Sara McLarty started this month’s debate by saying: “Technique goes a long way in swimming, but it’s nothing without fitness. Working on your fitness works on technique. The opposite is not true.” To challenge McLarty on this month’s topic of “what’s more important—technique or fitness?” is Scott Bay, head coach of Blu Frog Masters in Ormond Beach, Fla., and Coaches Committee chair for U.S. Masters Swimming.
Sara: While having perfect technique is nothing to scoff at, by itself it doesn’t get you out of the water in the top third of your age group. Just as tempo runs and intervals on the bike are vital for improvement, you must do workouts to train your fitness in the water. If you never swim fast and hard in training, you’ll suffer on race day.
Scott: Of the three disciplines in triathlon, swimming is the most technically specific. You can waste a lot of energy in the water and it won’t matter how fit you are. As a matter of fact, you can burn a huge amount of calories in the water and never go anywhere—I call it water aerobics.
While I agree that some level of swimming fitness is necessary, if you have a resting heart rate of 42 and have run a dozen marathons and ridden a dozen century rides, you are not showing up at the pool to get in better shape. Technique is what gives you the potential to get faster. You are better served by backing off the pace and working on technique and efficiency rather than beating on the water. Who wants to spend the first 5 miles of the bike recovering from what felt like going 10 rounds with Mike Tyson?
Sara: Swimming in general may be all about technique, but open-water swimming is about surviving. Like it or not, Tyson sometimes shows up in the water right next to you! If you are able to find some open space, chances are at some point your perfect technique will start lagging—all that time spent developing the “perfect” stroke will be wasted when your body can’t maintain it for the entire swim leg of the race.
Scott: Anyone can learn to be more efficient in the water by practicing thoughtful swimming before trying to go fast. The key is to not let the mind go blank when the gun goes off! If you start out thrashing, it will be a long day. Sure, the first 50m can be a lot like a water polo match, but what are you going to do? Stay in the red zone for another 1450? That’s when technique is most important. You find some open space and pick some people off with that smooth, efficient stroke you developed at the pool. Even if your swim time remains the same, if you burn less energy it will show up in faster splits in the rest of your race.
Sara: No matter how prepared you are with perfect technique, you will suffer if your body is not conditioned to swim the entire length of the race at a high effort level. Repetition, repetition, repetition = muscle memory.
Triathlete final thoughts: If you’re beyond a beginner level, you can probably get by with incorporating technique drills into your warm-up and staying conscious of your stroke while you swim. To follow your swim with a successful ride and run, train at race intensity (and above) for longer than the distance you plan on completing.