Degrees of Freedom

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Triathlon is a single sport consisting of 3 components: swim, bike, and run. (Some would say long course triathlon has a 4th component – nutrition; and some might say transitions are even another component; anyway, you get the idea…)  Getting better means continually assessing where you are in those 3 components and working on your weaknesses.

If you are not one of the lucky folks to have come from a swimming background, you may find it difficult to master the movements involved.  What is it about swimming that makes it challenging to get better?  There are several reasons:


  1. Water is orders of magnitude more resistant than air (~1000 kg/m^3 compared to ~1.225 kg/m^3) – Slicing through the air on a bike at 20+ mph requires a certain amount of energy applied to forward motion (in our case, it’s the power we put into the pedals that is transferred to the road). But moving through water is WAY more difficult because it is WAY more resistant than air.


  1. Human beings are not fish – Perhaps stating the obvious, but we are simply not designed to be fast swimmers. Almost nothing about our shape and dynamics as human beings lends itself to moving quickly through water.  In fact, if you have ever read “Born to Run,” you will know something about the anthropological evidence that we are adapted to be endurance athletes ON LAND.


  1. There are a large number of degrees of freedom in the water – Cycling is the most “limiting” with respect to degrees of freedom.  When riding a bike, there are 5 fixed points that restrict the motion our bodies and limbs can have – 2 pedals, 2 hands (or arms), and 1 seat.  While running is not exactly the same, it is also limited in that there are 2 fixed points, i.e., when each foot hits the ground.  Not fixed exactly, but gravity helps keep the situation in check, damping our ability to float through the medium of movement, air in this case.  However, when swimming, we have nearly unlimited degrees of freedom, i.e. our arms and legs can move and articulate any direction, untethered in the water.  There is no gravity holding us down or damping us either.


  1. It takes A LONG time to develop the muscle memory and patterning to create the optimal motions to move us through the water – Because of the highly-resistant medium, swimming tends to be an acquired skill.  In cycling and running, generally if you go “harder” you will go “faster.”  However, in swimming this is not the case.  To swim efficiently, it requires a combination of reducing the hydrodynamic drag our bodies create while simultaneously creating forward propulsion, all in an environment where we cannot breathe, limiting our ability to intake the very fuel that allows our muscles to move us through the water.  This is why a 100 lb female can swim circles around a big strong guy if the girl has been swimming since she could walk and the guy is a relative newbie. It’s not about shear power or strength; it is about the correct motions with our arms, legs, shoulders, and hips in a concerted, finely tuned way that minimizes resistance and maximizes forward propulsion. This is why HS and college swimmers have a huge advantage – there simply is not enough time for an average age grouper to invest in “catching up” to the folks that have been swimming all their lives.  One might even suggest the “10,000-hour rule” is in effect here. (A theory that to get good at any skill required ~10,000 hours of practice).  Whether or not that is true is debatable, but anybody who has raced a triathlon can tell who has spent more time in the pool as a kid.

So, what CAN we do to get better in the pool? Well, you hear about people talking about the “feel for the water” … but to those of us that are just not natural or experienced swimmers, we don’t really understand that. What is a good catch supposed to feel like? What should good body roll feel like? Obviously a good way to get feedback is to hire a coach on deck who is experienced and can help you develop your form.  Ideally, this is probably the way to go.  It can be expensive and you want to make sure you have an experienced coach.

A less-expensive alternative is to look at your own form by getting some direct visual feedback via underwater video (see Services).  Having a coach tell you is one thing, but SEEING it for yourself is something different.  If you have not seen yourself under water, doing a simple video assessment can go a long way.  There is no other way to make the connection to how things “feel” in the water to what you are ACTUALLY doing.  And with the amount of YouTube video available of elite swimmers, it is easy to check out a few and figure out what looks different from what actions they might have in the water to those that you might be doing, and work on perfecting your technique.  There is a lot of information out there and it is best not to try to fix everything at once.  Find a glaring issue, and work on fixing it; then practice the “correct” technique over and over and over, not worrying about fitness.

This is the best thing about triathlon; there is always something to work on and a way to get better, stronger, faster and beat our previous selves.

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