Turn Your Weakest Discipline Into a Strength

BY Matt Fitzgerald

Most triathletes have one or two disciplines that frustrate them. Here's how to turn that discipline into your strength.

Most triathletes have one or two disciplines that frustrate them. Like all judgments, these are made on a comparative basis. You feel you suck at running because you are a great swimmer. You feel you suck at swimming because you are a fantastic cyclist. The more you excel in one of the three triathlon disciplines, the more your lack of excellence in another bothers you.

The million-dollar question is what to do about it. The obvious short answer is to put more time into your weakest discipline, but in practice, most triathletes prefer a longer answer. The secret lies not in simply spending more time on the weak discipline, but in how that time is spent. Or is it?

My own recent experience has changed my viewpoint on this question. Specifically, some key experiences in a summer (and fall) of training for an Ironman triathlon have taught me that sometimes it may be best not to overthink or force the process of chasing improvement in a weak discipline, but instead to “just do it”—but do it every day.

Running has always been my strongest triathlon discipline, swimming my weakest. I have ridden the bike pretty well in the past when well trained, but when I started my Ironman training at the end of April this year I had not done any serious cycling in two years. My original plan was to swim, ride and run each three to four times per week. But right away I developed an injury that left me unable to run all summer, so I replaced all of my runs with additional rides and thus wound up cycling almost every day for the first time in my life.

Within a matter of weeks I was—at age 38—riding stronger than I ever had before. There was no special magic to my workouts. I rode indoors on a CycleOps 300PT four or five times per week, one hour per session, with threshold or interval work in two of these workouts, and did one or two long rides on my Kestrel Airfoil. But the simple frequency with which I repeated the pedal stroke stimulated remarkably rapid gains in my performance. Last weekend I recorded the fourth-fastest (and fastest amateur) in the Magic Mountain Man triathlon, whose 56-mile bike course featured almost 5,700 feet of climbing, and I felt great.

As for swimming, there was a brief time at the end of the first phase of my triathlon career (1997-2003) when I swam decently. I became a decent swimmer after years of floundering almost instantaneously after I had a single videotaped stroke analysis session with Roch Frey. That experience gave me a powerful appreciation for the importance of technique refinement to swimming improvement. So when I got back into the pool this spring I tried to repeat the past. Instead of wasting my time swimming thousands of yards to “build fitness” in the pool, which I had done to absolutely no avail in my first several years as a triathlete, I did little more in my workouts than play around with my technique in hopes of finding that magical tweak that would instantly make me fast and efficient in the water. I even had a couple more lessons with Roch Frey.

But this time it didn’t work. I had a few small breakthroughs, each of which I thought was the breakthrough when it happened, but even cumulatively they did not get me back where I had been in 2003. A couple of weeks ago I was bellyaching about my frustration to my Triathlete Magazine colleague Brad Culp, who is one of the best swimmers in the entire sport, when he told me impatiently, “You need to swim every day. You’re over-thinking it. Just go to the pool every single day and swim laps for half an hour. Swimming is all about feel. Swimming every day is the best way to improve your feel for the water. Trust me. You will get a lot better.”

I decided I had nothing to lose. So I made a commitment to swim six days per week, just 30 minutes per swim, through the seven weeks remaining before my race. I also committed to follow Brad’s advice that I force myself to breathe bilaterally (every third stroke) all the way through. Since I never breathed to the right, this was a most difficult condition, but I trusted Brad’s promise that pushing through the torment would make all the difference.

My first swim was rough. After one lap I was already hyperventilating. I could not even continue for 30 minutes, but climbed out of the pool after 15 exhausting minutes instead. But the very next day I made it a full 30, and the day after that I covered the same distance—exactly one mile—more than 30 seconds faster. My last swim of the week was another 30 seconds faster.

In the second week I started to become aware of some of the factors that were making me so inefficient and thus so desperate for oxygen. I played around with slight adjustments to my head position, body position and forearm catch that made a tangible difference in my efficiency and a measurable difference on the clock. I am not yet swimming quite as well as I did six years ago, but for the first time since I started my Ironman training I am actually enjoying swimming, and that can only lead me further in the right direction.

While I have plenty of experience running every day, and even twice a day, many triathletes who come from swimming and other backgrounds do not. These triathletes can benefit just as much from running every day for a period of time as I did from cycling and swimming every day. A case in point is the aforementioned Brad Culp.

Brad signed up for Ironman Arizona at the same time I did, but had to withdraw after he injured his back and found himself unable to ride a bike for several weeks. He decided to turn lemons into lemonade by taking the opportunity to work on his weakest discipline. He started running every day. His runs were not especially long or fast; they were merely frequent. But frequency did the trick. He started to drop weight, and as his weight dropped his speed increased. This morning Brad came to work and proudly told me he had just run 8 miles comfortably at 6:30/mile—something he had never been able to do before. Now Brad is excited to get back on the bike and train for another Ironman, where his newfound running process should enable him to qualify for Kona.

If you are currently struggling to improve in one of the three triathlon disciplines, consider doing it every day for a period of time. Don’t worry about going especially hard or long or getting all fussy about your technique. Simply immerse yourself in it and let the improvement happen. It might not be the most scientific way to shore up a weakness, but it just may be the least unpleasant. And considering that our hatred for our weak disciplines is possibly the greatest impediment to improvement in them, just doing it every day may be the most effective way to become a more balanced triathlete.

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Trainingpeaks Author Matt Fitzgerald
About Matt Fitzgerald

Matt Fitzgerald is a journalist, author, coach and runner specializing in the topics of health, fitness, nutrition, and endurance sports training (read more about Matt on his blog). Matt uses TrainingPeaks to train, coach and deliver pre-built training plans for runners including training plans built specifically to be used with a Garmin Forerunner. View Matt’s 80/20 running plans here and his 80/20 triathlon plans here.

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