Swimming Triathlon

What Are Some Ways To Measure Effort In The Water?

Everyone knows that big, old clock sitting on the side of the pool deck. The one that moves double-time during your rest interval and looks like it’s wobbling a little bit after your 6×200 main set? If you’re a triathlete who trains in the pool, there are times when you probably feel like a slave to that thing: It tells you when to go, it tells you you’re ahead or behind on your interval; it tells you that, hopefully, this new pool is in meters and not yards (right?); it tells you that you’re (finally) getting faster or that it’s been a while since you’ve been in the pool. But what if there was another way to help monitor and structure your workouts?

First, we’ll talk about a few useful metrics that triathletes should explore when they think about revamping the way they train in the water. Just like in running and biking, there are days when you need to focus on nothing more than time/distance/speed, but there are far more days when you need to leave time/distance/speed completely behind. Swimming should be the same. 

SWOLF, Strokes

While technique is something most triathletes already work on at the beginning of their swim workout, there’s also something to be said for working on efficiency during your main set. Efficiency is essential, particularly to triathletes, because unlike competitive pool swimmers (or competitive open-water swimmers), when we finish our swim in a race, there’s still way way more to go. Even if you have the fastest swim split in the field, it doesn’t mean anything at all if you get out of the water completely smashed and in a cardio/caloric deficit for your ride and run. One of the simplest ways to work on your efficiency is with the popular SWOLF score. A combination of “swim” and “golf” (which sounds extremely hard and dangerous on a first glance), you get your SWOLF score by combining your 50 or 100 time in seconds with the amount of strokes it took you to do it. In other words, if an athlete swims 42 seconds for 50 and takes 36 strokes, the SWOLF score would be 78. In a similar vein, you can also use stroke count as a metric in place of distance when swimming in the open water—which works even better if you already have a good understanding of your strokes per 50 or 100. 

Heart Rate

Swimming with heart rate is another tool in the efficiency box for triathletes. Much like when using the basic SWOLF score above, triathletes should be focusing on training that keeps their speed up with less effort—measured in this case via heart rate. In the past, heart-rate training in the pool was not ideal because of a few factors: First, for many reasons heart-rate monitors performed notoriously poorly in the water; second, even if you could get an accurate read on your heart rate in the pool (like the old finger on your pulse method) all it did was measure your recovery time. While this is valuable, for sure, it doesn’t necessarily help you become efficient from stroke to stroke. Eventually good heart-rate monitors came along that could at least collect the information reliably, but again, this was only useful for post-swim analysis, not real-time adjustments like in biking and running. 

The good news is that leaps in technology have solved those big problems with affordable and accurate heart-rate monitors that can either collect or transmit the data to a place where you can actually use it in real time—either in the pool, or better yet, in the open water, where metrics are sparse. In places without set distances, you can set your workouts in the open water just like you would for a bike ride or run, with specific zones for each interval and time. In the pool, you can take it a step further and work on finding that sweet spot between speed and efficiency by “playing” with your technique and pacing while trying not to drop time. 


Cadence is a little bit different than the others in this list as it’s not necessarily a way to measure your effort, but it’s such an important metric in triathlon swimming that it bears mention. The ability to vary your cadence, even within a given effort/speed/distance is a key way to getting faster in the open water under different conditions and situations. The TL;DR version says, you need to be able to work on a higher cadence for situations like starts, crowded swim sections, high waves, or strong head-on currents while knowing how to lower your rate efficiently for open sections of the swim or when currents are favorably behind you.


Now power probably seems like the most effective and efficient way to get better in swimming—like it does in cycling and to some extent running—but it’s also the most complicated in terms of logistics. While there are a few devices (one below) that can help, swimming with power isn’t nearly on the same level as cycling or even running with power yet. Unless you’re using a dryland system, there’s no commercially available, practical way to monitor your swimming power while you’re actively swimming. And even if there was, the complexities of hydrodynamics and your swim stroke mean you’d probably only be getting like 60% of the picture, at best. That said, body position and kicking aside (which are not minor), knowing how much water you’re actually pulling is a good way to at least work on your stroke’s efficiency and can be a great benchmark for improving, even if it’s not something you can use in your daily workouts just yet.

Original Post triathlete.com

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