Improve Your Swim Training for Long-Distance Triathlons

By Gary Hall Sr. | April 16, 2018, 7:40 a.m. (ET)

Plus, six workouts to enhance your kick and pull

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

I often have triathletes come to me preparing for an IRONMAN or 70.3, struggling with their swim. 

“I seem to be stuck at the same pace and cannot break through to another level,” they say. Sound familiar? 

The majority of these triathletes are swim training three times per week for about an hour each time. Whenever I hear this I think about how I would train an elite swimmer for a 1.2- or 2.4-mile swim race and cannot begin to fathom how that could happen with three hours of training per week. It can’t. Even a 750-meter swim of the Olympic-distance triathlon requires a tremendous amount of training to do well. 

Yes, I understand that swimming is the least important discipline of the three, considering the amount of time spent in the water compared to on the bike or running. I also understand that training time is the limiting factor. However, there may be more for you to gain in the swim than in either of the other two disciplines. One cannot win the triathlon with a good swim, but one can surely lose it with a bad swim. Your run or bike split would not do well with three hours of training per week. Neither will your swim split. 

swimming

There is no one-size-fits-all technique in swimming distance freestyle. The first three finishers of the men’s 1,500-meter in London in the 2012 Olympic Games used three very different techniques to finish within 10 seconds of one another: hip driven, shoulder driven and hybrid. The type of training one does depends on the technique that seems to work best for the swimmer. A slower stroke rate, hip-driven freestyle technique, for example, will require more emphasis on building a stronger kick. If you should decide to throw in the towel on your kick and still want to get faster, then you will need to work more on stroke rate and shoulder-rotation, coupling energy. 

As a general rule, one cannot expect to make significant gains in the swim time while training three hours per week. With one swim practice per week, you will steadily get worse. With two, you will stay about the same or gradually worsen. With three, depending on how you train, you can make some steady gains. With four per week, you will get even better and faster. 

Your priorities for training likely should change throughout the season. If the swim is holding you back from achieving your goals, consider spending the first six weeks of the season with four swim practices per week, then move down to three. If three is all you have time for, then, unless you are a real beginner, I would suggest making each practice 1.5 hours, rather than one hour. Once you get your hair wet, you might as well keep swimming, right?

Here are six of my favorite workouts for you to use from our Race Club triathlon training. The first three are based on trying to improve your kicking speed. The second three are based on essentially a pull-dominated freestyle technique. To measure and hold stroke rates, I highly recommend you invest in a tempo trainer, like the one available on theraceclub.com/shop.

Workouts to Improve Your Kicking Speed

Leg Group: Start each practice with 2 minutes dryland squatting on the tops of your feet with knees in the air (freestyle squat). Then do 20 freestyle squat pushups to straight legs on the tops of your feet. Use mat or folded towel to cushion the feet. This will increase the plantar flexibility for the down kick.

Stroke Rate: 90 is the magical stroke rate number for endurance races, whether swimming, running or cycling. Start with the stroke rate you can manage and gradually build up (over months) to a higher stroke rate.

Workout 1
Swim 200 easy freestyle, thinking about head position. Try to get the head underwater as the hand enters in front
Kick 100 with fins and snorkel, hands at side, head down. Dolphin kick off walls then flutter kick to the wall. Practice flip turns holding the arms straight over head (use a nose clip to avoid getting water up the nose). Snorkels require a little learning curve but help with many drills.
Swim/Kick set
Swim 10 x 50 freestyle on :60 holding the desired stroke rate (use a tempo trainer) breathing every cycle. In between each 50, do a :45 second vertical flutter kick with elbows at the water, forearms and hands above. Keep the chin above water. On :60 seconds do the second 50 freestyle holding stroke rate. 
Swim easy 100 free recovery
Swim 10 x 75 freestyle. First 25 six-kick/one-stroke drill emphasizing body rotation and hard hand entry to the water, followed by 50 swim at stroke rate, using high coupling energy.
Kick 10 x 25 flutter kick with alignment board and snorkel
Warm down with easy 400 thinking about high elbow pulling motion.

Workout 2
Swim 200 easy, thinking about proper pulling motion with high elbow, avoiding out sweep and in sweep of hand 
Kick 200 with alignment board and snorkel
Swim/Kick set
4 rounds:
Swim 150 at same stroke rate on 2 mins or 15 secs rest. First 50 soft 6 beat kick, second 50 medium 6 beat kick, third 50 hard 6 beat kick 
Kick 100 with alignment board and snorkel. 25 easy, 50 fast, 25 easy on 2 mins
Recovery 50 freestyle
5 x 100 drill/swim Drill is one arm freestyle with other hand at the side, rotating the body and using the proper pulling motion. 25 Right/25 Left/50 swim with low drag pulling motion. 2 mins
Kick 5 x :45 second wall kicks with snorkel. 45 seconds against the wall with head down, blasting the kick, followed by 15 seconds rest. Repeat 5 times
Warm down easy 300 freestyle with good technique.

Workout 3
Swim 200 easy, thinking about drawing the elbow up above the shoulder on the recovery.
Kick 100 with fins and alignment board.
Swim/Kick set
Kick 5 x 100 with snorkel and alignment board and fins. Work on pulling the legs up hard on the upkick, maintaining a tighter, narrower kicking motion. 2 mins or 15 secs rest.
Swim 20 x 25 with fins, holding desired stroke rate on :30 seconds, with a :20 second vertical kick in between each 25 (if the water is not deep enough, then do a wall kick for :20 seconds). Try to keep arms in streamline position above water. If unable, put elbows to surface with forearms above.
Swim easy 100
Swim 12 x 75 with 10 seconds rest, holding stroke rate using a strong kick (no fins)
Tug of war kick with partner x 5. Use 18 inch 3/4-inch PVC pipe, snorkels on. Swimmers get on either side of PVC pipe in the middle of the pool. One swimmer puts hands on outside of pipe and the other on the inside. Keep arms straight and stiff and keep PVC pipe at the surface. Kick against each other for one minute trying to push the other swimmer backward. :30 seconds rest and repeat five times.
Warm down 300 easy freestyle swim.

Workouts to Improve Your Pull

Pulling Group: Start each workout with dryland stretches of shoulders for extension for one minute. Do 100 pulling motions on deck, bent at the waist with head down, replicating the high elbow under water pull, rotating the body.

Stroke Rate: 90 is the magical stroke rate number for endurance races, whether swimming, running or cycling. Start with the stroke rate you can manage and gradually build up (over months) to a higher stroke rate.

Workout 1
Warm up with a 200 swim, then a 200 pull, keeping the head down and the elbows high on pulling motion
Swim 4 x 50 freestyle at desired stroke rate with 10 secs rest
Swim 3 x 100 freestyle at desired stroke rate with 15 secs rest
Swim 2 x 150 freestyle at desired stroke rate with 20 seconds rest
Swim 1 x 200 holding stroke rate
Swim easy 200
Pull 4 x 50 freestyle with paddles and buoy holding stroke rate with 10 secs rest (stroke rate should be a little slower with paddles on)
Pull 3 x 100 freestyle with paddles and buoy holding stroke rate with 15 secs rest
Pull 2 x 150 freestyle with paddles and buoy holding stroke rate with 20 seconds rest
Pull 1 x 200 freestyle with paddles and buoy holding stroke rate
Warm down 400 easy

Workout 2
Warm up with 200 swim and 200 pull keeping the head down and elbows high
Swim 6 x 100 50 drill/50 swim with 20 secs rest. 50 drill is one arm drill with other hand at the side working on high elbow pulling motion and good body rotation. Left arm 25/Right arm 25/ swim 50 swim shoulder driven holding stroke rate.
Swim 3 x 800 1 minute rest. First 800 is 50 easy hip driven/50 fast shoulder driven holding stroke rate (8 times). Second 800 is 50 easy hip driven/150 fast shoulder driven holding stroke rate (4 times). Third 800 is 50 easy hip driven/350 fast shoulder driven holding stroke rate (2 times).
Warm down 400 easy

Workout 3
Warm up 400 alternating 50 freestyle 50 backstroke
Swim 8 x 100 with paddles and fins working on high elbow catch and hard fast delivery of the recovering arm to the water (coupling motions). 50 drill (6 kick one stroke drill)/ 50 swim with 20 secs rest.
Pull 3 x 100 10 secs rest holding stroke rate
Pull 3 x 200 15 secs rest holding stroke rate
Pull 3 x 300 20 secs rest holding stroke rate
Warm down with 400 easy swim.

gary hall sr

Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

Gary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970. 

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.