Should I Join a Masters Swimming Program?
Updated: May 5
As someone who's written hundreds of triathlon-specific (and I think pretty interesting) swimming workouts, it might come as a surprise that my answer to this question is usually "yes." Due to time and facility challenges, I haven't been able to coach from the deck nearly as much as I would have liked during my career, but it would obviously be the ideal set-up for coaching swimming.
This leaves the athletes on our squad with two other options: 1) join a local masters swimming or other swim squad or 2) follow pre-written customized swim workouts from their coach on their own time.
Before I start on the Pros and Cons of joining an established swim squad, I might add that some of the world's best coaches who come from a cycling backgrounds, freely admit they don't know much about swimming and outsource their triathlete's swimming to a local squad, at least to some extent. Flora Duffy's coach is one example. So, this approach seems to work OK.
1) My main challenge with triathletes from a non-swimming background is just getting them to the *$#& pool. I'm a big believer in frequency as a big driver for improvement in all three sports and especially in swimming. I'll concede that swimming is objectively the most boring of the three to do on your own if you didn't grow up with it. Joining a squad can help get people to the pool because it's a fixed time (you can't procrastinate the swim on your schedule all day and then decide not to go). In addition, the social aspect might motivate you to not skip it.
2) This is not ALWAYS the case, but hopefully the coach at your Masters session can look over your stroke and offer help. Not having feedback on your stroke is a big drawback of following a written plan, but it's less of a problem if you have good technique! Even if you're not getting help from the coach on deck, sometimes just observing better swimmers in the next lane can help you improve.
3) With a squad, you can often get pushed out of your comfort zone, both with intensity and distance. As long as you don't get too carried away, this is generally a net benefit. It's just less boring with other people around.
1) "Form" strokes (strokes other than freestyle) are likely part of a Masters swimming program. Triathlon is specific to freestyle so obviously you want to focus most of your precious water time to that. However, I don't think it's a negative to include a little backstroke (which stretches out your back in a different way to freestyle) and butterfly, for strength and because the stroke underwater is quite similar to freestyle. Breastroke, however, should be banned.
2) There is going to be some additional expense associated with joining (although I'm willing to bet it's going to be less that the cost of maintaining your bike) and the hours might not fit with your work schedule.
3) In a group situation you might not get the absolute specific, customized workout for you or to the same level that a coach might give you in order to work on your weaknesses, fit with your event schedule and distances, etc. In most cases, however, I'm willing to give up this control to get athletes in the water, engaged and happy to be there.