How to improve your weakest triathlon discipline

Improve your swimming, cycling or running triathlon performance

The sport of triathlon consists of three very different disciplines, and so as a triathlete you have to be a jack of all trades. Though this doesn’t mean that you can’t be a master of one or more of the three sports, you will be weaker in one or more areas.

One of the keys to triathlon success is to balance out your strengths across swimming, cycling and running, and particularly focus on improving your weakest discipline. Whether you’re a seasoned triathlon campaigner or new to the sport; by the time you’ve completed a few training sessions, you will know where your strengths lie and which areas you need to improve upon.

This guide focuses on each triathlon discipline in turn and contains hints and tips to help you improve in your training, racing and overall strategy. Read on and get closer to your new triathlon PB.

The triathlon swim ...

The first event in your triathlon — swimming — is the most technical by far, and so your swimming training sessions should continually focus on efficiency. Additionally, try to include the following in your swim sessions so that you can move up to the next level:

Improve your weakest triathlon discipline
  • Get a swim coach. You only have to look at a young child swimming to see that efficient swimming is more about adopting a smooth technique, rather than strength or cardiovascular ability. To ensure that you don’t develop bad habits, link up with a swimming instructor who can analyze and improve your stroke — which will make you more efficient.
  • Work with weights. Although pure strength is not paramount, a strong upper body will still help you maintain power throughout the duration of the swim leg. The key areas to focus on are the upper back, the chest and the triceps muscles, because developing them will help give you the power right through each stroke — from the ‘catch’, through the ‘pull’, to the ‘exit’. Build up to completing a maximum of two resistance training sessions per week, which will help you to sustain a powerful stroke for the entire duration of the swim leg.
  • Practise swimming drills. The legs only provide about 10 per cent of forward propulsion, so your primary focus should be on arm technique. Try a selection of the following arm drills, which will help you to become more smooth and efficient in the water. Note that all of these drills are for front crawl.
  • Use a pull buoy. A pull buoy is a specially shaped float that you hold between your thighs, which helps to keep your legs in the correct position in the water when you’re not kicking. You then focus totally on your arm action — and get a more challenging arm workout because your legs aren’t used for any propulsion.

  • Hand paddles. Like large, rigid gloves, hand paddles allow you to ‘grab’ more water on each stroke. With a greater resistance to pull, using hand paddles focuses on building your arm strength. Note that some pools only allow the use of hand paddles at certain times in case other swimmers are injured through accidental contact.
  • Catch-up. This drill focuses on smooth technique and equal power from each arm. Keep one arm outstretched in the water and complete one full stroke with the opposite arm. When your hands touch, swap arms, keeping the other arm fully outstretched.
  • Fingertip drag. During the recovery phase of your trailing arm, drag your fingertips along the surface of the water, which will ensure that your recovering arm is always in the optimum position.
  • Focus on quality. It’s very easy to swim the same distance every time you go to the pool. Regular endurance swimming is beneficial— but rather than bash out endless lengths, alternate your sessions between endurance, drills and intervals, so that you get greater benefits from your training time. If you swim three times a week, try the following sessions:

Endurance swimming — one session.
Drills — one session.
Interval training — one session.

Improve your weakest triathlon discipline

Your interval training can be anything from alternating one length hard, one length easy, to specific timed efforts and recoveries. The range of training options is therefore almost infinite.

The triathlon bike ride ...

Cycling forms the longest element of a triathlon race and so is the greatest opportunity to make up time. Cycling is a less technical discipline than swimming, but there are still plenty of ways in which to advance your performance through focusing on good technique and appropriate training. Try the following cycling tips to help you improve your triathlon performance:

  • Go light on your bike. Weight is your biggest enemy on the bike so look to shave as much unnecessary paraphernalia from your mount as possible. Mudguards and bags are all no-nos, and you should favour light alloy components over steel. If on a budget, the two key areas to focus upon are a lightweight frame (aluminum or composite) and light wheels, which will both make the most difference to your overall weight.
  • Get set up properly. The majority of your energy expended in cycling goes into combating wind resistance, so time spent with a cycling specialist — who can set up the position of your saddle and handlebars relative to your body size and also advise you on the optimum cycling position — is time well spent. The more aerodynamic you are, the faster you will go for the same amount of effort.

  • Turbo cycling. All year round cycle training is difficult when you have to contend with dark nights and poor weather, but if you buy a turbo trainer, you can carry out quality sessions at home, no matter what the conditions are like outside. A turbo trainer provides a resistance to your back wheel, while still permitting a normal cycling action on your bike. Additionally, you can carry out interval training without the need to worry about traffic and road junctions.
Improve your weakest triathlon discipline

The triathlon run ...

The final triathlon discipline, running is less technical than swimming or cycling but is a key section because you will be at your most fatigued. Also, unlike swimming or cycling, you have to support your whole weight throughout the event — so it will be the most taxing on your cardiovascular system. In addition to specific running training, try incorporating the following sessions into your program, which will enhance your triathlon performance:

  • Core training. Running efficiency is very much about posture, and core exercises can do this by building a strong chassis for your body. When you are tired at the end of three combined events, maintaining good running posture — and therefore also good running economy — will shave seconds off your run time. Try some core exercises twice a week and you will notice how much stronger and ‘body aware’ you become.
  • Go for long runs. Aerobic strength is the foundation of triathlon — but particularly so in the case of running, because it is the most demanding of the three disciplines on your CV system. Include a long run of more than your competition run distance (unless your event is the ironman where the run is a full marathon) each week, so that you maximize your aerobic capacity.
  • Running brick sessions. One of the hardest parts of a triathlon is the transition from cycling to running. When you start your run, you’ll probably find that your legs just don’t want to move efficiently and you may feel initially feel like you’re running in quicksand. However, with practice, your body gets used to the changing nature of the demands that you are placing upon your legs — so incorporate double sessions (cycling followed by running) into your training. These sessions are known as ‘bricks’.

The triathlon chain reaction ...

The old saying that ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ still holds true and is especially applicable to triathlon training. A great bike and run performance will not compensate for a swim that takes you longer than the bike section, so it is always important to focus on the area(s) that need improving. In time, as you become more efficient, you will probably find that your previously stronger suits need attention, in order to keep pace with the disciplines that you have worked hard on.

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