Triathlon may be the ultimate test of cardiovascular endurance, but triathletes who neglect musculoskeletal strength and flexibility will never fulfil their true potential
Triathlon is an endurance sport consisting of swimming, cycling and running over various distances. In most modern triathlons, these events are placed back-to-back in immediate sequence, and a competitor's official time includes the time required to 'transition' between the individual legs of the race, including any time necessary for changing clothes and shoes.
While there are various race distances the three most common are Sprint, Olympic and Ironman. Take a look at the breakdown (see table 1 below) for each stage of the event and you can see that when it comes to the Ironman competitors, these are no normal athletes!
Triathlon has become the most popular multidisciplinary athletic event over the last decade, with competitions performed over a variety of distances, ranging from the triathlon 'sprint' (750m swim, 20k cycle ride, 5k run) to the gruelling Ironman, culminating in a marathon run. Unsurprisingly, therefore, a significant amount of new research is being devoted to investigating the determinants of successful triathlon performance.
Most research to date has focused on the cycle-to-run transition, since significant correlations have been reported between cycling or running time and overall triathlon performance. The influence of swimming on subsequent cycling time has been relatively neglected.
However, a new study from France has demonstrated that swimming in drafting position can significantly improve subsequent cycling efficiency and might therefore be expected to improve triathlon performance in general.
The researchers had shown in a previous study that decreasing the metabolic load during a 750m swim by using a wet suit resulted in a 11% decrease in swimming heart rate and led to a 12% improvement in efficiency during a subsequent 10-minute cycling exercise when compared to swimming without a wet suit. The lower relative intensity when swimming with a wet suit is classically explained by a decrease in 'hydrodynamic drag' resulting from increased buoyancy.
Traditional high-volume model of training will not optimise performance
It is probably fair to say that most swimmers and swim coaches see the number of hours spent in the pool as the main ingredient of swimming success and distances of 6-10k per day are not uncommon in élite swimming circles. Is this really the key to success, or is there an alternative approach that can produce even better results? This article aims to stir up the debate by suggesting the traditional high-volume model of training will not optimise performance, especially for 100m and 200m swimmers. It is written not from a swimming coach's perspective but in the light of research on swim training, scientific analysis of the demands of competitive swimming, and running training methods that have been shown to optimise performance. Swimmers should read on with open minds and may then choose to apply some of the principles to their own training programmes.
Recreational swimmers don't think too much about the precise arm motion that maximizes efficiency and power. Most are simply trying to stay afloat and moving. But elite freestyle swimmers like Kara Lynn Joyce or Michael Phelps have long pondered the ideal technique. Some use what's called deep catch, pulling their arms through the water like a paddle. Others use sculling, which involves swinging the arms to the side like a propeller.