Ask any triathlete which part of the triathlon they dread the most, and they’ll probably say the swim. We don’t blame them. Just a summer day spent lounging at the pool can be exhausting, so imagine swimming 2.36 miles—and then biking and running another 138.2 miles.
While swimming in general emphasizes speed over endurance, it’s the opposite in the sport of triathlon. Ken Mierke, a two-time world champion triathlete, says, “Many triathletes tend to train with too much emphasis on speed and not enough on efficiency endurance.”
When training, rather than doing intervals at 100 percent effort, Mierke recommends alternating hard swimming with easy swimming, instead of taking a complete rest. This makes the workout more aerobic and endurance-friendly.
But what is it about swimming that is so difficult and tiring? Mierke says, “The greatest challenge of the swim is that most of our instincts are wrong for swimming. Humans are land-based creatures and maintaining a balanced, horizontal position is very unnatural.”
Also, while with most land sports we create force against the ground to push our bodies through the air, in swimming we must create a force against the same force we must push our bodies through—water. “No matter how fit you are, you can’t ‘muscle’ your way through swimming,” says Mierke, whose clients have won 29 national championships and six world championships.
Remember: There are various triathlon distances you can compete in, including the sprint, Olympic, long course, and the Holy Grail of all triathlons, ultra distance. The sprint distance is a 750-meter swim, the Olympic distance is 1.5 meters, the long course is 1.9 meters, and the ultra distance is 3.8 kilometers.
Below you’ll find Mierke’s beginner and intermediate/advanced swim workouts for triathletes.
Beginner’s Swim Workout
1. Warm-up: 5 x 50 meters with full recovery between reps
2. 300, 200, and 100 meters. Very easy with full recovery between. Concentrate on long, slow strokes.
3. 10 x 50 meters with 10 seconds rest between reps, building speed throughout the set.
4. Cool-down: 300, 200, 100 meters. Very easy with full recovery between reps.
Intermediate/Advanced Swim Workout
1. Warm-up: 500 meters
2. 500-meter build-up. Easy for first 100, then increasing speed every 100 to reach a 1,500-meter race-pace by end.
3. 450 meters of 50/25. Fifty meters at 500-meter race-pace, then 25 meters easy, with no rest during the set.
4. 500 meters at 1,500-meter race-pace.
5. 450 meters of 50/25. Fifty meters at 500-meter race-pace, 25 meters easy, with no rest during the set.
6. Cool-down: 500 meters
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