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Medley swimming for triathlon

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

People are often surprised that we incorporate medley swimming drills (modified butterfly, breaststroke) into the swim programs of our age-group and professional squads.

It was prompted a few years ago by a couple of very talented former medley swimmers who came into the squad: Jodie Swallow, who before triathlon represented Wales and Great Britain in the pool, and Dan Halksworth, who’d competed at the Commonwealth Games as a medley swimmer.

My position until then was to view swimming with a pull-buoy, or with a band, or with paddles as different strokes from traditional freestyle swimming – accounting for all the variation we needed for triathlon.

This reasoning didn’t impress the former medley stars and as both were nearly always first out of the water, we rewarded them within the squad with a medley lane for some of the workouts.

Athletes being competitive, Jodie and Dan were soon joined by Xena (Caroline Steffen), who was a former ‘kick-arse medley swimmer’, which she certainly proved, MBE (Mary Beth Ellis) who swam at College, and of course Nicola (Spirig), who had to join because it looked like hard training.

Using the medley drills we saw a distinct improvement in freestyle stroke technique for some already very good swimmers. Applying it now with age-group athletes and those from a non-swim background we’ve also seen some very notable stroke improvements.

Mixing up the strokes with drills has the added benefit of producing enhancement by movement rather than verbal instruction. One of my pet hates in swimming is linguistic explanation, which is always subject to misinterpretation, and even more so within an international squad. The drills allow us to transfer the positive effects to one’s stroke non-verbally.

Why the adjusted medley drills and not just the straight-out medley swimming?

The problem with traditional medley swimming is it takes significantly more energy and strength to perform properly. Swimming 200m medley at an effort is far, far harder than swimming 200m freestyle. That’s why so many great distance freestylers have used it as their bread and butter aerobic work. Janet Evans did huge loads of medley for her base aerobic component of her swim training while focusing the faster & shorter speeds at freestyle.

30 x 200m medley or even 15 x 400m medleys is a characteristic of a lot of old-school long-distance swim coaching, and you’ll find a variation of these sets scattered through history’s best distance freestyler workloads.

However, sessions like this are not conducive to triathlon training (especially age groupers) and will ensure you’re overtrained for your other disciplines.

So, at we adjust our Tri Medley and work on extracting the butterfly and breaststroke components that can be used to enhance one's freestyle stroke.

These adjustments help certain aspects of the stroke by the very nature of doing them properly. It also makes the medley easier by taking away some of the extreme effort that is needed. Thus, we gain a stroke enhancer, as well as a conditioning tool.

As each stroke and drill carries its own complexities, I’ll release the medley series as an actual medley, explaining the what, how and why we do the different strokes in future individual blogs (see links below).

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