Swimming for Runners

By Charles Doxat

Charles Doxat was county swimming champion in the early 1960s, and went to be many times British Age Group swimming Champion and record-holder. He won 7 British Age-Group Triathlon Championships in the 1990s (at Half Ironman, Olympic and Sprint distances).

If you are a runner wishing to add swimming to your repertoire in order to compete in Triathlon, there are four key issues that you should consider.

1. Technique

Most runners at club level make little effort to improve their technique believing, with some justification, that they are just "doing what comes naturally". However effective swimming most certainly does not come naturally. Indeed front-crawl has only been developed in the last 100 years and greatly refined over the last 20. It is 100 per cent essential that you get proper tuition from a reputable club or personal coach at an early stage. Good technique will make the difference between a comfortable relatively fast swim and a daunting, frustrating and exhausting experience. Do not embark on swim-training until you can swim, say 800m, with a comfortable and relaxed technique, and a heart-rate afterwards a long, long way inside your anaerobic threshold.

2. Training Methods

Apart from "grooving" your, hopefully near perfect, front-crawl technique, LSD (long, slow distance) will play no part in your training regime. Many club runners avoid controlled interval training, but in swimming all your training, except for warm-up and swim-down, must be interval training (ie timed) or drills (ie technique enhancement or strengthening exercises such as catch-up, legs-only, arms only etc). For this reason it is important to train with a (club) group under supervision. Most clubs (including Otter) cater for mixed ability (and older age-groups) by using gradated lane swimming. This has the additional advantages of encouraging you to work harder, relieving boredom and of getting you used to swimming in someones wake and drafting. Yes, drafting works in swimming and can speed your performance. Regarding the boredom factor coaches will often include some repetitions on the other three main strokes and individual medley. And you may note that he will sometimes specify "main stroke" rather than front-crawl to allow specialists work-load on their best stroke.

3. Work-load

Although swimming is the shortest leg of triathlon, comprising maybe 20 per cent of total time, it is of at least equal importance to the other two disciplines. A relatively slow swimmer can easily lose 5 to 10 minutes, which is a lot of distance to make up on the bike. It is also important that you go in to the swim leg without fear, and emerge relatively fresh for the second leg of your journey. Brilliant triathlete (and runner) Annie Emmerson lost a lot of time on the swim-leg at the Sydney Olympics, could not make it up on the bike, and despite by far the fastest run finished well down the field. She has therefore been working all winter on her swimming (in Australia!). You must work disproportionately hard on you weakest discipline - which for many is the swim. And don't worry swimming will also greatly help your overall fitness. Many top swimmers train 10 sessions or more a week covering upwards of 100 kilometres a week! However for triathletes 3 sessions per week of 1 to 2 hours each covering a total weekly mileage of up to 10k should suffice.

4. Open Water

When you graduate to open-water events you will need a wet-suit, which usefully helps poorer swimmers, and your front-crawl technique may require slight refinement to enable you to look ahead of you for marker buoys and cope with rougher conditions. However once your pool-swimming and confidence in your own swimming ability have achieved a reasonable standard you should experience little problem with the transition to open-water. Although you will be wise to find somewhere to practice swimming in the wet-suit, prior to your open-water initiation. Events in rough or dangerous sea conditions are not permitted.