6 Tips for Triathletes from Swimmer turned Pro Triathlete Stephanie Clutterbuck 

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Triathletes are swimmers but do they train the same way pure swimmers do? Pro triathlete Stephanie Clutterbuck grew up swimming competitively until the age of 19 but now is a professional long distance triathlete. Being at a high level in both sports, Clutterbuck has a few tips to help every triathlete train smarter and swim faster.

1. Know The Value and Purpose of Equipment

“The way that triathletes use equipment is so different to the way that swimmers use it,” Clutterbuck says. “In swimming we probably use every piece of equipment at least once in a session. When you're doing 6.5 km, you need the toys to break it up and each has their own value.”

Clutterbuck, who set the 3.8 km course record at Ironman Vitoria with a time of 49:35, regularly trains with a snorkel, paddles, and fins and says understanding the value and purpose of each piece of swimming equipment is essential. A common misconception among triathletes is that using equipment is “cheating” but Clutterbuck points out that’s not the case—if equipment is used correctly. 

2. A Pull Buoy Isn’t For Body Position 

“As a swimmer, you're not using the pull buoy for technical work because you know how to maintain your body position in the water. The pull buoy is used for strength based exercises. Whereas, I think triathletes tend to over rely on the pull boy because when they get tired they just put it in because it means that they can switch off their core and their legs will float for them.”

While a pull buoy can help beginners feel what it’s like to swim with a high body position, Clutterbuck warns against an over reliance on a pull buoy when fatigue is setting in, especially for long distance triathletes. Training to maintain core activation and high body position specifically when tired will help maintain efficiency and speed in the latter parts of a race and in longer training sessions. 

“It's really valuable to get your head around what it feels like to be flat in the water. What you really need to get good at is being flat in the water when you are tired and not over relying on the pull buoy—that’s a big difference between triathletes and swimmers.”

3. …Even If You Always Race in a Wetsuit 

Triathletes often race in a wetsuit so many cite the use of a pull buoy because it simulates the flotation a wetsuit provides. But Clutterbuck says triathletes are passing up free speed by training with a pull buoy for flotation. 

“If you know how to hold your body position and use your legs without a pull buoy, you get a benefit when you put a wetsuit on; whereas, if you're over reliant on a pull buoy in the water, the benefit of putting a wetsuit on becomes far less—and we all want free speed.”

4. Fins Aren’t For Free Speed 

“It’s a broad stroke but I see a lot of age group triathletes put their fins on when they’re tired. As a swimmer, we put fins on if we are doing drills or if you were doing a strength based kick session.”

Reach for fins when you need extra momentum during technical work. For example, Clutterbuck suggests using fins for single arm or “pause work” (when you pause during a specific part of the stroke). 

“During those drills, you’re not getting much propulsion through your arms. Fins mean you can keep the load on your hand.”

Fins are also great to add resistance during kick sets to build power. 

“Use fins when you just need a little bit of extra water behind your legs to build conditioning through your quads and hamstrings.”

5. Slow Down For Drills And Know Why 

Many triathletes don’t take the time to fully engage and slow down for technical work. 

“The most important thing with any drill is to understand its intention because it's very easy to just kind of do single arm or do shark fin pauses or to swim with fists. But if you don't actually understand what it's trying to achieve, then it's completely wasted time.”

“The point of a drill is to ingrain a technical change. So, if you're flying through it, then you're probably not getting the benefit you need or it's not making you do anything differently.”

First, understand why you’re doing a drill and then measure success on what you’re feeling, not speed. To help focus on the feel, Clutterbuck suggests using equipment. For example, use a snorkel when you’re working on your body position so you don’t have to worry or interrupt your stroke to breathe. 

6. Where Speed Actually Comes From 

The biggest mistake triathletes make compared to swimmers? “Trying to swim too fast,” Clutterbuck says. “Swimming is all about being efficient. It's not about moving quickly.”

Many triathletes don’t come from a swimming background and often try to “muscle” their way to being faster simply by moving quicker in the water but, as Clutterbuck points out, training in water isn’t the same as training on land. 

“Water works very differently to air. When you're running and cycling, you just have to move yourself forward faster and you do that by putting out more power. Whereas with water, it's denser than air and when your hand goes in, so many people try and rip it through the water really fast but that's not doing anything. If you move it slower and you ‘catch’ the water, it will feel really heavy.”

Clutterbuck says she imagines putting her hand between two wooden slats and then moving her body over that hand.

“The speed comes as you take your hand out, rather than when you put it in and pull through really fast.”

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