Pool vs Triathlon Swimming – Know the Differences

If you’re an age group triathlete, chances are you’re currently involved with a masters swim club or have dabbled in the world of masters swimming. The vast majority of AG triathletes are “Adult Onset Swimmers.” This means they probably don’t have a swim background and have learned to front crawl as part of their desire to participate in triathlon. 

Unfortunately there are very few deck coaches and private swim coaches who fully understand the rigours of triathlon and the differences between pool swimming and triathlon swimming. There are MANY great swim coaches out there. And many of them will have years of experience turning non-swimmers into successful swimmers. But they tend to produce swimmers, not triathletes. Becoming a successful triathlete is about more than just being a good swimmer. 

The Pool vs Open Water

It doesn’t take much experience to recognize the differences between swimming in a pool and swimming in open water. 

The pool provides a controlled environment with placid water. Pool design and lane barriers prevent chop and churn. Water clarity and lane lines making sighting unnecessary. 

In open water we face not only the natural chop and churn of the body of water we’re in, but also that created by other competitors. Water clarity is often poor and we almost always need to sight, and sight frequently. 

Pool Racing vs Triathlon Racing

Swimmers and those who compete in the pool face very different conditions and use very different energy systems and techniques than triathlon swimmers. 

Most pool competitions require less than 10 minutes of racing. There are very few circumstances where a pool swimmer will need to swim longer than 15-20min in the pool in a competitive manner. 

Most triathletes will be in the open water for 20 minutes or more and will need to continue their effort beyond the swim. 

Pool Technique vs Triathlon Technique

So with these differences in mind, it’s probably not surprising that a triathlete wouldn’t necessarily need the same types of workouts as a swimmer. And further, the technique used by each will be different. 

Catch-Up Swimming
Pool swimmers typically swim with catch-up style swimming (sometimes called front quadrant swimming). If you’ve ever been to a masters swim program, you’ve probably done the catch-up drill. This style of swimming is graceful and efficient in the pool. It’s also somewhat easy to teach new-comers to swimming the catch-up style. 

There is an inherent flaw with this type of swimming when it comes to triathlon. As the name suggests, the primary aspect of this style is having the trailing arm catch-up to the leading arm before executing the propulsive phase of the swim stroke. Because of this there is a moment in the stroke where there is no propulsion coming from the arms. 

In the pool this type of swimming looks graceful, smooth, and efficient. It works very well in calm placid pool conditions. 

It fails the triathlete in two ways. 

1) Because there is a pause in the stroke, a strong kick is required to float the hips and maintain forward momentum. Triathletes are neither predisposed to kicking, nor do they generate much propulsion from their kick. 

2) In open water when dealing with chop and churn, there are always going to be forces acting on your body that slow down the athlete. Gliding is more difficult and less efficient because of the turbulence of the water. Therefore anytime there is no propulsion generated from the arms, you are slowing down. 

Think of it like cycling into a headwind vs a tailwind. In a tailwind, if you were to turn the crank one rotation and pause for 1 second, the bike would continue to glide forward. If you were to do the same into a headwind, that 1 second pause would allow the headwind to slow you down. Each pedal revolution would require more force to counteract the headwind. 

High Arm vs Low Arm Recovery
If you’ve ever spent time with a masters program, you’ve likely done the finger drag drill. During the recovery phase of your stroke, the coach will have you drag your finger tips along the surface of the water as you bring your arm forward. 

This is excellent for pool swimming as it keeps the elbow high and allows the arm to dangle. It makes for graceful swimming and supports the catch-up style of swimming. 

In an open water setting a low hand can become a plough. Open water is never flat water in a race setting. And the choppier the water, the higher your hand needs to be in order to clear the chop. 

On top of this, it’s also very difficult for adult swimmers to gain the joint mobility needed to execute a high elbow low hand style of recovery. Trying to force the elbow high and tight to the body can cause alignment problems. 

Bilateral breathing is the cornerstone of pool swimming. And when you’re competing in short distance events bilateral breathing can be an asset. Anytime you breathe you inject inefficiencies into the stroke. And because of this even many triathlon coaches recommend bilateral breathing. 

Most triathletes have a very slow turnover rate (about 60 strokes per minute). If you are breathing bilaterally, you are only taking about 20 breaths per minute. This is nowhere near the typical breathing rate for the aerobic endurance effort required of long course triathlon. 

Improving both stroke rate and breathing rate will go along way to increasing oxygen delivery to your body allowing you to swim and breathe more comfortably during your events. A breathing rate more in line with your natural cycling or running breathing rate can help reduce heart rate spikes and disorientation when exiting the water. 

Triathletes hate kicking. Pool swimmers will often have a strong 6-beat kick that generates a small amount of propulsion. Triathletes typically have poor kicking ability and because of running will never achieve the ankle flexibility to kick with great effectiveness.

Triathletes should develop their kick ability relying mostly on an efficient 2-beat kick that manages hip buoyancy and sets the body up for better rotation and alignment. Kick sets are an important part of the triathlete’s skillset but time spent on kick drills and kick sets needs to be weighted with the more important aspects of triathlon swim training. 

Understanding these differences and knowing how to modify your swim stroke over time to improve your triathlon specific skills will help save time in the water make your swims faster and easier.