Pool swimming and triathlon swimming are two different animals

Credit: Adam Pretty/Allsport
Readers of Slowtwitch recently have had opportunities to read about swim technique from esteemed and learned coaches who are among the unequivocal experts on the swim leg of triathlon.

Good as that information is, there is yet another angle to the story.

While expert teachers like Sheila Taormina and Terry Laughlin have outlined elements important to swim speed, there are themes sometimes even more relevant to triathletes that Id like to address.

Do you need to get faster in the pool? Absolutely. Is the size of the hole you punch in the water, or the stroke count you get in a 25-meter pool, important? Again, yes it is, but its importance diminishes somewhat once you leave the pool.

Swimming in a triathlon is a whole different animal. Your swim technique in the race may not precisely resemble your pool stroke. It is what a bike race is to a time trial. You can literally be bad at one and great at the other, and that's sure to be the case if you treat them as tactical and technical equivalents.

I havent coached any world-class swimmers, I didnt go to the Olympics in swimming, and I was just an OK college swimmer who surfed a lot. What I did do, however, was perfect the art of triathlon swimming. I won about a third of the swims in the 400+ triathlons in which I raced. If there was a swim prime on the line I was more likely than not to take it.

But I didnt deserve to win any of them. Based solely on pool times, I suspect I was slower than anyone in any group I exited the swim with in any triathlon. I learned to squeeze the most out of my limited ability.

First of all, lets define triathlon swimming. Its a mass-start open-water race, usually with wetsuits, that includes a run into and out of the water. There are no lane lines, you must deal with erratic breathing patterns, thrashing arms and feet, with foggy goggles filled with water, all the while looking into the sun for a round buoy hundreds of yards away. As in bike racing, there is attacking, blocking, chasing, breakaways, and a peloton.

Yes, I know that there are a few races that dont allow wetsuits, but I would guess that it would not be a large percentage of the races most of you will enter. Of every item I list that describes the difference between pool swimming and open-water racing, it is the wetsuit that big piece of buoyant rubber around your body that will alter most that which you would correctly do in a pool.

When you swim in a pool, your body has a natural floating position. Some float well, while others, like me, sink like a rock. My coach once played a little trick on me by betting me that his chubby 13- to 15-year-old girls could take a running start, jump into the pool and, without taking a stroke or kick, glide across the pool farther than me. Being a big strong guy, I figured that this was all about takeoff power and momentum. I looked at those little, weak girls and figured this would be a slam-dunk.

I took my turn and I got about two-thirds of the way across the 25-meter pool. My coach, who had a recent PR of 19.2-seconds for the 50-yard freestyle, went next. He made it to within a couple feet of the wall. What happened next would blow my mind and ego.

Those chunky little girls jumped in with about a third of the force of us guys and glided across like torpedoes to the far wall.

"What the hell just happened?" I asked. My coach went on to explain about the strength-to-buoyancy ratio, and its importance in swimming efficiency.

If you float high, then you use less energy to ride high in the water, and more on moving foreword. Sure I was a lot stronger than those girls, but they needed a lot less strength to keep their bodies moving in the water.

You can compare this to a 130-pound skinny guy riding into the wind vs. a 220-pound person, wide as a truck, pedaling into that same wind. Its just going to take the big guy more power to go the same speed because of the extra wind resistance. Not that he cant do it, its just plain old physics working against him. Those girls just floated higher in the water than us, and there was nothing we could do to change that.

Along comes the triathlon wetsuit. What did it do? First of all, it gave everyone the buoyancy of a chubby teenage girl. It negated your genetics for floating.

You may have wondered why the slower a pool swimmer is, the more advantage he gets out of a wetsuit. I would hear stories of back-of-the-packers getting an advantage of 20+ seconds per 100 meters, while the lead pack swimmers would get four to seven seconds. One word: buoyancy.

The top swimmers would ride higher in the water because they swam faster. The slugs would be dragging their slow butts down in the deeps, spending a large portion of their energy just staying afloat. The wetsuit changed all that, and all that wasted energy went to forward motion. The slowest, sinking, thrashing slug now had the body position of my 19-second-per-50 coach, and for a couple-hundred bucks.

What the wetsuit phenomenon did was to give everyone the same good body position. It also gives you a good body roll without your thinking about it. It makes your stroke more efficient.

High turnover is efficient for many pool swimmers wanting to keep up momentum, but with wetsuits you must not think only in those terms. Your strategy should be to lean out on your stroke as long as possible. You can do this with your "flotation" suit on because your momentum is carried much more easily. Conversely, if you swim with an overly high stroke rate, the suit itself will unduly tire your shoulders.

Then there is the draft. Ive found that I can get a 10- to 15-percent advantage with a good draft but your stroke rate will be somewhat limited by the speed of the person in front of you. Theres no need to turn your arms over faster than necessary to keep up with the person in front of you.

The draft is so dynamic I would often swim off course because my "water mule" was drifting off. It was better to swim a longer course being pulled than to go off on my own and break water.

Its also a tactic that I would use to shake off the cling-ons when I had to pull. Most people will drop off if they see you going off course. Then I would slowly get back on track, only now without the barnacles attached. Just make sure its a minor deviation, and youre not swimming off into the pickleweeds.

When swimming in the group, never go head to head with someone. Do the math: If you are equal to someone, and it is 10 to 15 percent easier to swim behind, then do it. Sure it will feel too easy, but remember that there is a lot more of the race in front of you. If you are going to finish together with someone of the same ability, why not be the one who is 15 percent fresher?

Your best bet is to find that group or person that will stretch you to go that 15 percent faster. You want to be just inches off the feet bubbles. The closer you are, the longer you can stretch out your stroke. You will be amazed at how few strokes you can take in a great draft.

Try not to touch your pack mules feet; it tends to upset him and make his speed erratic. I found that if you just quietly sit behind someone hell forget about you and swim a nice, steady, even pace.

Its great that the swim gurus are offering lots of technical information on how to swim fast in a pool. Read it, try it, and pull out the stuff that works for you. The stroke and the tactics that make you fast in the pool, however, may not entirely resemble the stroke that makes you a fast triathlon swimmer.

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