XTerra Series IV: Solving your swim problems

Here are #swimtips for improving your #XTerratriathlon results.

It has often been said that the triathlon is never won in the swim, but can surely be lost before you exit the water. It can also be argued that for off-road triathlon, dominated by technical single-track trails, the swim is far more impactful than it is for road triathlon. No matter how good you are on the mountain bike, or running the trails, sometimes you just cannot pass!  It’s also no secret that my weakest sport is swimming, which might beg the question, how can I give advice on swim training? Ha! That’s a red herring. Logical fallacies aside, its the very reason that I am a slow slimmer that has forced me to spend a lot of time trying to crack the code. So in this fourth installment of my XTerra Series, I’ll discuss what I’ve learned and what I’ve hypothesized about swimming in general, as well as my own swim, and what you should be doing to  improve yours, while in part V, I’ll offer some sensible training advice, and even race day strategies for dealing with a poor swim.

It’s all in the wrist

Oh if it were only so simple! However, the wrist, along with the entire upper extremity are essential to developing a good pull. Far be it from me to rehash what most of us have already learned, the pull is probably the most important part of the swim stroke, and a good pull relies on the high-elbow catch, as noted below. We are going to assume this is the best way to swim, as most experts agree on this. So, with that in mind, tip 1 is to develop your catch.

The high elbow catch

Find your bottleneck

Well, nothing new there. However, it is easier said than done, and really requires either a great coach, or some personal study and underwater video. In my experience, the latter requires more work on your part, but may be a more realistic bet. Over the years, I’ve met with a few coaches, some helpful, others, not so much. But in reality, even a good coach needs to see more than one video take, and a good understanding of what they’re watching AND how to fix it. So tip #2 is become your own expert. Honestly, its better to invest your time in learning from a coach what to look for, than to try to randomly get analyzed. Besides, once you really decipher what his wrong, they can help you more efficiently; the best medical care is with knowledgable patients!

Once you’ve got some video, you also need to look at your metrics from training, and more importantly, races. If you’re now muttering, WTF are you talking about? I show up and swim as hard as I can and just look at my race times. My answer to you is that it’s time to join us in the 21st century. While not as robust as power meter data, the basic swim metrics, like stroke rate, are still pretty handy. For example, below are some of my data from one bad event, and two better events.


Of particular note are both the average and maximum stroke rates. The worst swim I had all year was at the XTerra SE championships, where I not only felt slow, I was slow in all facets; looking at my data, average stroke rate was 3 SPM slower than any other race that year, and my per 100 pace was 10 sec slower. Is that the whole story? Probably not, but this alone was enough for me review my training data and realize that my stroke rate was lagging, and was likely related to too much “gliding”. So one major off-season objective has been to increase my stroke rate up to about 40 SPM. Your bottleneck might be different, which means that you need to determine what it is, and how you can improve it. Is it technique, is it strength, are you pacing well, or perhaps you’re uncomfortable in the pack. These are all areas that can be improved and will cut time of your swim. Even small gains can yield big improvements overall.

In XTerra, I estimate that cutting 1 minute off your swim will cut 2 – 3 min off your bike, depending on where in the pack you hit the trail. On the road, faster swim times likely do little to improve bike time.

In part V of my XTerra series, I’ll discuss training recommendations and race day strategies for overcoming a poor swim.

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