Masters Swimming versus Triathlon Masters Swimming

I am a triathlon swimmer. Although I grew up in the water, I did not swim competitively. When I started swimming for triathlon, I realized how bad my swim actually was. I tried many things to catch up to speed and some worked better than others. In the end, what worked best was simply “time spent in the water”, complimented by a coach’s eye from time to time to push me past a plateau. Time spent in the water must be consistent in order to reap the benefits. Time spent in the water can be very productive when it is also spent in a Masters swim group. In Dallas, I have swum with two groups, DAM (Dallas Aquatic Masters) and the DFW Tri Club and they are both effective, but have their differences. DAM is what you typically think of when you think of a swim Masters program, made up of swimmers with some triathletes sprinkled in. Triathlon Masters Swimming is made up of triathletes with some swimmers sprinkled in. This article talks about the differences between the two.

Snorkel

In Masters swimming, it is rare to see a snorkel. Experienced swimmers who have been swimming competitively for much of their lives likely did not use a snorkel when growing up so do not bring one to Masters now. In a ten lane pool, when you have the area’s top swimmers in lane 1, lane 5 can be daunting for the triathlete new to swimming. Swimmers in lane 5 don’t use snorkels, because the lane 1 & 2 swimmers don’t. And if lane 5 people aren’t using a snorkel, well it certainly trickles down from there. Maybe you’ll find one in lane 9 or 10? In Triathlon Masters Swimming, we celebrate the snorkel. It isolates the mechanics of your stroke by taking the breathing out of the equation. You can focus on your stroke, you can isolate your kick, work on your balance, use it for active recovery… and even work on your breathing with a snorkel. But you don’t see them at Masters. Tri Masters: 1 – Masters: 0. I recommend this snorkel: snorkel

Kickboard

You see them all the time at Masters. But kickboards cause your hips to drop. Purposefully practicing with sinking hips reinforces this bad habit. Since swimming places so much emphasis on proper form, it is counter productive to practice kicking with a kickboard. The more you practice movements with your body in the correct position, the quicker your body will learn to be there when you are in full swim mode. But they’re great for your ankles! Yep, don’t even put the kickboard in the pool, just keep them on deck and kneel with the top of your feet and shins laying on it. You want to go faster with the same effort? Stretch your ankles to get a better rudder. This is particularly important if you are a big runner, who likely has a hard time with plantar flexion (the ability to flatten your ankle as it becomes a straight line with your leg). Tri Masters: 2 – Masters: 0.

Stroke

Regular masters has their participants swim with the other three strokes much more often than Tri Masters. Although it pays to be specific and triathletes mainly need to focus on freestyle, using the other strokes engages your other muscles and helps keep you more balanced. Triathletes can always use more balance. Tri Masters: 2 – Masters: 1.

Flip Turns

Although flip turns are not specific to one masters or another, it is safe to say that swimmers at Masters are much more comfortable with consistently doing them than their Triathlon Masters swimming counterparts. Not to mention, there is a small debate in the Triathlon community with some triathletes questioning the use of them, since there are no walls in the open water. However, the ability to do them consistently is important. Walls in a pool interrupt your swim. The shorter the pool, the more interruptions you get. In open water swimming, there are no interruptions, so the ability to do a flip turn more closely resembles open water swimming. Plus, flip turns force you to improve your breathing. They help develop the ability to control your breathing better and they force you to deal with the discomfort of hold your breathe longer. Finally, the fast swimmers flip turn. If you want to swim with the fast swimmers, you need to be able to come off the wall with them. If you’re not flipping, they’ll lose you after the first lap with zero extra effort. I am not an advocate of beginners worrying about doing flip turns. They have other more important things to worry about than the flip turn. The wall is your friend until you build a bigger swim fitness base. You get to rest at the walls! But there comes a point when you need to learn them and start incorporating them into your workouts. When you think you are ready to start flip turning, don’t be shy to try them! Start by doing it once every 100 meters and then increasing their frequency. Since this is more of a Masters thing, Tri Masters: 2 – Masters: 2.

Open Water Simulation

The best way to practice for open water swimming events is in the open water with other swimmers; however, that is not always practical. In Triathlon Masters swimming, it is not uncommon to work on drills that simulate the open water. For example, you may do sets with crowded lanes to practice drafting or sets where you sight to the front. I have never seen a Masters swim coach ask us to do a “Tarzan swim”. Masters swimming typically prepares you for swimming competitions in the pool, so these other drills may not be necessary. Our local Masters did have a special OWS simulation once in a while though, where they took the lane lines down at the 50 meter pool and swam as a group across it. It looked like a lot of fun, but it was not incorporated in their regular daily practices. In a nutshell, open water swimming is an important skill and Triathlon Masters Swimming wins, Tri Masters: 4 – Masters: 2. DTC masters 2

Triathlon Coach on Pool Deck

A swim coach without the experience of having completed a triathlon may not fully understand the demands of the bike and the run, as well as how you might be able to compensate for that on the swim. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for swim coaches to teach adults the same way you would a youth swim team. Most triathletes are adult onset swimmers; it’s an entirely different ballgame. Most of the time, a Masters swim will have a swim coach on deck; but every time, a Triathlon Masters swim will have a triathlon swim coach on deck. Not a total loss, but specificity can go a long way for a final score of Tri Masters: 4 – Masters: 2. 

Conclusion

If you are a triathlete, you are better off in a Triathlon Masters swim program, but you are not far behind in a Masters swim program. Although variety is important, including triathlon specific workouts that you often find in Triathlon Masters swimming each week will translate to better racing. If there is a Triathlon Masters swimming program in your area, definitely check it out, but don’t think you are missing too much if it doesn’t work for you. You will still get the the benefits mentioned above with Masters swimming, in addition to building confidence and swim fitness.

Happy swimming!
Tri Coach Mark
@ExclaimedMark
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Why Triathletes Need to Kick on the Swim

6 beat kick

I swim with a talented triathlete who is not a great swimmer.  Well, that’s half true; he always torches me when we do pull sets.  But throw the kick into the mix and the ball game has changed.  A familiar story, he comes from a running background and has learned through observation that triathlons are won on the run.  He noticed that the athletes who kick hard in the swim tend to be the same ones who he passes on the run, as they bonk out of the race.

As a previously self-coached athlete, I understand his logic.  In fact, I believed exactly that when I first started, so I experimented (miserably) with Total Immersion.  This athlete is not a newbie; in fact, I think we have been in the game for the same amount of time now.  Although the competitive side of me wants to race him head-to-head, we are in the same club and I really want him to reach his potential.  If he were to unleash his swim kick, I think he’ll find more success.

His kick looks something like this:  Very wide, little propulsion (only about a 2 beat kick), hips sink and little to no splashing.

Here are my problems with this:

1)  A wide kick is doing more harm than good.  If your leg pushes past your slip stream, then you incur unnecessary water resistance.  If you keep the kick tight, then you don’t have to work harder to push past the extra water you are now coming into contact with.  Look how much extra water (read: resistance) this swimmer comes in contact with:

photo (1)

 

2)  Kicking with the knee makes for a shorter lever to gain propulsion from.  I have seen people kick extremely hard from their knee, barely move forward and tire out quickly.  Kicking from the knee engages your hamstrings too much, as you pull your foot back hinged at the knee.  Using your hamstrings in the swim will surely wipe them out for the run.  With a mostly straight knee, you start your kick from the hip, tapping that to generates a lot more power and then you use a lever that is twice as long.  It’s like lifting something with a wheel barrel (kicking from hips) instead of lifting it with your hands/biceps (kicking from knees):

 

 

Versus

 

 

3)  The slow kick cadence causes there to be a dead spot in between arm pulls.  Every time there is a delay, your legs drop and it slows you down, taking more energy to get back up to speed with the next pull.  “An object in motion tends to stay in motion”, Sir Isaac Newton describing his Law of Inertia.  Kick faster (but smaller) to eliminate this dead spot and keep your motion going forward.  Use the six beat kick, or simply, the flutter kick, to bridge the dead spot gap and stay stream lined. The dead spot can be eliminated with a two beat kick, but practicing the flutter will train your neuromuscluar system on where your body position should be.

Balance:  Correcting these issues will help minimize your exposure to the oncoming water.  You will be in a better streamlined position, so minimizing the amount of drag you create will ease your work load.  Balance in the water often starts with the kick.  My favorite way to work on balance is by kicking with a snorkel.  My favorite method to work on the kick is with the snorkel.  Using a kickboard to do your kick-sets reinforces improper balance, so a snorkel kills two birds with one stone.  Good balance starts with the kick and makes pulling easier.

If you already have great balance without the kick, then you are fortunate.  That still does not give you the excuse to kick wide or kick exclusively from your knees.  But in a long course race, especially if you get the added buoyancy from a wetsuit and maybe some salt water, then there may be a race plan that includes holding back on the kick.  This usually does not mean the entire race will be executed with an easy kick.  There will be times when you’ll need to kick it into high gear to hang onto a draft or tactically maneuver past a turn buoy.  For this reason alone, you need to practice a proper kick.  It is better to practice a good kick so it’s there when you need it rather than ignore it altogether.  After all, perfect practice makes perfect.  For those of us with a run background living in Texas, where we swim in warm, saltless (and dirty) lakes, that goes without saying; we really need to stay on top of our kick.

This athlete is just fast when it comes to biking and running.  Since I also have a bike and run background, I can relate to the feeling of getting to T1 with the majority of the bikes already on the road.  I know what the uphill battle is like, always looking for the next competitor to pick off.  But if I want to get to the next level, I need to get out of the water with the lead or second lead pack.  My talented club mate; even more-so.  He’s even closer than me to the next level.  To do it, swim fitness is a huge part of the equation, but having the fitness will get you the gift of drafting with the top leaders.  Getting out of the water with them lets you draft off cyclists who are closer to your pace.  Rather than working through the field and jumping on an occasional draft before moving on to the next one, you are already with the big dogs.  Those in front of you are the ones who you are really racing against, so you can make better judgment calls and really race instead of just Time Trialing.  Finally, when you get off of the bike, you get to run with those who are fighting for the podium!  If you could not quite hold the bike pace, your chance at redemption is real, because you are that much closer to them.  By the time you approach the finish line, you know exactly where you stand.

Direct message to my friend:  I want you to succeed!  You already put in the time training, made significant sacrifices and battled back through crazy adversity.  Become a complete triathlete and nail down that kick!  At a minimum, practice it. When your race plan calls for it, you will have it in your tool box with confidence.  If you agree… and you are in a base period*… your next step is to purchase a snorkel and a swim band.

Happy swimming!
Tri Coach Mark
@ExclaimedMark

*In other words, don’t experiment too close to an A-race!

 
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