We often hear of those athletes who have an instant advantage in triathlon due to the fact that they were swimmers as kids or swam through high school and college. I was under the impression that unless anyone grew up as a swimmer there was no way for a major improvement as an adult.
The very first IRONMAN I swam a 1:38, eventually improved to somewhere around 1:21, pretty much staying there for a few years during the next several IRONMAN races. But this isn’t the improvement I want to talk about in this blog.
I simply accepted to be a “1:21 kind of swimmer.” I justified it by not learning to swim until adulthood, plus having made an improvement of 17 minutes was already significant enough (so I thought). I told myself this story and instead focused my efforts on my bike and run.
Finally, after many years of muscling through and fighting the water I reached out to a swim coach and little did I know I’d soon be enlightened. I sent him a short video clip of me arm wrestling the water and got immediate feedback that I could start implementing right away. Eventually, I met with him in person for a few sessions. To make a long story short, after years of being stuck at 1:21 it only took a couple months to get down to 1:11 in my next IRONMAN swim. Now, I look forward to helping other athletes in their journey.
Looking back, I can clearly identify the six main areas that were most impactful in improving my IRONMAN swim time.
I had to simply tell myself that I am a swimmer and forget that I had not swum as a child. As humans we often tell ourselves things that aren’t necessarily true, and eventually believe them. The mind is a powerful tool therefore we have to be very careful about what thoughts we allow in. If a negative thought or emotion creeps in, we must instantly identify it and make a conscious effort to override it with a positive one.
2. Learning To Relax
Initially this idea was counterintuitive as my instinct told me to work harder in order to go faster. While that might be true to a small degree, it was more about working smarter and with purpose rather than just going harder. The goal became to be as efficient in the water as possible. Relaxing actually helped me learn to use the water as a tool, a substance to lean on and propel my body forward. It was the key to finding proper balance in the water and all of a sudden feeling more buoyant than ever before.
3. Wider Entry
I was under the impression that I needed to be as streamline as possible in the water. Body extended with hands together, pointed like an arrow. But I had a tendency to cross over the mid line on every stroke, which not only wasted energy but also caused me to swim off course. I swam like a snake in the open water, side to side, trying to aim for the next buoy, but would somehow always miss.
Having the wider hand position (about 12-18 inches apart) helped with balance in the open water and kept me moving in a straight line. It also helped to synchronize my stroke to the hip rotation which was previously not existent.
4. Hip Rotation
I always relied on my upper body strength in swimming, more specifically my arms. The moment I learned to emphasize the hip rotation side to side on every stroke, it felt as if I experienced a major breakthrough. I had to over exaggerate the hip rotation at first, but the result was amazing. I was finally swimming with my entire body from the hips and core rather then relying on my arms to drag it.
5. Low Head Position
I quickly learned that in the open water, especially when swimming long distances, you want your head position lower than in the pool. The idea is for the current to flow over your head rather then trying to plow through it adding unnecessary resistance. Pushing the water for 2.4 miles makes it a long day; instead let it flow right over you.
6. Alligator Eyes
Trying to spot can also throw off your rhythm and add unnecessary stress. The key for me was to separate breathing from spotting. Normally, I would breathe on the third stroke and felt pretty comfortable with that while starring at the line on the bottom of the pool. In the open water, I would try to combine the breath with a quick look forward, which caused quite a mess.
Instead, spotting in between the breaths made a huge difference. After a quick inhale my head would return to the down position, and while exhaling I would tilt my head up just enough for the goggles to clear the surface of the water. Hence, alligator eyes. Then, the head would go back down to finish off my stroke before it was time to inhale again. Depending on how rough the water was I would spot this way every few three to one sequences.
Peter Kadzielawski is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and the founder of. He holds certifications in sports nutrition and personal training. As a 9-times IRONMAN finisher, who still remembers struggling through his first 5k run, Kadzielawski strives to inspire his clients and athletes to unleash their potential and rediscover new possibilities. Since 2001 Kadzielawski has worked with individuals from many backgrounds, some taking up exercise for the first time looking for weight loss and toning, and others seeking guidance with a more extreme goal of training for an IRONMAN triathlon. Kadzielawski’s work has been published in Competitor Magazine, Golf Fitness Magazine and on the Colorado Runner website. Currently he triathletes globally from sunny Arizona.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.