You work hard in the pool 2 – 3 times a week. You buy all the latest swim toys, take stroke correction classes and analyse YouTube swim technique videos all for the sake of faster swim split. But many age groupers have not wised up to fact that drafting is the easiest way to an impressive swim split. The fear of getting hit and pulled under/ swum over in the in the opening seconds of each race drives you to ‘take it easy’ at the start. This is exactly the reason why they get caught up in the mess with everyone else in the 1st place!
The trick is to start the swim hard and latch onto a slightly faster swimmer that will 1) shield them from the barrage in front and 2) pull them clear of the as much of the pack as possible. Yes, it is a little bit of a roller coaster ride getting there but once you have experienced ‘leaving the pack’ behind a few times in a race situation, you‘ll never want to be bogged down in the tangle of arms and legs again.
For many swimmers, lack of confidence is the main factor holding them back from fighting for a draft. They seldom practice ‘starting hard’ in their training and do not know how to change gears in the water to manage their effort levels. If this sounds like you, read on!
Finding the right draft
If you are swimming at a steady effort and holding a good rhythm to stay on the feet in front of you, chances are you have found the right draft. Just pop your head up every 10 – 15 strokes to ensure that you’re getting towed in the right direction. This is your ticket to a swim split PB – don’t let anyone come in between you and those feet in front of you. If you need to swim ‘tough’ to defend your territory – so be it.Don’t budge! Take a few knocks and don’t hesitate to bump back, let them know that you’re there to stay. A high stroke rate with a straight arm recovery and wide hand entry and is a clear signal for other swimmers to stay out clear of your territory.
If you lose this draft, you’ll be regretting it for a long time.
Your draft is too slow if you’re bumping into toes in front of you and you are struggling to get into a good rhythm because of the continual acceleration/deceleration cycles. Test this out by coming out of their wake and accessing how much effort it is going to take to go on your own. Yes – it will be harder, but can you handle it for a period while you settle into your own rhythm and search for a slightly faster set of feet?
Keep your eyes peeled for a swimmer or a train of swimmers moving steadily pass you. Wait for them to pass, put in a mini surge of a few powerful strokes to get on their toes, tuck right in behind them and settle in.
Or if there’s no such luck, look further up the field for a stronger swimmer to bridge up to. What is it going to take to bridge up to them? Can you make it across in 30 seconds/ 60 seconds/ 90 seconds with a dedicated effort to bridge up? Leap- frogging from one set of feet to the next faster ones has resulted in many fast swims times – and if well executed, can have you swimming significantly beyond your ability.
On the other hand, you’ll know if you are drafting ‘out of your league’ because even though you’re pushing hard, his/ her feet keep disappearing into the water ahead. There’s a good chance that you’re not the only one hanging on for a free ride and there will be other swimmers behind you. Pull over to the side, let them pass and duck into the slip stream of the bigger group once they have passed – exactly like you would on a pace line on the bike.
Applications to training:
As you can see, the swim leg of a triathlon is a very dynamic effort requiring short hard surges to catch up to faster feet, extended periods of steady and solid swimming, while on your own looking for the next draft, and the ability to recover “on the go” when you have made it across the gap.
While the long steady swims are useful for building endurance, and a flat set of 100’s is good for tolerance, the best way to master the ability to change pace on the go is to train specifically with variable speed sets. These sessions will have your heart rate up and down and everywhere in between to mimic the conditions of a real race situation. With practice, you will learn how to mix up aerobic and anaerobic efforts in the water. This, in turn, will give you the confidence to take the risk on race day to hunt down the best feet to follow. There are 2 of my favourite variable speed sets to get you started. You can change the number of reps according to your ability.
Set 1: Total Distance – 2.7km
300m done continuous as 75easy free/ 25m butterfly
4 x 50m as 25m All Out /25m easy – 30sec rest
Main Set is 4 x through this block
4 x 50m hard – 20sec rest
200m moderate – 30sec rest
100m easy – 1min ‘reset’
- Option to add paddles and pullbuoy in the second half
200m easy cool down
Set 2: Total Distance – 2.6km
500m done continuous as 75easy free/ 25m butterfly
6 x 100m swum as (25m All Out/ 50m easy / 25m ALL OUT)
- 60 sec rest
- No gear
6 x 200m swum as (50m Hard / 100m easy / 50m Hard)
- 90 sec rest
- Paddles and pullbuoy
Cool Down – 3x 100m easy with paddles and pullbuoy
If you don’t do this type of swim session at least once a week, try it out. Get used to going into the red and then ‘recovering on the go’. Paying attention to holding your form especially on the easy sections as you will be fatigued from the preceding hard efforts. And don’t forget to put this into practice the next time you toe the line!
Good luck and enjoy your training!
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Shem Leong is our ironguides coach in Singapore. He has been hooked on triathlon ever since winning his age group in his first Olympic-distance race. Many top performances later, Shem still enjoys the challenges of training and racing at a high level, while balancing this with work and family. He is a firm believer in the benefits of an active lifestyle and loves being able to positively affect his athletes’ lives in this way. In the four years that Shem has worked as an ironguides coach so far, he has helped more than 60 athletes achieve their goals. They range from newbies hoping to complete their first sprint race, to 70.3 podium contenders, to seasoned Sub 10-hour Ironman athletes. Shem’s care for his athletes and his attention to detail set him apart. He completely understands the varied pull factors of life’s demands as well as the fiery motivations that drive everyday age groupers and is able to craft sustainable, effective training plans for their time-crunched schedules. An Honour’s Degree in Health Science has given Shem the knowledge to explain and expertly administer The Method. This, in turn, helps his athletes understand how each session contributes towards their ultimate goal; as a result, countless personal bests have been improved upon as his athletes continually get fitter and faster.
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