Triathletes seem to have a rather curious outlook when it comes to swimming… they want to learn Freestyle [FR], and only FR. Some will entertain Backstroke or Breaststroke, but not to train, only to do something different for a length or two. Few will consider Butterfly… actually most times I cannot finish the word Butte… before a triathlete replies “no, no way, nope, no how, no point, why….????” They typically continue with, “I ain’t ever going to swim FLY in a triathlon… so what’s the point in training Butterfly?” Triathletes also manage to excuse themselves from learning flip turns with the statement that “there are no walls in open water” so why do I need to learn flip turns. And the list of “I don’t need to learn” goes on and on.
Let’s approach this from a different angle…
- 3x winner of the UCI Elite Men World Championship Road Race, winner of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, winner of the 2016 Tour of Flanders, 5x winner of the points classification in the Tour de France and so on and so on… Peter Sagan started his career training and racing on mountain bikes.
- 4x winner of the Tour de France, 3x winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné, winner of the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, 2x Olympic Bronze medalist in the Time Trial, and so on and so on… Chris Froome represented Kenya at the Commonwealth Games in mountain biking.
- UCI World Hour Record Holder, winner of the Tour de France, 7x World Champ in Track Cycling events Bradley Wiggins crosses between road and track cycling as easily as he switches bikes, as does Fernando Gaviria, Mark Cavendish and countless other cyclists.
- US Cyclocross Champ Stephen Hyde started cycling as a BMX rider, only later transitioning to cyclocross.
This list is not comprehensive in any way… the number of cyclocross riders who compete as roadies during the summer in events as prestigious as the Tour de France who switch to cyclocross in the fall is long. The list is just as long for the number of track cyclists who ride the velodrome all winter, to come out and “cross train” on the roads all summer. Switching between mountain biking and road riding is a little more challenging as the seasons overlap, but switches season to season do occur.
What’s the point?
Well, lets say that the different types of cycling events (i.e. road, time trial, mountain, cyclocross, bmx, trials) are like the different strokes in swimming (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly). If so many cyclists train and race more than just one type of event, and excel and identify that they do excel as a result of training more than just one type of event… then how can triathletes get off claiming that all they need is Freestyle to race, therefore all they need is Freestyle in training?
As is the case with many of the issues in the sport of triathlon, this one has its roots once again in coaches who have a rough idea how to coach the FR stroke (as in stroke correction, and progression), but have no clue on how to coach any of the other strokes. So what’s the solution for these coaches? Eliminate any need of the other strokes by “educating” novice triathletes that they ain’t gonna race anything other than FR, so therefore there is no point of learning or training any other stroke other than FR. Their athletes fail to question the genius of such statements and in turn preach that the only stroke that exists is FR.
This is a great solution for an inexperienced coach who is unwilling to identify and admit to gaps in their skill set, but, for novice athletes this is the worst kind of solution, absolutely worst.
Coaches for the most part are deathly afraid of referring athletes to another coach, because they realize that (a) it will reveal their knowledge gaps, (b) it is highly likely to result in athletes switching to the other coach, and for a handful (c) it will destroy the image of ‘god’ of all things triathlon that they hold themselves and their novice athletes hold them in. Unable to deal with a deflated ego, these coaches can and will make up anything to retain their identity.
If novices do in fact need to learn strokes other than Freestyle, then what are they and why?
Novice triathletes need Backstroke [BK] because they will all find themselves in this position at some point in some race: having gone out way to fast, way to hard, trying to stay with a pack that they didn’t anticipate would be as fast as it is, trying to stay on the feet of another athlete who is way to fast for them to be trying to hold onto, these athletes will find themselves spent in the swim, and spent with some distance to the swim exit still to go.
So what do you do?
If you have the BK, then you have a solution… roll onto your back, slow down, catch your breathe. The best way to catch your breathe… active recovery, and by taking a handful of backstrokes you keep moving, you help flush out the metabolic waste of threshold or above threshold effort, you help bring down your heart rate and your respiratory rate. You stare at the sky instead of the dark of Lake Ontario, the Welland canal or other water body… perhaps take a moment to remember the beauty of the day, regain perspective, restore control, and ready yourself to roll over into FR to finish the swim comfortably and confidently.
Imagine having just one more strategy, one more tactic in your pocket that you know you have trained to the point that you can count on it when needed.
Imagine having the BK as that solution and what it can do for your pre-race anxiety, for your open water swim nerves, for the moment that races through your mind… will I have to stop, remove my swim cap calling for a lifeguard to pull me from the race… or instead remembering: I have a solution to recover mid-race!
Novice triathletes need the Breaststroke [BR] because every open water swim event will require sighting at some point. But… what about sighting with head up Freestyle? Isn’t that what a triathlete should do?
Swimming head up Freestyle requires:
- A powerful core that can sustain the athlete in an angled body position and has the strength and endurance to lift an athletes head high enough out of the water to be able to sight,
- A powerful kick that can transfer through a powerful core the additional output required to attain and sustain the angled body position, and to sustain forward movement as the athlete lifts their head and sights.
- An ability to change breathing cycle so as to be able to lift the head just enough to sight, but not to breathe… thus being able to adjust the breathing cycle for the extra strokes required where a breathe cannot be taken.
- And so on…
Point being… head up FR is not a skill that most novices can execute. If they try, then they either manage to sight, but at such an effort that they exhaust themselves, or fail to sight, and then struggle to try and sight over and over… again exhausting themselves.
So what do you do?
If you have the BR, then you have a solution… by changing from FR to BR, the novice athlete can kill two birds with one stone: sight, breathe, and by switching strokes you switch muscle groups slightly providing yourself some recovery, thus extending your endurance.
Imagine being able to extend your endurance, while reducing the distance you swim because you sight more effectively cutting down on time lost swimming to and fro.
Imagine having the BR as yet another solution and what that will do for your pre-race anxiety, for your open water swim nerves.
The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared”.
I believe triathletes can learn a lot from this motto: by learning more than just FR, by preparing thoroughly as an athlete for all known-known challenges in a triathlon, triathletes will find themselves improving and developing as athletes faster than without a broad skill set. And, improving not just in the swim portion, but across the entire triathlon because of the energy spared by having several strategies on hand.
Far better than the triathlete motto in regards to swimming of “Save the Legs”, I believe “Be Prepared” is far smarter. If not, then I can guarantee that someone who did cross train by developing their BK & BR will fly right by you in the swim of your next event because… they did come prepared.