or perfecting the infinite details surrounding cycling, but more of a matter of “how fresh” you feel mounting your bike after swimming in open water. Since the competition style of triathlon makes it very difficult to emulate race day in training, working repeatedly on specific principals will make an athlete ready for the stress of real world competition.

It’s important to understand that those who do come from a swimming background, can definitely get away with less swim training and still perform well.

Be serious with your swim training

A lot of triathletes neglect their swim training since it’s the leg that takes the less time in the races, particularly in the longer distances. Those who don’t come from a swimming background are usually the first to neglect it. However, it’s important to be able to swim longer or at higher intensity than the race day distance or you might struggle later in the event, due to compounding fatigue where everything was given on the swim.

Swimming is a sport that can consistently be done safely in higher volume and greater intensity than biking and running, since it causes less impact to the body because we are suspended in water. Then it utilizes more of our cardiovascular system and engages different muscle groups, particularly in our upper body. This also makes swimming a better sport for overall conditioning.

Give your legs a break and use the swim toys


There’s a lot of discussion on the difference between a “high beat” and “low beat” kick style of swimming. Evidently, a “high beat” kicker will require more overall energy and raise their heart rate sooner due to a higher consumption of oxygen. Where a “low beat” kicker will save up his leg energy for later on and keep his heart rate lower, as less muscles are engaged.

Using paddles/pull/band equipment in training will allow the athletes to gradually shift into a more economical kicking style that targets the upper body better, then depends less on their legs for propulsion and lift. This is not only for races, but also in training, where more leg energy will be left to be poured into other workouts, thus increasing the quality of all workouts.

Swim toys also help to train for longer durations, add variety and help maintain your range of motion as you fatigue. All the while helping to simulate swimming in a wetsuit.

Let the lactic acid sit and stick

Skip the warm down once per week after a specific and high exertion main set. This will give an extreme sensation of “heavy shoulders” for the rest of the day and will subtly teach athletes on how to deal with this sensation by developing an ease and familiarity with the discomfort.

The effect of not doing a proper warm down after a hard swim will surely be felt for a few hours – just like it does on race day, during the later stages. This is due to a lack of circulation and few over-head movements required. Lactic acid is a very sticky substance and will remain stuck around the bones, so it’s important to be able to deal with it, mentally and physically, as it does affect the fluidity and comfort of our movements.

Don’t spend too much time at the walls

The overall value of workouts are quantified by how much distance is covered in a particular duration. So once per week or every 5 days, do an up-tempo aerobic set, where you slowly decrease the recovery time between efforts. Reduce it through-out the swim workout and eventually maintain those short “send-off” cycles over time.

The length of intervals can be short, medium or long, depending on your ability and distance you’re training for. The ultimate goal is to swim slightly above your race effort, so that your race effort feels more manageable come race day. Then as you become stronger, your system will be more efficient at a lower intensity, increasing your average cruising speed. This will allow the athlete’s body to consume less energy, oxygen and produce less lactic acid at their best aerobic effort than before.

These specific “short rest” sessions at high intensity can be painful and many avoid them by doing drills or speed work with lots of rest, of which won’t train the desired system to improve your top end aerobic capacity.

For those who come from a swim background…

GC Camp Swim7-web

It’s important to train and understand the difference between being in “swim fast” condition or in “swim strong” condition. Former swimmers have the ability to tap into deeper and higher intensity than non-swimmers, thus possibly making their engines “burn too hot”, of which can greatly affect the later stages of a triathlon.

Being in “swim fast” condition is the ability to go at your highest velocity for the given distance, of which will require a lot of energy and risk forcing the athletes to recover in the early stages of the bike. Kind of like a gas guzzling sports car who’s efficiency is overlooked by the numbers of its top end speed. This is developed by focusing on short/intense efforts with ample rest between and having more idealistic bio-mechanics.

Being in “swim strong” condition is the ability to sustain sub maximal velocity, longer, further and under any circumstances. Like an economical diesel engine, who once is up and going, can maintain a speed just below its top velocity, but for an extended duration. This is developed by focusing on longer/steadier effort with reduced rest between and somewhat compromised bio-mechanics.

To conclude:

The bike can also be trained specifically to adapt for a better transition, by doing swim/bike workouts or some bike rides, the emphasis is on getting at it from the first few minutes of pedaling, gradually and consistently tightening the tempo. Then simultaneously focusing on being dynamic on your bike, which will develop some “starting pep” and train your body to get going sooner than later!

In the end, being extra swim fit does not mean a faster swim spilt, but rather a better overall performance across the line. As cliché as it might sound, the mind set needs to be tweaked from swim+bike+run, to triathlon!

Mat O’Halloran is the former Asian Tri Coach of the year. online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.

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