Trying to make the transition from Aquaman to IRONMAN? Don’t fret. As two of triathlon’s strongest swimmers will tell you, you’re already more than halfway there.
by Ryan Schneider
Like most triathletes, swimming is my limiter. This means the difference in shorter triathlons between wishing I was on the podium and actually standing there. However, there are the select broad-shouldered few who have been swimming for many years and shrivel up at the thought of hopping on two wheels—let alone two feet.
Two of our sport’s most talented swimmers, Olympian Andy Potts and Dr. Amanda Stevens, have emerged as successful, well-rounded triathletes. This season, Potts has notched IRONMAN 70.3 wins at Oceanside (his fifth) and Eagleman, while Stevens recently earned her breakthrough IRONMAN victory in Brazil. Both said it took two to three years to evolve into true three-sport threats, but what I found most interesting was that Potts and Stevens started their journey questioning their ability to adapt to triathlon after standout collegiate swimming careers.
“Swimmers tend to sell themselves short as triathletes because of how little of the event is devoted to swimming,” said Potts, a six-time All-American at Michigan. “What I’d say to the swimmers who are choosing to embark on the sport of triathlon is don’t sell yourself short. You have a lot of things that transfer directly.”
Like what? Here are three tips from Potts and Stevens that will help buoy your confidence after you’ve exited the water.
You’re better than you think
After an all-conference swimming career as an undergraduate at Texas Christian University, Stevens swam recreationally for stress relief while in medical school at the University of Oklahoma. Awe-struck triathletes would gape at her in the pool from the glass-windowed gym and later cajole her to try triathlon. Stevens, an Oklahoma state champion high school swimmer, politely declined for about a year before finally giving in and participating in several sprint triathlons during the summer. She qualified for the USAT age-group national championships and promptly won her division.
Stevens describes her evolution from swimmer to swim/bike/runner as a work in progress. However, both she and Potts both credit swimming for helping them develop a massive cardiovascular engine to accelerate the learning curve. “Luckily for us swimmers, from a technical standpoint, swimming is the hardest of the three sports to learn,” Stevens said. “Swimmers develop so many success skills growing up in the pool: hard work, dedication, passion, desire for success, competitiveness, goal-setting, time management and self-discipline.”
Potts added that mental focus, honed by years of swim training, was a key component in helping him become a strong cyclist and runner rather quickly. It enabled him to break down a cycling set or distance into manageable parts that were less intimidating. That 500 freestyle set is the same, mentally, as a five-minute interval on the bike or a mile run, for example. “If you break those sets up in your mind and manage them in digestible moments then you find yourself able to say, ‘this is just like the set where we did the 4x100s in the pool,'” Potts said.
The rhythm is gonna get you
We all know you can’t breathe whenever you want when swimming. As Potts points out, breathing is dictated by when you turn your head, and your tempo. A swimmer can use the rhythmic nature of breathing in the water to his/her advantage when pedaling and running. If you trained as a swimmer, you probably worked on breath control with a complete exhale and a complete inhale when the efforts got harder and speeds got faster. Try to emulate that same pattern to maximize your oxygen intake on the bike or run. Rhythmic breathing has helped Potts become a more efficient triathlete.
Speaking of rhythm, transferring cadence beats from the water to the road has also helped Potts. He asserts that there’s a more natural cadence match with running and swimming, while cycling is more of an acquired skill. Open-water swimming is tempo driven just like running, and cycling is cadence (and power) driven. He says that once you adapt the rhythm and breathing pattern swimmers do so well and are able to pair it with cycling and running, you’re sure to find more success.
I typically eat a banana or a gel before my morning swim workout, and I’ll rarely consume more than half a bottle of sports drink during an hour session. That may be fine for the water, but as swimmers will learn the hard way, it’s not nearly enough for your other training sessions, not to mention races. It took Stevens several training bonk fests to understand the value of proper nutrition. “I had always heard about these gel things, but had no idea what they were,” Stevens recalled. “During my first running race, I ran by an aid station and they handed me a gel. I ran back to the aid station and told them they’d given me sunscreen or some kind of lotion and I needed a gel!”
Now, when Stevens isn’t training and racing, she spends her time as a wellness and nutrition consultant, along with being a triathlon coach. Her journey from Aquaman to IRONMAN has come full circle.
Ryan Schneider is a multiple IRONMAN finisher who runs the blog Ironmadman.