Almost universally the swim is the area of triathlon where everyone struggles. As an athlete you can get out and run more miles, bike more miles and generally if you work hard you see results. With swimming though the more you work has very little, if any, impact on your swim speed, with many athletes finding they actually progress backwards when they try harder!
Swimming is a highly technical sport. As humans we are not designed to swim and are very inefficient in the water. Not only do we have the technical issues of propulsion to deal with but the added challenge of flotation and breathing leading to a very complex challenge.
I am not saying you will get no benefit from large swim volume as I see time and time again the benefits this brings to a triathlete’s performance, we just have to look at the pro field to see this in action. When we look at the second or third group male pro’s we tend to see some amazing bikers and runners who tend to come through the field during the race. Go to their blogs or interviews with these athletes and you always hear how much they are working on their swim, putting the miles in trying to get better but frustratingly with little gains. The fact is the gains are there in terms of fitness, these athletes are so fit in the water they get out and can hammer the bike to their true potential from the go and make up ground on those in front. In contrast look at the front pack, some amazing swimmers with beautiful techniques. They look great and get out seemingly fresh from the water but then struggle to ride for the first 60-90min of the race at anything like their true potential on the bike, or they hang in with the pack for this time and blow up ending their race chances. Listen to interviews post-race and the common theme is how much harder the race has become, the bike is so fast and they need to change training to compete in this race. In my opinion this is not the case as we see from the chasing athletes closing them down that the pace is as it always has been but the athletes are not as fit in the water as they need to be. Speed in the water has created a false security in performance that is always exposed come race day.
The topic of swim fitness is for another day. Here I want to go into swim technique and what we can do to improve swim times.
To start, swim technique is essential for speed, but technique without fitness is nothing as highlighted above.
When we set up a program step one is technique and then step two is fitness. The start of a program is where we spend time building a new technique, once ready we get to work on the fitness. We do not spend all year working on technique or we suffer the classic paralysis by analysis. With swimming there is going to be no such thing as the perfect technique rather the perfect technique for each individual and the sport that athlete is participating in. It would be a waste of time developing an amazing pool swim technique if all your races take place in the open water.
Rhythm and feel, this is my mantra with swimming, if you want to swim well in open water you need to develop these two areas of your swim.
To swim well we need to make it simple. We need a technique that we can repeat with minimal thought over and over again in a fatigued state. I say fatigued state as when training for ironman this is simply the state you’re going to be in for most of your swim sessions.
There are so many technique schools out there following in the footsteps of Total Immersion and these are filled with different drills and tools to teach technique and athletes spend hours on YouTube watching and, in the pool, trying to perfect these skills yet see no improvement in their swim performance. Yes, they look pretty but performance and pretty do not go hand in hand. Total Immersion is an amazing company for teaching someone to swim from scratch and look good doing it. This though is not what we are after. What we are looking for is to improve our triathlon performance.
Remember we swim in open water, we have no black line on the bottom to keep us straight, the water is not flat and we are not swimming in isolation. If you develop the amazing looking Total Immersion style stroke, with your long gliding strokes and pencil thin profile in the water what you will find is a pack of swimmers with ugly looking technique will leave you in their wake on race day and have you come out of the water wondering what went wrong.
So how do we develop a triathlon specific technique?
First step is stroke mechanics, we need to learn what a good swim stroke looks like for a triathlete.
In an open water swim, you do not have a black line on the bottom of the pool to follow, you need to swim in a straight line between two points. When we swim in a pool our brain is constantly adjusting how we move in order to stay straight in relation to the black line beneath us. This hides a magnitude of errors in swim stroke that are multiplied in open water. For example, if your hand crosses the centre line of your body during the pull phase in a pool you will most likely kick out wide with your legs to maintain a straight line but in open water this will not happen you will simply start swimming off course.
Just look at the GPS files from swimmers in open water swims and you will see anything but a straight line between two buoys, and you will see a pattern of the swimmer always drifting to one side or the other - always a result of their lack of stroke symmetry.
To develop symmetry for open water swimming I like to start on dry land. It is much easier to set mechanics on dry land then transfer to water than trying to perfect them in water first. Get the pattern set into long term memory on dry land then take them into the water.
So, a very simple way to do this is standing upright - imagine you have a ladder standing vertical 30cm or so in front of your body.
Put both arms up over your head - straight up at shoulder width apart
Keeping arms straight let them fall forward onto the top of the ladder. This is where your arms should be at the front of your stroke - around a 20-30 degree angle to your body.
Now the goal is to push this ladder down into the ground
To do this we start by pushing our elbows out - opening up our armpits and activating our latissimus dorsi muscles. We do this until hands are at the same level as our eyes, we do not pull hands down to this point simple moving elbows out will achieve this.
Now, we push straight down until our hands reach level with the top of our hips
Finish the push by pushing the top of the ladder into your thighs
We do this with both hands at the same time for this drill.
This is very simple but develop this motor pattern before getting into the water and it will significantly enhance your symmetry and power when swimming. To develop this into our long-term memory we can accelerate the process by performing the drill at night immediately before going to sleep, perform the movement 40-50 times each night before bed and within a week you will have started to lay down a solid muscle memory.
An open water environment is never going to provide us with flat water - even if the lake, river or sea is flat the effect of having other swimmers around us will create rough conditions. In this environment in order to swim well we need to be stable. If we swim with the streamlined thin pencil profile that is the constant mantra of swim coaches and taught with conventional drills such as “chicken wing” we are going to be knocked all over the place in the swim both by other swimmers in close proximity and by waves and currents.
In order to create stability in the water we need to make our base wider, the hand on recovery no longer pulling along almost touching the body as conventional wisdom teaches us but now wide of the body. Imagine how a bird would look in the distance flying away from us - we would see sort of an elongated M shape, when watching a athlete swim from behind this is what we are looking for, the arm from shoulder to elbow at a nice relaxed angle to the water not vertically up from the water as in conventional pool swimming.
Not only is this more stable for us in open water but the shoulder tension experienced by most triathletes due to hours on the bike will not impact on this style of swimming rather compliment it, on the other hand a swimmer with stiff shoulders will always over rotate when trying to swim with high elbows as conventional wisdom dictates we should swim.
Moving through the water with constant propulsion is what we need to develop in order to swim well, by this I mean there cannot be any dead spots in your stroke. Again, in a pool these can be hidden but in open water any dead spots in your stroke will be highlighted and performance will suffer.
When we swim freestyle we are essentially offloading tension from one arm to the other arm as we move forward, to swim at our best there should always be a point in the stroke where tension is on both arms - the transition part of stroke. Developing this skill rather than swimming a catch-up style stroke is what truly determines good swim technique for open water. Once you develop this passing of tension from one arm to the other you will develop a great feel for the water and the rhythm that comes with it.
There is one amazing drill that can help you do this and I have not seen a single swimmer perform a length of this drill correctly and then not go on to show amazing changes in swim form the following length. I will emphasise here - DONE CORRECTLY
I call this the Hand Drag Drill
Start in the water on your front - one arm forward one arm back
Now forward arm pulls back as in a conventional pull
Opposite arm goes through recovery stroke but full hand stays in the water to wrist
So you pull your recovering hand through the water - fingertips always point to bottom of the pool
Basically, your recovery arm is fighting the propulsion of your pulling arm
Once at opposite ends then you repeat - always starting movement from both arms at the same time
It will take a few attempts to get the feeling right here. If you do it correctly you will be moving very slowly up the pool, if your moving fast then you’re not pulling the recovering hand with enough force through the water. If you struggling to picture this drill then move to dry land and imagine the ladder once more in front of you. Now you start with one hand at the top of the ladder and the other at the bottom, one hand then pulls down the ladder while the other pulls up the ladder, both hands should meet in front of the face on their paths.
Practice this drill by swimming 25m drill and then swimming 25m moderate effort full stroke. I guarantee you will feel amazing rhythm and power in your stroke during this 25m. When I say a good swimmer has rhythm and feel, this is what I am talking about, this feeling you have after this drill we need to develop into all your swimming. In Lord of the Rings the quote “One ring to rule them all” was very powerful and in open water swimming I would say this drill is the “One drill that rules them all”!
Swimming and especially open water swimming does not have to be complicated, you do not need 100 different drills to perfect your technique when this one single drill above will cover almost all requirements.
If you want to improve your swim times almost certainly the path is going to involve changing your technique. If you decide this is what you want you need to take time away from the pursuit of swim fitness and focus for a time on technique, make sure the technique you work on is specific to the demands of your race and once you have set your new technique in place get back to work on your fitness. Do this and you will have a killer combination of improved swim times and improved swim fitness!
From rhythm comes power and performance.