Swimming year-round for the age-group triathlete is really just busy work. Filing papers at the office. Making sure the pencils at your desk are extra-sharp; that the printer tray is 100% full of paper. Call it what you want, but see it for what it is: extra work that doesn’t necessarily make a difference.You can — and should — do better. For now just hear me out on why you need to retire the cap and goggles for a solid chunk of time.
Even if you are a doode with a shaved head who lives relatively close to a pool with reasonable hours, you still have to do the pool dance. Travel, change, rinse off, swim, shower, change, travel. The rest of us have further to go, more to do after we swim and can probably only access the pool before 7am or after 7pm. Less. Than. Ideal.
How long is the actual swim workout? I am not talking about meters or yards, or time in the water. I don’t care if you do flip turns or not. I mean that given the administrative sides of swimming, a 45 minute workout could easily put a 2 hour hole in your day. This is a massive commitment for improving what is the shortest part of any triathlon. Worse yet, it’s usually at oh-dark-thirty, which means it’s impacting your sleep as well. There are countless better ways to spend this extra swimming time. What could you do with an additional 6 hours a week for 24 weeks? That’s six free days!!
#2 — You Don’t Have Enough Available Time To Get Really Better
Really. As in, if you stopped running and biking, and spent two hours every day in the pool for a year…you’ll be better. But even then only marginally so. You might envy that tri goddess who dials in a 57 minute swim at an Ironman, but you shouldn’t. She probably spent the better part of her youth swimming two-a-days, putting up 80-120,000 yds a week. For at least a decade.
Suddenly your 3x a week sessions don’t seem so bad, given that you know somewhere there’s a 10-year-old swimming more than you whole week in just the first or two workouts that day. But my real point is this: those fast folks have spent more time than you could possibly ever want to develop their stroke. Given your 12k a week schedule, you’ll only need like 60 years to catch up…good luck!
Given your need to include running and cycling, maintain social relations and that job thing, swim dedication just isn’t an option.
#3 — Returning Is Learning All Over Again
Swimming is a uniquely skill oriented discipline, especially for triathletes. In many ways it’s like being fluent in a language; when you stop speaking it you’ll lose your edge…but you can always get it back pretty quickly with some focused work.
You have to relearn your stroke during this re-entry period. Your body is in a different place that it was last year, when you last “captured” that feeling of swimming. You will have to rediscover what feels right and fast…and what doesn’t. It’s possible you’ve lost (or gained) weight. Perhaps you are toying with some epic run volume and have a new level of fatigue. Things have changed and the process of refocusing on the swim means you’ll be incorporating all of these elements.
This is exactly this type of sensory awareness — or combination of physical and mental acuity — that is lost in a year-round swim regime. Your swim stroke becomes good enough, and then you settle into really just working on building fitness. But swim fitness is so short lived, that it really only matters in the last 12 weeks to your “A” race.
Plus restarting swimming makes it fun. Makes it a challenge. Not a job. Not a box you check off every week of your year. That alone is perhaps the biggest space for improvement.
For those of you doing the math at home, the answer is 18. I am saying you really don’t need to start swimming until 18 weeks out from your A race, with most of those first 6 weeks being technique. Based on the anecdotal evidence from myself and my athletes, the high value of a re-entry point significantly drops off after four to six weeks. It’s precisely at this point that we move to focusing instead on fitness.
So how long to stand down?
I personally take anywhere from four to six months a year away from swimming. My life with two little ones and an active spouse means I can really only swim by either sacrificing time with the kids or time allotted for work. There’s already not enough time in my day as it is. Instead of losing even more, I make sure to have fun now and then buckle down the last 4 months to race day.
While my race day swim times have slowed by 10% (going from 1:01 to 1:07), my bike and run times are so much faster than I still come out ahead. Way ahead.
Everyone’s situation might be different, I’d like to learn more about your personal experience with swimming improvement and how you handle each season in regards to swimming. What do YOU do?
Patrick has spent the last seven+ years building an unparalleled network of internet-based resources and real-world training opportunities, including Endurance Nation.
You'll find more of Pat's triathlon training tips on his daily blog HERE.