Is fitness more important than technique for the new triathlon swimmer? The definitive answer to this question is, of course, it depends! In fact, many swim coaches will prescribe both within their swim sets.
As a triathlon swim coach I have the opportunity to see many types of swimmers as they join our group. Some are adults who swam a lot in their youth, either at the local pool, competitively on a high school swim team, or even in college. They may have been out of the water for 15 to 20 years and put on a few extra pounds, but as a coach, right away you know they can swim. Their technique may be a little rusty, and they may be out of breath after 50 yards but in a month or so they will be back making waves with their lane mates.
For this type of swimmer, fitness is the key to improvement. They’ve signed up for a half distance triathlon and the main focus should be building the yardage and getting comfortable at a slightly slower pace than they remember – I often see these swimmers sprint off the wall only to fade halfway through a 200! As with anyone getting back in the water, beginning with shorter distance like 50’s, 100’s and 200’s are the way to develop fitness. Adding some pulling with paddles in limited amounts will also improve strength.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the cyclists and runners who have remained in top shape in their respective sports for years. They are fit, lean, and have energy to burn as well as that laser focus on success! However, the water isn’t so forgiving. First off, it is over 800 times more dense than air so much of a swimmers energy is overcoming the resistance of going through the medium. When one observes the young swim club athletes, 100lbs or less soaking wet, with arms like twigs ripping up and down the lanes, with what seems like effortless rhythm, you know it’s not strength that gets them through the water.
Through their endless practices they focus on body position, streamlining and work on developing a real feel for the water. As their hands enter the water, they immediately form that paddle and pull themselves through the water.
For the newer swimmer, technique is extremely important. Every single stroke requires a conscious thought: from hand entry, to engaging the core and lats to a smooth hand exit and relaxed recovery. Part of this swimmer’s workout should be working on improving the technique so it is mostly correct (there is always something to work on in swimming) and having the athlete be relaxed in the water. On top of that is the fact that one can’t breathe as normal, which tends to throw off the newer swimmer.
When an athlete can swim under 1:25/100yd or 1:30/100m for distance (i.e. 400m +) there can be an heavier fitness emphasis. As the A race gets closer, the emphasis should shift towards an increase in fitness. This shift will ensure that they can cover the distance comfortably or race faster.
For both types of swimmers the goal is to exit the water in a triathlon in a comfortable state ready to hit the bike. Not gasping for breath because they aren’t comfortable in the water or because of lack of fitness.
“Thank you to LifeSport Senior Coach Dan Smith for his contribution to this article”