By Melanie McQuaid
May 12, 2007 — XTERRA has a reputation as the triathlon for non-swimmers – a designation often offered to Ironman as well. Strong bikers/runners figure that with good training they can earn back the time if strong swimmers falter in later stages in the race. It is true that XTERRA was invented with the cyclist in mind (a mountain biker in particular), but recent improvements in the quality of field have left the mountain bikers scratching their heads, wondering why they are not making much of a dent in the field after weak swims.
Well, obviously XTERRA athletes in general have improved in ability but also the numbers in the race are much larger, which has created a more interesting dynamic in the race. It’s no longer an option to simply ride your way to the front because traffic is an element of the race that needs to be considered. We ride on trails, not a wide open road, and even though drafting is legal, waiting for an opportunity to pass is mandatory.
You cannot win an XTERRA, or an Ironman for that matter, in the swim, but you certainly can lose the race there. Below are some thoughts on how to improve on, if not maximize, your swimming ability to get the most out of yourself on your next XTERRA race day.
1. Improve your technique
Everyone says that swimming is a very technical sport, but most people don’t pay that much attention to the quality of their swimming unless they are doing swim drills. You need to think about your technique every time you get in the water. You may deviate from your best efficiency occasionally when you want to do plain, old hard work, but when you’re not working hard, work smart.
Technique is not only about stroke work. You also should improve sighting, swimming around buoys, swim starts and exits from the water. All of these technical aspects of swimming can make the difference between a horrible swim split and one that you can be proud of. The next time you swim open water, spend some time at the end of the workout working on running into the water, or starting waist deep. This will help your start reaction times. Practice running out of the water at the end of your swim loop and practice getting your wetsuit off. All of these things can lop off a lot of time.
If you do not swim and choose to spend all of your time on your bike, you may be thinking that the time spent in the pool is wasted and you will catch all the fools that bother with swim training on your bike. This may be true if you were racing a triathlete in a mountain bike race. However, if you need to complete 1500 meters of swimming before you hop on your bike, without swim training chances are you are going to accumulate a lot of lactic acid from the first leg of the race. If you start the bike leg in a deficit that you cannot recover from, all of your precious bike training will not surface because the fatigue from the swim will linger and you will never get to ride at race pace.
This is often why mountain bike racers do not out-split the XTERRA athletes in triathlons. They often spend 30% more time in the water, swimming inefficiently, and start the bike leg tired. To avoid this, some swim volume needs to be part of your program. Ensuring that at least one swim session per week is a longer set or open water is a great idea. Then race day is much less of a shock when you find there is no wall to hang onto and rest every 50 meters. I don’t advocate 25-30km of swimming per week but with at least 3-4 sessions you can cover the basics, which allow you to ride that much faster.
This is one aspect of the swim leg that many people disagree upon, but I defend. Many people say it’s better to settle into a rhythm right away, don’t start fast and go into deficit trying to get in a pack.
I disagree. I think it’s better to develop some speed in the hope that you may end up with people who would otherwise swim faster than you. By getting in the pack at the beginning of the race and settling in on their feet, you can separate yourself from the rest of the field behind you. This is only a good strategy if you also employ strategy #2 and develop some fitness. If you do this well you can say goodbye to the hard swim leg because there is nothing better than cruising 1500 meters on someone’s feet. Good practice for this type of swim speed is to swim 300 meters, where you start the first 100 meters fast and settle in for the next 200 meters. This trains your body to perform with lactic acid in your system.
So even though you may end up defining your race by your bike and run splits, you want to allow yourself the opportunity to shine in those events by swimming to the best of your ability. XTERRA competition has changed a lot in six years and the importance of swimming well has really increased. With more and more road triathletes coming into the sport you will need to be ready for those fast swimmers, even if you may never be one of them. With a little fitness, some good technique and some newfound speed, you may not be the anchor you thought you were. A barge perhaps, but not an anchor. Good luck in Temecula!