The swim portion of triathlon is almost always the biggest issue concerning brand-new triathletes and often continues to be the biggest area of doubt for non-professional triathletes. Why? Because it’s a well-known fact that you can’t win the race from ONLY having a bang-up swim. This means most of the discussions I hear concerning triathlon are usually survive the swim, demolish the bike and run for your life.
As a coach, I must say, this bothers me. I’ve even heard plenty of coaches train the swim 60% less than the other disciplines on the notion that the ratio of time spent swimming in any given triathlon is much smaller compared to the bike and run. For example, an IRONMAN-branded event will consist of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run. After looking at those numbers, it’s more apparent why both athletes and their coaches might give the swim a bit of the cold shoulder. So why should you consider working on your swim? Because it’s essential if you’re looking to improve your overall performance—yes, your bike and run included—as well as your mental game.
I spent about three years coaching a Masters program in St.Pete Beach, Florida. During that time, I encountered athletes of all backgrounds and with a list of issues. Some athletes had anxiety and others just zero body control. The important part was identifying these issues with a coach and via some sort of video analysis. In simple terms, the biggest issues tend to fit into factor into one of three categories:
Timing means your kick/pull coordination is timed well. Most athletes think of the kick/pull as contralateral, meaning the left hand pulls and the right foot kicks. However, if you slow down video of elite swimmers, it’s easy to see the ipsilateral timing of the kick/pull. This means the right hip and the right hand will fire at the same time, like a loaded spring. Swimming is all about building and releasing tension against the core of the body, so timing is essential. Breathing EVERY stroke means you may often be only sticking to the right or left, meaning you’ll mostly rotate to one side. By contrast, bilateral breathing means you are breathing every third stroke or more. A bilateral approach ensures balanced hip rotation and shoulder control on BOTH sides of the body. Additionally, timing a bilateral breathing pattern is key for stroke balance.
So how do you fix this if it’s off? Honestly, you have to slow down in order to eventually go fast. If you can learn to control your body and timing with a very drawn, crisp stroke, it’ll transfer 100% to speed. I like to do slow motion drills where I will swim as slowly as possible. You can add value and simplify this with a pull buoy, which will "eliminate" the legs, a common stumble point. Break down your timing mechanics by doing away with complexity—simplify your stroke with 1 arm drills, pulling and sculling and then bring it all together once you develop a feel.
2. Body Position
We’ve all seen the poor athlete whose legs are basically dragging on the surface of the pool while he/she frantically fights for oxygen. It’s true, legs can easily be turned into anchors when body control is a mystery. Think of your body as a teeter with the fulcrum at your hips. This means your legs are one side of the teeter totter and your upper body is the other. How can we offset the heavy legs? With our arms! Remember: while swimming, you will usually have one arm out in front 90% of the time. This means you have leverage against your core. This can help keep those legs up. Some swimmers will bury their heads below water and other just can’t seem to ever get the water line at their hairline, so head position is also important. I always like to think of my chest as the bow of a boat, which when properly pressed forward, will help my body plane out, exposing my shoulders or the upper spine. If you see video footage of yourself (I highly recommend having someone record you) and your whole back is under water, you need to raise your body in the water via your shoulders. I always like to see the back of the head, upper back, glutes and heels near the surface of the water. Watch some Olympic type swim competitions on YouTube and note the items I just mentioned. Learning always starts with a solid visual representation of what’s right versus what’s not...so make sure you do some research.
The best tool for correcting poor body position is a pull buoy, but rather than using this as a crutch, use it as a tool. Any tool in swimming is designed to improve your “feel” so you can apply technique to your regular stroke mechanics. Learn to correct your body position by using the tools I mention below and learning to kick from the hip rather than the knee.
- Consider getting yourself a swim snorkel that takes that dreaded breathe + body rotation out of the picture, such as Ameo PowerBreather Wave or the Finish Swimmer Snorkel. Only then can you focus on the “feel” of your mechanics without having to throw yourself out of whack.
- A pull buoy like the Finis Axis Buoy or the Finis Foam Pull Buoy is just fantastic for body-position-training and isolation of your stroke mechanics above the hip. In order to develop some awareness, you sometimes need to feel what is “correct”, so wear a pull buoy if you want to float those hips, but also learn to develop the same feel on your own. Finally, no kicking while you’re wearing the pull buoy - it’ll take some extra body control which is also a great lesson to learn.
- Kickboards are great for one thing: developing a kick. Remember, you should be kicking from the hip and gently "boiling" the surface of the water where your heels meet the surface. Calm down that tidal wave kick and tighten up into a nice steady rhythm. Try the Finis Alignment Kickboard or the Finis Foam Kickboard for tuning this area of weakness.
- Paddles are a fantastic tool once you’ve managed to control your EVF and overall shoulder mechanics. I would never want a new swimmer to tackle these, as they can cause issues with shoulder stability if you lack proper form. However, adding some more force to your stroke will help build strength and endurance over-time when used properly. You don’t need HUGE paddles - just ones slightly bigger than your hand, like this agility paddle from Finis. Additionally, if you’re working EVF (Early Vertical Forearm), this tool can help ensure the elbow doesn’t break while stroking.
You might be making a lot of splashes and look cool, but if you’re not moving forward, you’re just wasting energy. We create propulsion in the water with proper EVF, kicking and rotation. EVF is often the biggest limiter because it requires a lot of shoulder mobility. The problem is, most adults are super stiff and have zero ability to control their shoulder rotation, so this skill takes a lot of work to correct. Kicking from the hip is like setting a shock wave down your leg ending with a little flick of your plantar flexed foot. The real “paddle” of your stroke starts from your elbow and ends at your fingertip. This means you need to get your vertical forearm pushing water with your hand in order to generate more force. Most athletes will let their locked arm drop well beyond 90 degrees before they start their pull, which means a lot of potential power is wasted. Propulsion comes down to an athlete's ability to understand how he/she is moving in “space”, or in this case, water. It’s important to look, listen and feel when swimming.
So there you have it. If you want to improve your swim efficiency, you need to work out your weak areas. Find out if you need more work on timing, body position or propulsion. Honestly, it’s rarely just one and often times breaking down your weak areas into small bites is the best way to take on this challenge. Start with these simple tasks if you are still lost:
- Have a friend or coach grab some underwater video from the side, front and above water. Seeing is believing!
- Set up some weekly one-on-one coached sessions so you can familiarize yourself with terminology and work with a pro who can identify your immediate needs.
- Use YouTube or Vimeo as a great learning resource, since proper technique is easy to be found alongside instruction. You can just search for general terms that address your weak areas.
- Join a local US Masters swim club so you can surround yourself with other learned swimmers and often times secure a coach-on-deck for the majority of your sessions.
Here is a great resource to get started:
In Part 2 (to come), we’ll chat on the biggest bike faux pas and how you can make a big impact on your bike performance.
- Ameo PowerBreather Wave
- Finish Swimmer Snorkel
- Finis Axis Buoy
- Finis Foam Pull Buoy
- Finis Alignment Kickboard
- Finis Foam Kickboard
- Finis Agility Paddle
- Finish Forearm Fulcrum