Triathlon Swim Fitness - Lack Of Muscle?!!?

by Adam


I did my first three triathlons last year, one open water. Although I joined the local tri club and did swimming training, I find that after as little as 50m swimming I'm breathing heavy as if I'm on a long climb on the bike.

Any further training just seems to enable me to cope with this better, but I am still very tired after the swim section. Fortunately my bike is good so makes up a little for the poor swim.

I have quite large cyclists thighs, but little shoulder muscle and even less pectoral muscle. Should I work on establishing these muscles more to improve my swim efficiency?



Intelligent Triathlon Training replies:

From what you say, it sounds first of all more of a technical issue. Once you improve that, strength work may compliment your improvement, but it won't over come the technical limitation on its own.

It is likely from the description that you let your legs drag in the water, creating lots of resistance that you then don't have the power to overcome.

The first thing is to look at body position

Ideally you are looking for a flat body postion when you are in the water. This comes from an effective kick (not necessarily a hard kick) that utilises a 'floppy ankle' to provide stability and balance as well as setting the rhythm for the arms.

You can practice this with kick sets, or including a kick elemement into your programme.

This is often overlooked, as many triathlon coaches believe you need to save your legs. You do, but an effective kick should mean that you balance the stroke and reduce fatigue.

There is also a part to play from your core and lower back muscles, so if you have ignored strengthening and learning to control these then pay them more attention.

(Have a look at our triathlon strength training pages for ideas of what to do).

The next technical area to improve your triathlon swimming is rotation.

As your arms go through the recovery to catch position you need to rotate your hips.

There are many excellent You Tube videos with examples of this, but the Swim Smooth website (referred to on our swimming technique page) is probably the best place to start.

Rotation allows you to use your lats and unloads your deltoids.

Lats are a bigger muscle group that are more powerful especially when assisted by your deltoids and pectoral muscles.

Include into your warm up and cool down programme drills that help to emphasis this roll into your stroke. Don't be afraid to use fins to help the propulsion of the drills without really working too hard.

The final area is the arm action underwater (catch, pull, follow through).

This is often the area triathletes go to first, but if the other parts are not working, addressing this will not make much difference, because you will be trying to overcome too much drag with too small a muscle group.

Again drills can help, but I would advise watching some good quality footage of triathletes or swimmers doing technique well, not just OK, but really well. That is what you are striving to do - you may never get there but if you try to copy average technique you will also be copying the flaws.

Often triathletes also need to look very hard at their flexibility around the shoulders.

If you cannot easily get into the right positions then there is no way you can apply force in this postion, therefore you are wasting energy.

Swimmers will be hypermobile in this area, so that when they are in the optimal position they still have range of movement to spare. This enables the muscles to exert a lot of force and therefore propel them forwards.

There are some exercises which might help in our triathlon strength training section, specifically the shoulder strength and stability page.

The fact you are breathing hard suggests the energy cost of swimming is too high, not that you are not strong enough.

Therefore work on your swimming technique to become more efficient, to then become a faster swimmer.

Good luck!

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