I've heard it so many times I've heard it so many times... "the swim is the shortest part of the triathlon, you spend much more time on the bike and run, so your training time should reflect that". If you're a weaker swimmer then that might be music to your ears, but sadly it's not the truth and I'm here to explain why you need to re-think your view.
Every year I see triathletes lining up at the start of the swim, dreading the first discipline. You can tell that all they're thinking is "once this is over and I get my bike, the race can begin". They're nervous, they lack focus and given the chance, they'd skip the swim completely.
But it's the shortest discipline?
"When I race an Ironman, I'll be swimming for 90 minutes, cycling for 7 hours and running for 4 hours. Clearly the swim is the least important as I'll spend much less time in the water, than I will on my bike or the run". This view is the first and the biggest mistake you can make. It's wrong to look at the event as 'overall time on each discipline', you should really be examining the rate at which you can lose time during each discipline to your fellow competitors.
I'm lost already...
Ok, let's look at this in a simple way. A good club triathlete can exit the water in 60 minutes, whilst many age groupers who are not strong swimmers will be 1:30 or more (the most common time for age groupers will be 1:20-1:30). That means, that a 1:30 swimmer loses half an hour in the first 90 minutes of the event, that's 50% slower. What are the chances of gaining 30 minutes back on your club mate in the first 90 minutes of the bike ride? What's the chances of gaining 30 minutes back on the first 90 minutes of the run?
It's important to understand that time losses are far greater during swimming, than any other discipline. You can lose a whole lot more, in a very short amount of time. The time losses are not the same across the disciplines, so you can't assume that as you spend less time swimming, the bike and run is more important. That's the same whether you're racing sprint distance or full Ironman distance.
Start your day well
If you swim well and exit the water in a great position, it sets you up for the rest of the race. If you've entered an event such as Ironman and have a 'shocker' of a swim, your mindset will be negative and your day has only just begun. You don't want to be exiting the water so far back, that you risk chasing too hard on the bike and run due to panic. You also don't want to feel upset or have negative thoughts so early in the day as it will impact upon both your enjoyment and your performance. You need to be confident before the start and your swim performance should be the start of a great day, it shouldn't ruin it before you've really started.
Be confident and not defensive
I mentioned above that many people line up for the swim and wish they could bypass it completely, their race starts on the bike and that's all they can focus on. You should be on the start line with a confident attitude. Where is the best place to position yourself? Are you going to draft and if so are you with the right swimmers? You should have a strategy which will enable you to exit the water in a great position and great shape, to set up your race day. If you're not a competent swimmer, you'll most likely drift to the back and generally won't have any kind of strategy, in which case you could lose a considerable amount of time and suffer a negative start to your day.
Bike and run can suffer
There's plenty of swimmers taking part in Ironman races who are exhausted when they exit the water. It feels such a long way to them, they're physically and mentally drained, they're cramping as they exit the water and generally not in great shape by the time they reach the first transition! Many Ironman athletes spend a lot of their time swimming 2500m sessions and thinking that's enough prep to complete a hard 3.8k swim and exit the water ready to cycle and run. Having witnessed this so many times, there can be no better example of how your swim conditioning influences the rest of the day. If you still believe that swimming doesn't really use your legs, so it won't impact upon bike and run, you need to think again. Ironman athletes of all abilities should be swimming 3 times per week if possible and progressive to 4k per session if you want to perform well.
Don't ignore swim training. Develop a deep level of conditioning, stand on the start line in a confident mood with a clear strategy and exit the water in a great position / condition, ready to bike and run. Don't start your day with fear, anxiety and spend the rest of the day regretting it.
The Endurance Store Swim Club