The initial leg of a triathlon can cause some athletes a great deal of stress. Swimming strikes fear in people much more than cycling or running and is arguably most often regarded as the weakest link unless you have grown up in the pool.
For a lot of athletes, swim training is all about yardage and pace, which can often lead to repetitive injuries. Couple poor mechanics, coordination, balance in the water, timing and fatigue and you are most certainly asking for trouble. Overuse shoulder tendinopathies are common in triathletes but can be avoided with improving some aspects of your technique. For most triathletes, their time in the pool is best spent “practicing” the swim instead of “training” in the pool.
Best case scenario is that you have a good coach working with you on your stroke as well as pacing and distance training while sprinkling a few intervals to challenge you every week. Let’s face it, most of us are on our own in the pool, trying to get our sets and reps in. But, the best way to get faster is to not get injured in the first place. Having downtime where you have to take time out of the water is frustrating. Learning to really feel the water and be aware of where you are in relation to the surface is a must.
In order to swim faster it really comes down to one or two things:
1. You can travel an increased distance per stroke.
2. You can increase your stroke rate.
Sounds easy enough, right? Unfortunately, these two main things have many sub-things to consider.
Swimming is a sport where technique trumps fitness almost 100 percent of the time. When it comes to increasingly longer races this becomes amplified, not only for how long it takes you to complete that longer swim, but how much energy you have left for the bike and run.
There are plenty of resources out there on how to swim. Most of these include specific ways to have your hand enter the water, when to bend the elbow, how far to pull, when and how far to roll to breathe; but let's face it, no one can remember all those things while they are face first in the water.
Working on your technique in the water should be about feel. “If I do this, does that feel faster?”
Slipping through the water should be easy enough, but we all know there is much more to it than that. Add anxiety, weather, excitement, other athletes, as well as thoughts of what lies beneath and you can see why the start of an IRONMAN often looks like feeding time at the aquarium.
Here are 10 tips to incorporate into your swim practice.
Holding unnecessary tension in your body is a waste of energy unless it is assisting forward motion. If you think about water, it usually flows better over curves versus straight lines, so let yourself relax! And go with the flow. The more fluid you can be, the more flexible you are, making your stroke that much more effective.
Body position in swimming is so important. Think about moving your hand through the water. What has less resistance, your hand slicing through the water parallel to the surface (like a sleek sailboat) or held at a 45-degree angle pushing forward (like a barge)? While you are swimming, you want to maintain a nice horizontal long line from the top of your head to the tip of your toes.
3. Get Slippery
Feel the water on your head, shoulders, hands and all the way down to your feet. Do you feel a particular area of turbulence? Are you making a lot of froth as you swim? If so, you are not slippery. You want to displace as little water as possible and start to feel what might be slowing you down. Try to travel as far as you can with each stroke, try different head and hand positions until you can really feel it.
4. Think About Your Body Position (proprioception)
Knowing where your body is in space without having to look at it and see is called proprioception, and it is all important in swimming. Exhaling fully under the water prior to rolling to one side and turning your head just enough to get one eye out of the water will allow you to get a quick full breath without affecting your stroke. These motions are precise and each joint has to do its part to get you air so you can continue to feed your muscles oxygen moving forward. Just thinking about one part of your body at a time will help you to coordinate them together over time.
5. Float Your Legs
Just because you are an athlete with 10 percent body fat and have super strong legs, doesn’t mean they sink. It means your balance (see No. 2) is not quite right. Think of a fulcrum point somewhere between your pubic bone and belly button. Now press your chest down toward the bottom of the pool as if you are swimming downhill. If you are keeping your core tight, your legs should float up due to the assistance of pressing the upper body down. This motion is aided by the large air-filled sacs in the chest. Win, win!
6. Work on Your Breathing
This one is tough for a lot of people and it is all about timing. Work on bilateral breathing so you do not develop imbalances in your core, neck and shoulders. Work on feeling the water (see No. 3) and balance (see No. 2) as well as slow down so you are not out of breath at a faster pace. Learn the technique of bilateral breathing so you can be confident that you can grab a quick breath whenever you need to. This is also an invaluable asset to have in a rough swim or if you have someone on one side that you just can’t shake during a race. Saving your goggles from being knocked off or preventing you from inhaling or drinking a bunch of extra water is a bonus for being able to breathe on both sides. Learn the timing and power of rolling to breathe and not lifting your head (even while you are on your side) to get air and your neck and shoulders will thank you, but your competitors will not.
7. Practice Wide Hands
Swim as if you are on railway tracks and do not let your hands get closer than the width of your shoulders. This can be tricky to visualize as you are rolling onto your side. Keep your hands flat and wide when you enter the water and do not cross your midline is usually what coaches tell you, and that is good advice to keep your rotator cuff happy. Try a 25 swimming with your hands as wide as you can in order to exaggerate the motion, then rein it in to see what “feels” the best on your shoulders while letting you still work on No. 8 below.
8. Focus on Early Vertical Forearm
After putting your hand wide in the water, you want to get your entire forearm from a horizontal to a vertical position as soon as possible. This means bending your elbow and keeping it high or close to the surface. If you think of your forearm as an extension of your hand and envision a giant rectangular paddle from the tip of your fingers to your elbow you want to use that to propel you forward. If you have used regular swimming paddles in the pool, you know that if you pull straight back, perpendicular to the direction you are traveling, you will go far with little effort. With these imaginary giant rectangular paddles think about having them hold your arm position in the water as you use your core, lats and hips to rotate your body over your hand. Instead of putting a strain on the small rotator cuff muscles and tendons, you can learn to harness the power of your large lats, abdominals and hip muscles to propel you forward.
9. Tighten Your Core — No Wiggling
This may be the worst energy waster that I have seen among triathletes. The dreaded wiggle. We want to use our precious energy to go forward at all times, not side to side. Tighten your core when you swim, remembering that your core is everything except your arms and legs. There should be enough energy used so that things are stiff but not tight. Tightness usually means inflexibility and that is not helpful when it comes to swimming. Keep in the back of your mind: “Soft is strong.” With a tight core, you can rotate in the water without having any part of your body going side to side. All of your energy will contribute to moving forward which means more efficiency and faster times. Try moving your pull buoy between your shins and holding it there for a 25 and you’ll see if you have a tendency to wiggle. If you do, use that pull buoy at the shins and really tighten up. When you are good at that drill, you are no longer a wiggler! Congrats.
This one is so important, it’s listed twice. Thinking in the water too much can really mess up your stroke. Take a good breath and blow it all out underwater, then just feel the water and glide through it as if you are sneaking up on someone. “Less is more.” Practice these tips and keep working at it. Swimming is a lifetime sport and with good technique, so is triathlon.
Tricia Davis, PT, is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coach, wellness and injury prevention specialist and co-founder of Killer Coach. She is a hyperkinetic, Canadian-trained physiotherapist and athlete. Good at seeing the big picture, she is able to focus on the most important details for you to achieve success. Tricia thrives most in helping those with limited time by providing evidence-based training and skill acquisition in order to make training the most efficient way to attain goals while reducing risk of injury. Tricia is passionate about health, wellness and efficiency in sport while maintaining a balance in all aspects of life. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.