You don’t have to swim faster to beat your best time in a triathlon
You just have to swim better than you are right now.
Many triathletes go to the pool with a soggy workout printed off the internet and a bag of pool toys like paddles, fins and a snorkel But what most end up being frustrated by is not knowing if their work with the drills and toys translates to better swimming.
When you begin to realize that just doing a drill doesn’t mean you’ve learned a better swim skill, you’ll start to pay attention to the quality of your training plan.
it’s better to have a specific body based focus that you can pay attention to while swimming.
Let’s take just one example. most triathletes carry a lot of tension in their neck which impacts their streamlining, efficiency and breathing. Here’s one way to approach improving this micro skill and improve awareness.
“25 kick, 25 swim”
Does this look familiar? “25 kick, 25 swim”. This is an extremely common example of a freestyle drill set for triathletes. It would seem that the main intent is to practice kicking, right? But without further direction or a coach on deck, it’s unclear and doesn’t give you the focus you need to improve your freestyle swimming for triathlon.
Instead of “25 kick, 25 swim”, let’s add a specific thought to direct your muscles while doing the drill.
“Relax your neck” while kicking with one arm extended for 25 yards. Stroke once to breath or roll to the sky for a breath. Then swim 25 yards while maintaining your relaxed neck. Does your neck feel relaxed with and without arm strokes?
Aside from using a few more words, what’s the subtle difference between these two drill sets? The second set addresses a specific issue that impacts your swimming in both drilling and full stroke freestyle. You see most people will tense their neck and instinctively pick their head up a bit to look ahead. This creates tension in the neck and creates misalignment. Both issues require more effort to swim, and create an even bigger problem when trying to breath.
Great swim practices move your attention instead moving body parts
By removing the arms and just kicking (with or without fins) you can move your attention to your neck and experiment with different levels of relaxation and tone. When followed immediately with swimming it’s easy to compare the results of the new focus and attention to the neck.
Since new movements feel awkward and foreign, a drill set that addresses a specific thought (“relax the neck”) rather than an exercise (“Kicking”) is a supercharged way to increase your learning speed and adopt better swim skills faster.
Next time you go to the pool and are faced with a drill set, try substituting a body awareness focal point, or simply layering it on top of the drill. Some examples
One armed swimming becomes “Stroke with your Left (Right) arm, while keepign the neck relaxed and the spine aligned during the entire arm cycle.”
Cat & Mouse drill becomes “Keep your neck relaxed while exploring how much overlap is in your stroke while playing cat & mouse. At what point in your overlap can you keep your neck most relaxed?
12 Weeks of Better Swim Practices
If you’re ready to apply these principles to your own training, my dedicated triathlon swimming plan for Olympic or Half Distance races contains 12 weeks (32 unique workouts) of practical swimming workouts just like these. Just head on overhere to purchase a dedicated triathlon swimming plan to prepare you for an Olympic or Half Distance Triathlon.
(You can apply this plan over top of any other training plan you’re currently using and just swap out the swims)
SWOLF is a contraction of the words Swim Golf or Swimming Golf. This article will help you understand what it is, how it is measured and how you can experiment with different ways to “play” swim golf in order to improve your swimming. When you understand the different ways to use SWOLF, you can create a variety of interesting and engaging swim workouts that will help you become faster.
What is swim golf (or swimming golf)?
Swim golf is a fun way you can add some gamification to your swimming workouts in order to see if you are making improvements. Just like in regular golf, a lower score in swim golf is usually better.
How is SWOLF measured?
Your swim golf score is the total of the number of strokes you took, plus the time in seconds. It doesn’t matter if you are swimming in yards or meters, and it doesn’t matter what length the interval is, as long as you are being consistent with your own measurements.
For example: If you swim 50 yards in 45 seconds, your swim golf or SWOLF is 50 + 45 , or 95.
If you swim a 100 meter interval with a total of 40 strokes and swam it in 65 seconds, your SWOLF would be 105.
How do swim watches measure SWOLF?
Many swim watches such as the Garmin Forerunner models, Garmin Swim 2, Moov Now, the Apple watch, Swimovate Poolmate, and many more will automatically calculate a SWOLF score for you.
These swim watches calculate the swim golf score by counting your strokes and time per length of the pool. So whether you swim in a 25 yard pool, 25 meter pool or 50 meter pool, the calculation is based on 1 length of that pool.
For example: with a 200meter swim interval in a 50 meter pool, the software will show 4 SWOLF scores for that interval, one for each length.
On the other hand, a 500 yard swim in a 25 yard pool will show a graph of 20 SWOLF scores for the entire interval.
Here is an example of multiple swim golf scores shown in a graph after downloading the data to the watch’s software. The red filled portion with the heavier red outline is the SWOLF score for each length.
This graph represents a swim set of ten 100 yard repeats with a very short rest between them
In order to “play” swim golf, you would want to lower your SWOLF score over time. These could be short term goals within the same workout, or longer term goals over time.
If your score is the sum of your strokes and your time, then there are two ways to decrease your score. You can either lower your strokes (ie take fewer strokes to complete your interval), or swim in a faster time. The tricky part is that in order to actually get a lower sun, you need to prevent the other score from increasing.
For example, these two swims would result in the same score for a 50 yard swim: A) 43 seconds in 52 strokes or B) 45 seconds in 50 strokes. Both of them result in a score if 95 for a 50 yard interval.
Two ways to lower your SWOLF score
Take fewer strokes in the same amount of time
For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.
In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim in 22 seconds while still taking fewer than 18 strokes, for a score less than 40
Since stroke count is half of your swim golf score, and stroke count can change based on a persons height or wing span, it’s hard to compare your score against anyone else’s score. Everyone has different physical features that can influence their strokes per length. The best way to use SWOLF is as a personal measure of change or improvement.
How can I Incorporate SWOLF into my swim workouts?
You can create sets like the examples above to add some focus to your swims that are centered around using SWOLF to improve your swimming.
For beginning and early intermediate swimmers, usually the best bang for the buck is to try to lower stroke count first in order to lower your score. This is because most of these swimmers have several technique areas that when improved, can reduce drag and lower the number of strokes needed to get across the pool.
Intermediate swimmers may enjoy trying to hold their SPL the same, while trying to swim faster. This means that they are traveling the same distance with each arm stroke ,but because their time is faster, they are taking each stroke at a slightly faster tempo.
Alternatively, intermediate swimmers can experiment with different ways to prevent SWOLF from climbing, but trading a stroke for a second. That means that by allowing an extra stroke during the length, you can often gain a second…so it’s an even tradeoff. When there are multiple ways to achieve the same SWOLF score, it’s worth spending time evaluating the effort required at different stroke counts. Your goal would be to use the score combination that results in the least effort as a target for practice and improvement.
More advanced swimmers will enjoy trying to lower both scores…swim faster AND take fewer strokes This requires precision technique as well as properly applied power in your stroke.
Can I track SWOLF without a swim watch?
Of course you can! What do you think coaches and swimmers did before swim watches were available? Many swimmers ask if you should count one arm only or both arms. I teach my swimmers to count each arm entry as a stroke. This is because you will get a more precise number instead of estimating 1/2 cycles.
But you’ll have to remember that your swim watch usually counts cycles…one arm through the whole stroke cycle. So when YOU count two strokes (right arm entry, left arm entry), your swim watch is counting 1 cycle (right arm entry to next right arm entry).
Counting strokes is a great skill to learn to make improvements to your swim, so it’s time well spent.
For me, I’ve just always loved being in the water and playing games with my friends. Starting from when I was 7 or 8 years old, I walked to our neighborhood pool, met my friends, and we played cards during adult swim, and sharks & minnows when there were enough of us there, and I swam on the swim team until I was 15 years old. The swimming pool was the fabric of my summer existence.
During & after high school, other priorities came up, other sports, other interests, academics and eventually a job. My first job out of college was with Voyageur Outward Bound School where we took groups of teenagers on backcountry wilderness canoe trips. We taught them life skills and expedition skills. But my favorite days were teaching the kids whitewater kayaking skills. It seemed that again, water became the fabric of my existence. It’s a miracle I never developed trench foot during a 3 week expedition in which it rained every day but one.
Dusting Off the Clubs
By the time I was 26 I longed for work that was more meaningful and impactful and in a roundabout way I decided to try to get into medical school. The day I took my MCATs (Medical College Admission Test), I thought to myself, “If I’m going to become a doctor, I need to learn how to golf.” So I dug around in the garage, found some dusty old clubs that my parents had owned and enjoyed when they were 20 years younger, and took myself and a few balls up to the ballfield that I had played in as a kid…the same ballfield that was on the way to the pool from my youth.
Let’s just say that it didn’t go well. I decided I would be a non-golfing doctor.
Diving Back in…
Fast forward five years, I had matched into residency, and somehow made the bizarre decision that training for a triathlon, rather than pure running for exercise, would give me more free time. What was I thinking?? I started riding my bicycle to the rec center and took up swimming again after about 10 years away from the water sports I’d loved during my childhood and those first years after college.
It was…just as I had remembered it. Smooth. Silent. Silky. Weightless. Magical. Mystical. Mysterious. Consistent. It was an activity where I could both disappear from the demands of Emergency Medicine training, and immerse myself into something familiar and comforting. “You have a nice stroke,” was something I heard often.
Let’s fast forward again. Since then…Back Surgery. Total Immersion. Pain free Swimming. Triathlon Coach. Youtube Host, interviewing legends like Mark Allen, Terry Laughlin, Gwen Jorgensen, Leanda Cave. Did I mention Mark Allen? Kirsten Sass. Volker Winkler. (Look them all up)
My pursuit of triathlon became it’s own career path, and throughout it all the water was my place that was both familiar and challenging. Endless improvement and ingrained patterns from my youth. New friendships and YouTube “fame” had people introducing themselves to me at the World Championships…”You’re Suzanne Atkinson, I love your podcasts and interviews.”
Holding Things Together
The water was the glue. It always brought things back together. Even things that had fallen apart, like my body from a bucket tear disc injury, back surgery, car accident, physical therapy, ankle arthritis (those soccer moves!), and most recently being a temporary caregiver for my partner who had a cardiac arrest (he’s fine now, 1 in 10,000 survivor of 3 cardiac arrests…now we train together), and navigating my mothers progression with dementia, aricept overdoses, and the relentless march of time. I submerged myself in the water and the water made me whole again.
At 50, I suddenly feel fit and fresh. I’m not in the same physical shape or the same weight I was at 47, or even 48…but 50 feels different. It feels fresh. It feels ready. It feels forward. I’m optimistic. The water is still there as it has been the past 45 years of my life.
What do I love about swimming? Everything.
What do YOU love about swimming? Post in the comments…
Due to a large number of questions from my athletes who are aging up into their 50s or older, I am undertaking a series called “Tri over Fifty”. Each article will discuss a different aspect of participating in our wonderful sport for those fifty years of age and older.
Is it safe for athletes over fifty to train for triathlons?
The answer is almost certainly a resounding “Yes”. However, let’s discuss some of the benefits and risks of this type of training. The benefits of physical activity in aging are well demonstrated and include improved cardiovascular, pulmonary and muscular systems, as well as improved brain function.?1? While aerobic fitness doesn’t improve cognitive ability in people without any difficulties, there is a definite relationship between those with regular, habitual physical activity such as masters athletes.?2? But along with the benefits of regular physical activity come risks, such as injuries from either overtraining, acute trauma and cardiovascular events. ?3?
Why 50? Well, to start with, I just joined this decade of life, so I can identify with the many challenges that come with it. Some are common to younger decades as well such as family commitments, caring for kids who may still live at home and being in prime earning years of your job. However, others have more in common with the decades to come, such as problems with arthritis, menopause, andropause, development/arrival of chronic health problems such as heart disease or cancer. Fifty marks a point in our lives when we may no longer feel youthful, but we are far from old age.
The most recent question I received was from a 54-year-old athlete, Dan B., who asked: “How can I remain injury-free at 54 years old while training for triathlons?” Without knowing more about Dan’s specific background, I am going to make some assumptions for this series.
You’re interested in maintaining an active lifestyle whether it’s in triathlon or another sport
You’re worried about the best and healthiest way to train, given your lofty goals
You’re tolerance for certain activity levels or recovery strategies is narrower than it used to be
You’ve been training for triathlon at least since your 40s, and have noticed changes in your body
You’ve had previous, minor injuries that may be nagging or take longer and longer to recover from
In this article, I want to discuss the most important of these three first…issues related to the heart.
Is Triathlon Training Healthy for the Heart?
Exercise and regular activity are some of the best prescriptions a physician could write for her patients! In this modern world of a pill for every problem, you’d need a dozen or more different pills to even come close to the benefits of exercise, and it still wouldn’t be close. People who are routinely active have up to 50% fewer cardiac events in middle life than their sedentary comparisons. ?4?
Some additional benefits include decreased depression and anxiety, lowered risk of dementia, stronger bones, fewer falls, lowered blood pressure, better lipid profile, fewer strokes, lowered risk of multiple types of cancer and more. Feel free to download the infographic here and share, or print it out and use it as a reminder of why you should exercise.
Cardiovascular Issues from Endurance Training
The benefits of exercise on the heart are well known. The heart accommodates and adapts to the demands we place on it in the same way our muscles adapt as we lift weights. Initially, there is some minor damage, and after recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself to be stronger and able to handle more stress. Some adaptations are normal and beneficial like the ones we already discussed. But others may be harmful and lead to sudden death, chronic abnormal heartbeats, or inability to pump blood adequately.
The amount of endurance training that leads to abnormal heart problems is still not completely known, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity daily (ie a 15 minute/mile jog or walk, cycling at 15-20mph).?5? Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes often train 5-10 times more than these beneficial durations. Below I list several different types of abnormal adaptations from an abundance of endurance exercise. These fall into three categories of issues related to muscle tissue, blood flow, and electrical conduction.
Problems with Blood Flow
Sudden blockage of an already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or leading to cardiac arrest
Already narrowed arteries which may cause angina. Often early signs of angina are ignored or unrecognized.
Problems with Muscle Tissue:
Thickening of muscle fibers causing blockage of blood flow (Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy)
Scarring of muscle tissue causing myocardial fibrosis
Stretching of muscle tissue causing cardiomyopathy or atrial fibrillation
Problems with the Electrical Conducting System of the Heart
Atrial Fibrillation, often chronic, that may contribute to fatigue or cause strokes
Ventricular Fibrillation caused by a heart attack. This results in complete collapse and loss of consciousness called a Cardiac Arrest, which is often deadly…more often than not.
Risks of Sudden Cardiac Death in Triathletes
Two case series articles have been published that sought to gather and categorize deaths occurring in triathletes. One was published a few years ago and at that time was the most comprehensive article dealing with the topic.
In the US, all identifiable deaths during USA Triathlon races between the years 1985 and 2006 were analyzed. The overall risk was 1.74 per 100 000 (2.40 in men and 0.74 in women). The rate did not seem to differ based on the type of event. Most of these deaths occurred during the swim leg. At autopsy, nearly half had cardiac-related abnormalities such as narrowed arteries or an enlarged heart.?6?
In February of 2020, a similar case series was published in the UK that looked at triathlon related deaths between the years The overall risk of triathlon-related deaths in the UK was 0.5 per 100,000 participants. Of these half were thought to be due to pre-existing cardiac conditions.?7?
The risk of dying during a triathlon due to a heart-related condition is not zero but it’s fairly low. Nevertheless, age is a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you have not had a cardiac evaluation by your primary care doctor, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Screening tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), an echocardiogram or an exercise stress test. If you have anyone in your family that has ever had heart disease make sure your physician knows this as well, as it increases your own risk.
Silent heart disease in athletes has been the cause of death in two personal friends of mine, and a third friend was successfully resuscitated after a bicycle ride. All had been healthy & active their entire lives, and their endurance activities most likely prolonged their lifespan. So please don’t let the fact that you’ve been active stop you from getting a checkup and screening with your physician.
Thank you so much for reading this far. Next up in my “Tri over Fifty” series, I’ll discuss the muscle-related side effect of aging called sarcopenia, and again will discuss the benefits of triathlon training in combatting this monster.
Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD005381. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub4
Schott N, Krull K. Stability of Lifestyle Behavior – The Answer to Successful Cognitive Aging? A Comparison of Nuns, Monks, Master Athletes and Non-active Older Adults. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1347. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01347
Choosing a triathlon coach is daunting whether it is your first time or your fifth. Knowing what questions to ask is hard when you’re not even sure what you are looking for.
Use these questions as a guide not only for interviewing a coach, but also to ask yourself if you are considering self-coaching.
Where can I read or hear about examples of your past coaching? Experienced coaches will have a ready list of past clients, write-ups on their own websites and often the athletes will write their own race reports that give credit to their coach. Don’t get enamored by coaches of celebrity triathletes. There are only so many Chef Gordons, Apolo Anton Ohnos or Hines Wards to be coached. There are hundreds of thousands of athletes you many have never heard of who have been coached by excellent age group coaches.
Who is your favorite triathlon coach and why? The answer can reveal a lot about the coach’s training style and philosophy. It’s probably that they aspire to coach in a similar way to the coaches that they admire.
What training technologies do you use and why? There are so many new technologies out on the market today, and you can’t expect to be an expert in all of them. Coaches, however, tend to either stick with their tried and true technologies or be early adopters of new gear and gadgets. You’ll want to make sure that your personality matches your coach’s use of tools and gadgets. And if you’ve invested a lot of time and dollars into a power meter, for example, you’ll want to make sure your coach is comfortable and experienced using it for her clients as well.
How will you optimize my training for my goal race? There are a handful of common methods to plan a season, and then dozens if not infinite ways to manipulate basic training ideas. Some elements of optimization don’t change from person to person, such as the principals of frequency, intensity, specificity, progressive overload. However, there are a number of ways those elements are combined and emphasized during the season is one thing that makes a certain coaching style unique.
What kind of experience do you have for my *unique situation*? This can be any kind of unique situation. A medical condition like diabetes or a history of a heart attack or pacemaker, a cancer survivor or even current cancer treatment, recent or remote surgery, limb amputation, visual loss, hearing loss… the list goes on and on. If you have a unique situation that you think may disqualify you from being a triathlete, think again. I guarantee there is a coach who has worked with someone like you before. And if not, coaches are trained in how to modify training, bikes, swim workouts, etc to accommodate special people. Find out if your potential coach has experience or has connections to another coach who does.
Getting comfortable interviewing a potential coach is vital for you to choose the right coach for you. You’ll receive 5 MORE questions to ask when interviewing a triathlon coach by downloading our 2-page infographic “10 Questions to Ask When Interviewing a Triathlon Coach” and have it immediately delivered to your email inbox.
Recently an athlete asked me the following question:
I’ve noticed that I can pretty much keep up with people on rides. Except when we hit a hill, I hit a wall. Thank god my descending skills are great otherwise I wouldn’t catch up with the pack!
Any recommendations in terms of training for climbs? I would like to work on those at least once a week.
Here is my answer:
You can do several things to train for climbs.
#1 More Overall Power equals Better Climbing
The first is to climb, climb, climb! Climbing is all about strength to weight (or power to weight) ratio. So the more overall power you have the better you will do on climbs. Thus any sort of training that raises your threshold will help with climbing (sweet spot, threshold, VO2).
#2 Climbing Short Fast Hills
Shorter climbs are frequently about anaerobic efforts and the ability to recover from them quickly. Especially in Pittsburgh most hills are only a few minutes long or shorter. This taps into anaerobic energy stores. So doing hill “sprints” at various lengths from 30 seconds up to 3 minutes with FULL RECOVERY will add an aspect of fitness.
#3 Training to Recover from Short Efforts
As far as recovery from hill-climbing, doing sprints with short recovery will help you learn to “tolerate” lactic acid and keep riding when your legs are cooked. So you can craft a number of different workouts to improve at hills.
#4 Overall Leg Strength Work (Bodyweight Training)
I think it is also beneficial to work on sheer muscular strength with bike-specific leg work in a weight room or with body weight. Lunges, Bulgarian split squats (rear leg up on a chair, other leg forward, squat down and up, step-ups, deadlifts, one-legged deadlifts, etc).
#5 Develop a Solid Core for Climbing
Don’t forget solid core work. When climbing the upper body often comes into play and without a strong core to transmit energy and stabilize the upper & lower body with one another, you’ll just be a floppy noodle on the bike. Sue’s “Core and More” exercises are great for this. (She also covered the good leg work).
Mixing it all together
I would do core 2-3 times per week, bodyweight leg strength 1-2 times a week, even progressing to some plyometrics, and finally at least one day a week focusing on on the bike climbing and strength work, with at least one long hilly ride on the weekend.
That’s enough workout ideas to keep you busy for a while. Finally, I’ve talked to many cyclists who simply say that “one day” they were suddenly good climbers. It comes as the years of riding add up and you get stronger and more efficient. Unfortunately, there is no fast way to become a better climber, but if you are consistent in your training you will get there!
This article was original published on my retired blog excersice physiology, MD on March 18, 2009