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How to get better at swimming – Trainiask 036

Today on the Trainiask Podcast, Triathlon Taren answers a question from Ken.  Ken says the swim is his worst leg (as it is for many triathletes) but he’s encouraged by the fact Taren had a hard time swimming across a 25 metre pool when he first started.   Ken wants to know how long it took Taren to be able to swim 500m and 1000m (and now, a record 9-hour continuous open water swim in 2017), and how often his swim sessions were every week to get better at swimming.


Taren: Hey what’s up trainiacs? Triathlon Taren here with another edition of the Triathlon Trainee Ask Podcast, where I answer your triathlon questions five days a week. Today’s question comes to you from Ken.

Ken: Hi Taren. My name’s Ken, I’ve recently started triathlons, probably four months ago, basically to get myself out of trouble. I’ve recently retired, and triathlons was the thing for me to keep me occupied and staying fit. My question is based on the swimming. Swimming for me is easily my worst leg, and I’ve heard some of your videos and things say that when you first started, it was difficult for you to swim 25 meters, and going from that now to swimming for hours and hours and swimming marathon lengths.
So, my question is more based around when you first started, and you started building endurance, started building in stamina, how long did it take for you to swim say 500 meters, and 1,000 meters? And how often were you swimming? How often were your swim sessions per week? So, enjoy 2018, hit it out of the park, later.

Taren: Good question Ken. Yes, you are right, most people have the biggest difficulty getting into triathlon through swimming. That is the Achilles heel of everyone. Frankly for humans, it’s tough, we’re not meant to be in water. That means death, yeah. It’s really unfortunate, because triathlon swimming can be the easiest part of the entire sport. It can basically be like a warm-up before you get to the real racing.
Also, congratulations on deciding to take up triathlon, and congratulations on your retirement. The real nice thing about triathlon is it’s a sport that you can do for the rest of your life. It avoids injuries a heck of a lot more than running. And it’s way more exciting than staring at a black line in a pool, ’cause you get to mix it up with all three sports. And we, as triathletes, get to be mediocre at three sports. Not just one, but three.
Getting to your question here, Ken, yes, when I first got into triathlon, I remember the workout exactly. I had a hard time swimming across a 25 meter pool. And eventually, I would say that eventually I built up to swimming about three times a week. And when you say like how long did it take for me to build up the endurance to swim 500 meters, had I never changed my plans from what I was doing at the start, I never would have been able to swim 500 meters easily.
Because what I was doing at the start, is what I try to caution people from doing. I went into it with a regular sports mindset, that a lot of people have, that happens in football and soccer and baseball and running and cycling, and almost all other sports, that I figured the harder I worked at it, the more I pushed, the easier it would be and the better I’d get.
And that’s just not the case with swimming. It is so much more about technique than it is about fitness, that look at any masters swim program, and odds are really good that you’ll see in some of the slow lanes really incredibly fit people, and then in some of the fast lanes you’ll probably see some really unfit people. And that’s entirely because it is based, I would say 98%, for age groupers on technique, not fitness. Sure, at the Olympic level, there’s gonna be an aspect of it that fitness separates gold from silver, or first place from tenth place, but for the vast majority of us, just working on the technique will make huge leaps and bounds of gains, while just pushing your way through isn’t going to.
So to give you some context on what I did, for about three years, what I was doing is just swimming and swimming and swimming, about three times a week, anywhere from a half hour to an hour. And I wasn’t getting any faster, maybe just a touch faster, like instead of doing a 14:40 sprint distance race, I was doing about a 13:30 sprint distance race, but it really wasn’t a whole lot.
But at some point, when I started thinking about joining a masters swim program and swimming more competitively, more seriously, I realized that all I was doing was just fighting the water, and it wasn’t enjoyable. And I saw these athletes seemingly in the fast lanes, like barely even working. And I realized, fortunately, after watching something from Total Immersion Swimming, that it was about technique. And I had to stop what I was doing, and break down the technique.
And that’s why in the Swim Drill program that I’ve got, at, I think 11 or 12 of the 15 drills are entirely based on just learning to breathe, learning to float, learning to be comfortable in the water. It’s all about technique and reducing drag, as opposed to building fitness and a swim stroke that makes you fast.
So when I ended up getting over myself and realizing, after about three years, that I needed to break down my technique, I still at that point couldn’t swim 500 meters continuously. But after spending about two months breaking down my technique, focusing only on drills, after that, it was within two months that, I don’t know if you could hear that but I snapped, but boom, all of a sudden I could swim 300 meters continuously, 400 meters continuously, 500 meters. It was just a matter of building up my endurance, and had nothing to do anymore with me being fit enough to swim 500 meters, or my lungs being strong enough to swim 500 meters, because swimming all of a sudden, became basically the physical exertion of walking.
So I would recommend to anyone starting out in triathlon, before you even think about swimming and thrashing your way across a 25 meter pool even once, start doing drills, and learn how to breathe, learn how to float, learn how to be comfortable in the water. And after you do that, you can swim hundreds and hundreds of meters quite effortlessly, and then you start adding on the fitness.
So Ken, if there’s anything that I’ve done throughout that YouTube channel that I know has really worked, it’s been telling people to focus on drills before they start working on fitness. So go and check that out, and I hope everyone else checks that out too. It’s been one of the things that we’ve got the most messages on over the last year.
Thank you very much for your question Ken. Everyone else, if you want your question answered here on the podcast, go to, ask your question, please give somebody a shout out. I want to hear about your triathlon communities surrounding you. And while you’re there, odds are really good if you’re listening to this podcast, you will like the resources that we’ve got. If you click up at the top at Free Resources, by entering your email address, you can get all kinds of free training supplements and resources for swimming, strength training, running, nutrition. We try to update that and give you a free download that you can check on every month.
And finally, if you are really digging this format of the Trainee Ask Podcast, go and leave us a review on iTunes, it helps future and aspiring trainiacs find us there. Thanks for listening, I’ll catch you in the next episode.