Working with both swimmers and triathletes on technical swim instruction is one of the most exciting parts about being a coach. Individuals who have made the decision to dedicate time to learning the mechanics of such complex technique, and train to get faster, show a true commitment to their goals. When I ask athletes what they want to focus on in their swim, the most common answers are overcome fear of the water, prepare for a triathlon or become more efficient — all of which translate to get faster. You cannot improve speed without first tackling technique, but then there are additional steps you can take to improve even more. Faster swimming can be addressed by improving technique, group swimming and changing up the workouts.
Many adults with a non-swimming background would agree that technique is extremely difficult to learn. There are hundreds of things to think about, including position of the body, mechanics of the rotation and pull, breathing — the list goes on. Knowing which of these you should specifically work on is also a challenge. The best way to address the technique points that are most critical for you is to sign up for private instruction with an experienced swim instructor that will dedicate his or her attention to you for at least 30 minutes and guide you on the drills that are most important for you to focus on. It is individualized, and therefore a higher price, but if you need to make big gains quickly, this is a great option. When you sign up for private lessons, you should also be committing to two to three times a week in the pool outside of lessons.
Group lessons are another option. They cost less than privates, but feedback is not always individualized. You only get a portion of the coach’s time, but they can be extremely helpful if you’re looking for the motivation of a group and if you’re looking for overall instruction that will help with efficiency and speed. Great group options are sessions for an experienced swimmer or triathlete at your local pool or club or swim groups or masters teams that have coaches dedicated to providing some technique points on deck. Technique can always be improved, which means you have to focus on it for a portion of your time.
Although some of us may not admit it, probably the most current and popular option is watching YouTube videos to learn technique. The videos are easy to access, and the information is virtual and unlimited. While it can be useful, proceed with caution, as different coaches have different ways of teaching certain techniques. Not knowing which areas to focus on, along with too much information, can set you backwards. Your mind can only focus on so much intricate technique at once, so concentrate on just one or two aspects of the stroke at any given time when practicing in the pool.
Consistent Group and Individual Training
If you haven’t been consistently practicing in the pool, it is time to start. I always recommend group training for swimming because it works! If you ever speak to a young swimmer about their swim experience, they will tell you about training with a team. Group training pushes you and is the best way to start building endurance and getting faster. Busy athletes cannot always work around group workouts, however, so you’ll also want to continue with individual workouts. You can be flexible with timing, adjust the planned workout based on how you feel (or what your coach recommends) and dedicate at least 20 minutes to technique focus and drills. Whether doing group workouts, individual workouts or private instruction, you should be in the pool three times a week at a minimum. Do not succumb to the common pitfall: Getting faster means nothing without consistent practice! As you get closer to race day, you can decrease the amount of time you spend on technique to ensure you can have the endurance to safely finish the distance.
Taking Speed to the Next Level
Interval training! Intervals are not just for fast or all out swimming. Too frequently, I see lap swimmers jump in the pool and swim 2000 yards straight without stopping. This tends to be ineffective because you stay at one speed, get bored and likely stop thinking about technique and power. Instead, break it up. Try 10x100s and then 5x200s. You can design sets to meet whatever your goals are for that workout: speed, endurance or recovery. Here’s how… Swim 5x100 yards with a set amount of rest, perhaps 30 seconds or more. Calculate your average pace for all five. Consider this your base pace, and adjust your intervals accordingly. If you want to work on speed, do your 100s on an interval of base pace plus 10 seconds, and commit to it. If you come in 15 seconds early, be thankful for the rest, and push yourself again on the next distance. If you come in and only get 2 seconds rest, force yourself to push off the wall and keep going. No matter what, your lung capacity and endurance will improve. And because you are racing the clock, your speed is bound to improve as well. On an easier day, add more time to your intervals so you’re guaranteed more rest. If you stay true to the intervals, you’ll know exactly how long the workout will take as well, which is perfect for the busy athlete who is on a tight schedule.
Julianne Miata is a certified USA Triathlon Level I and US Masters Swimming Level III Coach. She has been a member of the DC Triathlon Club since 2010, competing primarily in sprint and Olympic-distance races. She has been teaching private and group swim instruction for all ages and levels for over 10 years. Miata currently resides and works in the D.C. metro area as a CPA and campus recruiter at Ernst & Young full time. Part time, she is the co-founder and coach of the DC Tri Club’s Masters swim program, as well as the head coach for the DC Tri Club Olympic Distance Program.
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.