Ask Emma Carney: In the swim of things

ITU Hall of Famer Emma Carney on how to strengthen a weakness without weakening a strength – and why two out of three isn’t neccessarily bad

Question: I am a pretty decent runner and cycled at a high level but my swimming is atrocious. Any advice on how to best approach improving that without spending all my time in the pool and risk losing my edge in the other two disciplines (which I enjoy training in much more anyway)?

Emma: The joys of being a triathlete…the dreaded weak discipline, and how to improve it. The great news is – 2 out of 3 isn’t bad!  Many triathletes have one strong discipline and have to get up to speed on 2 disciplines.  With the skill developed in biking and running already, you need to ensure you are balancing the skill development with swimming while also maintaining progress of your bike and run. The 3 main steps in improving your swim, I suggest, is to find a coach, plan your training and be smart about racing.

Find a swim coach that understands the demands of triathlon. 

Swimming well requires good coaching and learning HOW to swim.  You need to learn the technique involved in the correct body position and timing of the stroke. Throw in the details of your catch, stroke rate, pull through, kick, type of kick, when to breathe, when not to breathe, streamlining and then maybe get into the specifics of open water and start to look at pack swimming, navigation, deep water starts, beach starts…Swim coaching is daunting.  That’s why you need an expert.

Plan your training to improve your swim

While a specialist swim coach is great, there is an added complication in going to an expert coach – they will always believe their discipline is the most important.  Left unguided, a swim coach will generally get you doing large sets in order to improve your swim.  While this is fine for someone to purely improve their swimming, this will adversely affect your ability to train the other 2 disciplines of the bike and run effectively.  The result would be a small improvement in your swim along with a marked drop in performance with your bike and run.

The effective use of a swim coach is paramount for a triathlete.  You need a coach who is prepared to generally do the following – work with you 3 to 4 times a week, who will keep the sessions 3-4km max, and is willing to mix morning sessions with evening sessions (triathletes need to sometimes swim fresh, sometimes tired).  Every session must have a component of swim drills and technique refinement, and there needs to be a focus on a fast 200-400m with a short warm up (race day simulation).

When you find a coach who can sit down with you and can work according to your schedule you are well on your way to improving your swim in a sensible and constructive manner.

Be smart about racing

In the short term, you may like to race according to your strengths.  If you carefully chose your race schedule, you may be able to select races which will suit you and allow you to achieve better results.  While you are focusing on improving your weakest discipline, it may help your confidence to get some good race results so you are not demoralized by your improvement progress.

For example, if you are a weak swimmer, you will always find it tougher to swim in a river than the ocean, you will always find it easier in a wetsuit swim than non-wetsuit, and you should be faster in a swim that required a lot of wading.  Picking a race that suits you is smart racing.

While I have provided 3 important steps you can take in improving your swim performance, there are other small changes you can make which will take little or no effort in training – just discipline in racing.

If you are a weaker swimmer, make sure you have a very good fitting wetsuit, goggles you can rely on and can see clearly with, you can wade efficiently and fast, and your transition (including your run to the bike) is amongst the fastest in the field.

If you can nail all these things in a race, you will easily find yourself 60-90 seconds – very useful time on top of the improvements you would reap from carefully working with a swim coach who is designing training programs to suit your triathlon program.

EMMA CARNEY Send any questions you want answered by our resident two-time ITU World Champion triathlete to and we’ll send out a Scody race belt to the one we use in the next issue. Emma’s expert advice, plans and schedules are also available at her new training website,