I recently read an article that talked about working your weakness versus strengthening your strength. The author suggested there’s a reason why something is your strength – the way you’re built, your background – and you’ll likely be banging your head into a wall trying to turn yourself into something else. Sounds like an easy way of getting out of the challenging, often uncomfortable and slow process of improving your weakness. Is that process worth it?
Most athletes come to the sport of triathlon from one of two backgrounds: swimming or running. Rare is the triathlete who comes from a cycling background. Cycling isn't as mainstream as swimming (for youth) or running (for adults) and the cyclists out there tend to feel strongly about triathlons. If there are triathletes in triathlons, the cyclists genearlly don’t want to be there.
So I’ll talk mostly about swimmers and runners.
Working a swimmers swim just doesn’t make sense. I’ve worked with some very, VERY fast swimmers. From what I’ve seen, you give a swimmer 2-3x a week of swimming and they will maintain their strong swim which even when it’s “weak” will be much stronger than most other triathletes (at the amateur level). Remember, they come from a background of swimming 10K a day for many, many years of their life. To make a change, they need to swim a lot and the time spent just won’t be worth it because generally their bike and run lag far behind.
Now, to work a swimmers weakness, generally the run, they need to run a lot. Not long – the worst thing you can do to a swimmer is to train them for a marathon. They’ll break down. Shorter, frequent runs to improve their durability. Work on cadence/turnover. Alactic strides, short hill repeats – these are things that improve your neuromuscular ability to run faster without draining you or risking injury as with more traditional or extended ‘speed’work. Frequent running will also help chip away at their generally stockier body mass. Running 5-6x a week for shorter periods of time is more beneficial than running 3 times a week for 60 minutes. A day where they run twice can be useful too. Separate double runs by at least 6 hours with the first run being at an easier pace and the second run including some drill work or strides to reinforce form when fatigued. Runs are best scheduled before swim or bike workouts to have them going into runs fresh so they work on form rather than shuffle through fatigue.
Runners, on the other hand, are generally poor swimmers. If you’ve ever watched an adult-onset swimmer who comes from a run background, it’s no surprise that they try run while swimming. Excessive kicks driven from the knee down are not only ineffective but costly in terms of energy/oxygen consumption. This fatigues their legs and impacts their triathlon running. Not only that but the runner tends to get frustrated at the technical, patient nature of swimming. In a sport where applying a harder-faster-longer mentality often rules, getting them to slow down, work on form and feel what they’re doing can be the most difficult part of swimming.
It pays to have a runner set aside a month if not a season to work on their swim. During this time their run will temporarily suffer, especially if they run after swimming. But this is very much like what happens in a triathlon. It may be mentally and emotionally frustrating to them because what was once their “baby” (the run) might slow down as they direct energy for the swim or even put on more muscle mass to swim better. In the long term, as a triathlete, this will pay off. They just need to trust it.
Most runners who come to triathlon can benefit from a month long focus on their swim. During this time, the bike and run should be put on 2-3x a week maintenance with shorter sessions that focus on maintaining feel/form rather than trying to build big fitness. They should swim with frequency and not necessarily duration. Swim just enough to maintain form rather than get to the point where form breaks down and they’re just logging useless laps. Swimming 5-6x a week, even with one day where they swim twice a week can result in a nice boost in their swim ability. Since swimming is so much about feel for the water, the more they are in the water, the better they’ll understand (and feel) how their body moves through the water. You just cannot develop that by swimming 2-3x a week.
Double swim days should be separated by at least 6 hours. The first session should consist of some shorter, faster sprint work. The second session should consist of drills to reinforce form when fatigued or pulling. Pulling with paddles is beneficial for runners, especially women, as it helps them to develop the musculature around the shoulders and in the lats to power stronger swimming. Paddles should be just slightly bigger than the hand and contain no wrist straps (if you’re entering wrong with the paddle, it should fall off!). There’s much debate on this topic and ultimately it depends on how your body (and shoulders) responds to paddles.
Psychologically, working on your weakness is beneficial. With the swim as your strength, rare is the swimmer who is so far ahead of the field that they can sustain that lead for the entire race. The longer the race, the less your swim strength helps you. With significantly more time spent on the bike and run, the cyclists – and even more, the runners – will eventually hunt you down. Not only that but stronger swimmers can get frustrated by being out front and then getting passed for the rest of the race. Psychologically, this is a tough pill to swallow. By bringing the swimmer’s bike and run up to a more competitive level, they might lose some time on the swim but overall gain more time on the bike and run. They are better able to race. Being a part of the race is more empowering than being passed by the entire race.
For any triathlete, the swim can be full of anxiety, fears and frustration. By improving their skills, technique and confidence in swimming, an athlete can go into a race feeling more capable of not just surviving the swim but actually making forward progress during it. When one can focus on competing rather than just completing, that’s when they’re actually racing in a triathlon.
I’ve heard from other athletes who struggle with the swim that their coach doesn’t believe in working on the swim because it’s the shortest part of the triathlon. While it’s true that you only spend a small fraction of the overall race time in the water, remember, that small time is where you start your day. If you start your day overworking, inefficient and fatigued, it will negatively impact your bike and run. A swim focus might only gain you a few minutes on your swim time but could lead to more energy to expend on your bike and run – leading to bigger time gains. Remember too that triathlon is the ability to seamlessly weave and execute three sports together. Coaches should be coaching you to be a triathlete.
Popular too is the idea of giving up swim training for a few months only to bring it back closer to race season. From my own experience, this works only for those consistently able to swim a sub 1:20 pace. These athletes tend to have superior feel for the water which they never lose. They just lose the top end of their fitness. Give them 4-8 weeks of working on that speed and it comes back again. Some in the 1:30 range might also be able to get away with this. Those in the 1:30+ range should not give up swimming for any extended period of time. Better to cut down to even 20 minute sessions 3-4x a week than to completely leave the water.
The longer you’re in the sport or the more competitive you wish to be in the sport, the more aces you need up your sleeve. You can’t rely on a strength to run someone down or swim away from them. You need to be well-rounded. As you age in the sport of triathlon, I also see that the swim and bike become even more important. We all experience a loss of speed in our run as we age. Relying on your run when you’re over 35, just doesn’t work from what I’ve seen. You need to be well-rounded, equally as strong in all 3 sports so you can race rather than catch-up across the race. The longer the race, the more important this is.
As the sport becomes more popular, I also see fewer “outliers” in the sport. Athletes are getting smarter - they’re hiring coaches, following plans, paying attention to the details like recovery, equipment and nutrition. Because of this, all of those little things that add up to more speed are putting athletes closer together. This is a good thing. It raises the bar for all us, forcing us to make the commitment to becoming a better triathlete rather than a good runner or swimmer or cyclist who does triathlons. Again, it pays to be well-rounded in your approach to training. If you’re interested in excelling at the sport of triathlon then you must take all 3 sports seriously.
If your weakness is transitioning, you should also set aside time to work on that too. At the higher end of the competition, every second counts. You can practice transitions every day – on your trainer, when putting on your run shoes, when heading back into the lockerroom. Think about all of the challenges outside of just swimming, biking and running that you encounter in a triathlon – putting on shoes, buckling your helmet, running from the swim to the bike. Include a variety of bricks in your training: run before your bike, run after your swim. The only thing you can generally do fresh all of the time is swimming because we never really do anything before swimming (unlike the bike and the run).
Lastly and most importantly, giving your weakness attention will improve your ability and fitness but more importantly your confidence. I’m a big proponent of the idea of “fake it ‘til you make it.” You need confidence to go into a masters practice and “fake” being a good swimmer so you can get into a faster lane and try to keep up. You need confidence to find yourself at the end of a race with the determination and grit to push yourself to keep up with the person who’s trying to take away your lead. You need confidence before you can have any type of breakthrough. The tougher the conditions (chop, heat, rain), the more this confidence pays off. The kiss of death for a poor swimmer is choppy conditions. They might have the fitness but they do not have the confidence to effectively maneuver through it. Same goes for hills, head or wind on the bike or run. You need confidence to effectively pace and push yourself through those obstacles. Yes, you also need fitness. But at the higher end of the age groups, everyone’s got fitness. What’s going to be your ace in the hole?
What you’ll find after working on your weakness is that it better puts you in a position to utilize your strength. If you swim and bike better, you’ll be able to run fresher and stronger. If you bike and run better, you’ll be able to maintain that lead you built on the swim. And it goes without saying, if you bike more efficiently, even if you’re a great runner, you will run even better. In any case, you don’t necessarily have to work your weakness until it becomes your strength, you just have to work it unless it becomes less of a weakness. Besides, who wants to think of any part of themselves as weak anyways? Framing the language you use when you think about yourself is also a big part of confidence and self-efficacy.
When it comes time to consider working your weakness, trust that there is value. It will be frustrating, it will require patience and you will (temporarily) slow down in your area of strength. But in time, speed and ability level out making you stronger in all 3 sports. Ultimately, this is what makes for success in triathlon.