(n) facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis
I dove into the water at Ironman Boulder 70.3 making my way to the lead pack, a situation I am normally very comfortable with coming from a swimming background. I enjoy this part of my past as it allows me to avoid the sea of swimmers thrashing around behind me. After the first 500 yards of the swim, I felt my watch go off as it is set to lap every 500 yards and notify me of my split. Normally I wouldn’t even look, but I snuck a peak at my watch while I took a breath and it read 6:03. Shit, that’s too fast! I slowed myself down and settled into a more manageable pace. As I started approaching the 1500-meter mark, my stroke was getting sloppy. My technique was off, my right arm was crossing under my body, my pace was slowing significantly, and I had to redirect myself back onto the course multiple times throughout the home stretch of the swim. I got out of the swim spent and disappointed that my stroke fell apart the way that it did.
When reflecting on my race, I initially struggled to figure out why my swim stroke fell apart as much as it did. Sure, I still had a decent swim split and maybe it was just the altitude of racing in Boulder that had me feeling sluggish coming out of the water, but I couldn’t help but think there was more to this story. My “ah ha!” moment came when I looked at my Garmin. I had become a slave to my Garmin and the data it provided me in the pool. To prove my point, all I have to do is stroll into a nearby pool and show how easy it is to point out a triathlete versus a swimmer. Triathletes are OBSESSED with their data. Of course, this is a generalization and not all triathletes are obsessed with the numbers on their watch, but there is much truth to this observation. Triathletes are concerned with their pace, their splits, and their times—sometimes to a detriment. Ask any competitive swimmer what their “100-yd pace” is in training and they will look at you like you’re speaking another language. A clock is all a swimmer needs to do any type of set. There is no watch to start and stop at the end of each set and certainly no “100-yd pace” data to crunch after a swim set.
I fell into this trap of becoming a slave to the numbers the deeper I got into triathlon. I found myself more concerned about the pace on my watch rather than my technique in the water, the “feel” of my stroke, or the overall quality of my swim set. My recovery swims were not recovery. My technique swims were not technique-focused. Instead, I bypassed focusing on the important things in the water simply to keep my pace quick and to show, whether to myself or to others, that I was fast in the water. It sounds pathetic, but as a swimmer I felt that I needed to prove my speed to others, as it was my strongest leg.
Like any competitive swimmer would tell you, I did not wear a watch during swim practices growing up. Not in club swimming, high school swimming, or college swimming. Not one swimmer on my college team logged in their yardage on a watch. All that mattered was the quality of the workout and the effort put in. Before my triathlon days, I never once left a swim workout worrying about my overall pace per hundred.
Thinking through this led me to take my watch off for my swim workouts, just as I used to back when I was at my fastest in the water. What’s more important to me is establishing a stroke that is efficient in the water, because having a good feel for the water is what drives success in the water. In order to do this, I need to do my recovery and technique swims the proper way. I need to challenge myself in swim workouts without fiddling with the start and stop button. I need to stop worrying about the average pace around my wrist and do what I know benefits my swimming most. I need to train like a swimmer.
For those who started swimming in the sport of triathlon, you probably can’t imagine doing your swim workouts without your watch. I’ve told several people this, but to get faster in the water you have to train like a swimmer and not a triathlete.
- Don’t wear a watch—start counting in your head and paying attention to how your stroke feels.
- Learn to use the clock—it helps you keep track of your intervals.
- Do sets that have quality yards in them—swim in groups or join a master’s team that will push you out of your comfort zone.
It truly doesn’t matter what your overall pace is after a swim workout. What matters is what happened within the set and what you got out of it. What I have found with myself is that my swim workouts were less effective when I was worrying about my watch recording my pace. Too much time is spent stopping and starting your watch, and obsessing over getting your average pace as low as possible takes away from what is truly important in the water. I will always be a firm believer in quality over quantity, and another piece of technology distracts me from the importance of efficiency and technique in the water. I wasn’t get nearly enough quality out of my swim sets as I used to, resulting in disappointing swims in my races and a lack of progress.
My advice to you is to take off your watch every once in a while. Don’t wear it when you’re focusing on drills or technique. Write your workouts ahead of time so you know the yardage you’re getting in, if you are concerned with how much you are swimming. Find your stroke in the water by making improvements based on what you feel, not based on your average pace. I can promise you that clocking faster paces on your watch doesn’t necessarily make you faster in the water when it comes time to race. This same principle can be applied to cycling and running as well, as triathletes tend to be over-reliant on their GPS devices in these areas as well.
In the end, obsessing over our average pace or the splits on our devices leads us away from the importance of “feel” and of “perceived exertion.” It is important to know how certain paces and efforts feel and to be able to pace yourself in races based on how hard and sustainable your effort feels. There may be days when an 8:00 minute mile pace or a 1:30 minute per 100 yard pace feels comfortable, and other days when it feels miserably hard. Our paces fluctuate on a daily basis depending on fatigue, stress, and several other variables. Technology has its place, but my advice is to occasionally ditch the technology and focus on the basics of technique and feel, particularly in the water. If nothing else, think of how you race a triathlon swim leg…it’s based on feel. You don’t stop every hundred yards and check your pace—you just swim. You just swim with nothing else but feel.