Masters Swimming Myth #2, featuring Triathletes

Myth – Kicking generates next to no propulsion, serves only to fatigue the athlete, so kick sets and training to develop the kick stroke is pointless, with the time spent better off invested into developing the pull.  To reinforce the myth, triathletes and triathlon coaches created the meme: “save the legs” for the swim believing it conserves energy and keeps the legs fresh for the bike and run portions.

Fact is…

After reviewing every Ironman World Championships [WC] available on Youtube, I cannot find a single instance of any of the pros, nor any of the amateurs “saving their legs” by not kicking in the swim, hoping that by avoiding any kicking, their legs will be fresh for the bike and run. The gifs below are from Ironman World Championships 2005.

Across all reviewed races, the pattern is identical: the kick is pronounced at the start, the shot from the cannon sends athletes into full race mode, who use the kick to accelerate to speed and to defend their space in the water from those who want to swim over top. Once at cruise speed, the kick is held, perhaps at a slower 2 beat for balance, or in the case of the pros in these gifs, Tayama and Lessing both sustain a 6 beat kick, while Faris Al Sultan holds a 4 beat kick.

2005-im-wc-swim1                   2005-im-wc-swim2

On the left is the lead pack in the swim portion of the race: 2x Olympic triathlete Hirokatsu Tayama leading Faris Al Sultan and 5x ITU World Champion Simon Lessing. That year in Hawaii, Tayama had the fastest swim split, Faris Al Sultan finished just behind in a time of 49:54 and then went on to win Ironman World Championships in a time of 8:14.17.

Well how do you like them apples… kicking in the swim didn’t hold Faris Al Sultan from winning and becoming Ironman World Champ.

Fact is, kicking doesn’t wear out the legs (at least, for those who have trained the kick). Kicking increases the efficiency of the stroke, maintains a balanced body posture, allowing the athlete to swim faster and with less overall effort, exiting the water ready to race the remaining two disciplines. Fact is, kicking makes the pull-thru of the stroke powerful, effective, and efficient.  Not kicking may “save the legs”, but it will decimate the athlete as they drag themselves, fighting the water throughout the swim using an exhausting technique which burns twice, three times, maybe even four times as much energy in comparison to a swimmer with a balanced stroke and balanced form.

And that’s in iron distance triathlons…  in a sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, if you aren’t kicking, if your swim isn’t competitive at the highest level then you aren’t even in the race as the lead pack will drop you. If you are not training your kick, then the only thing you are getting away from is ever experiencing your potential as a swimmer, and as a triathlete.

“Saving the legs” is a myth. Its source? Swim and triathlon coaches who lack a basic understanding of physics, hydrodynamics, biomechanics, and sport specific technique. The result is that these coaches have no option but to dumb-down the sport of swimming teaching “save the legs”, and then dumb-down the training their athletes perform to pull sets and little else.

Those who seek their potential who seek the ability of delivering peak after peak performance, don’t run and hide from training which is challenging, which challenges them. Athletes who chase after their weaknesses are the mentally tough ones, everyone else can only hope that the training they performed will allow them to survive the swim, and hopefully the remainder of the race too.

Had enough of dumbed-down training, of struggling just to survive the swim portion of a triathlon? Then join a [our] program which emphasizes technique training. You will be challenged, and as a result of being challenged you will improve, in your technique, in your capacity to truly race, in the confidence you feel prior to and during races.

By performing training that truly challenges your skill level, you will begin to train in the ways of the consistent peak performer, of the year over year champion, exploring your potential as an athlete.

Follow up to blog:

Lava Magazine posted an article titled “The Cost of the Kona Swim” which offered a few key points:

  1. The trend is that the overall winner [in Kona] has been within 2 minutes of the average top 10 best swim times. Point is… if you want top 10 at IM Worlds in Hawaii, you need to be able to swim with the best.
  2. The exception in the past decade of Ironman Worlds was Sebastian Kienle in 2014 who won despite a swim 4mins slower than the top average. It is important to note, that Kienle has not been able to repeat at Kona as this strategy is dependent on the athlete turning in either the fastest [and substantially so] bike or run, or both land times in the race. Jan Frodeno has not posted fastest splits in either of his wins, but he was top 4 in all disciplines both times.

The depth of competition is not going to ease up, therefore any age grouper seeking to qualify for Ironman Worlds in Hawaii needs to be able to swim with the top 10 of their age group (at a qualifying race) in order to be competitive, providing that their bike and run are equally up to par.

Brilliant ending quote by the writer, Tim Floyd, swim coach of Magnolia Masters: “for the strong cyclist/runner with a weaker swim, the questions is no longer if the investment in the swim is worth it, but can you afford not to make it.”

It’s time to get into the pool. It’s time to get to training.