Improve your Swim in the Offseason
Alright, so the season has finally come to an end, you had some down time and are starting to think about next year. If you are like most triathletes in this country, you are probably thinking about ways to improve your swim. It is, afterall, the weakest of the three sports for the vast majority of people out there. The great thing about winter training is that it fits perfectly with swimming because the climate never changes in the pool. So now the opportunity is there, but where to begin on your quest for fast swim times next season.
The starting point is the same for the beginner as it is for the Olympic swimmer: technique. Even the best take some time every year to refresh their skills in the pool, so without getting into great detail here are some quick things to remember in terms of your technique.
Body Position – Take a little time to dial in your position in the water. Ideally, you need to be flat in the water with your hips and feet just under the surface, your head not lifted and low in the water. Most of us swim with our heads too high in the water and as a result our hips and feet drop. Kicking in a streamlined position without fins is a great way to find your position. Push off the wall in a streamlined position and adjust your body so that you are level in the water. By shifting where your head/shoulders rest in the water will largely determine how high in the water your hips/feet will be. Once you get yourself in the correct position it will only take a minimal kick(even for those who are poor at kicking) to keep the position and make forward progress. If you find yourself having trouble keeping your feet up, try lowering your head in the water a little more. A few 25’s to start your workout should do the trick.
Streamline – Your ability to reduce your resistance and maximize your glide/distance per stroke is at the core of a good stroke. The more streamlined you can get, the more efficient you become. This is one of the biggest problems I have seen among triathletes, because getting streamlined requires some flexibility, something triathletes just don’t have. The best way to get a good streamline is to stretch. Anytime. Anywhere. Watching the game? Stretch those lats for a few minutes. Sitting in the office? Stretch those triceps out briefly. When you’re in the water, you need to be pushing off every wall in a streamlined position. Remember, the position you’re in with both hands above your head pushing off the wall is essentially the same position as when you fully extend each hand in front of you while swimming. So if you can’t hold a good streamline with both hands together, your stroke won’t be very efficient either.
Pull – Dozens of drills to choose from here so I’ll keep it short, but you need to focus on a clean entry and a high elbow as you pull through the water. Dropping your elbow, or leading the pull with your elbow greatly reduces the effectiveness of your pull.
Rotation – Most of us swim through the water very flat. Ideally your entire body (except your head) should rotate from one side to the other to promote a deeper and more effective pull, better streamline/glide, and reduce the strain on your shoulders. Again, there are dozens of drills out there so I won’t go into great detail here, but this is an excellent time to work on your body rotation. Word of warning: All too often I see people practicing these drills at great length but are unable to apply them to their actual stroke. Don’t spent 20 minutes kicking on your side just to go back to your flat, regular swimming. Be sure to apply the skill.
So you’re focusing on your technique and are knocking out a few drills every workout. Is that it? Nope. Far from it. This next part is what’s going to make you a stronger swimmer, whether your technique improves or not. What’s the trick? It’s really quite simple and it’s something that poor swimmers miss all the time. It’s called swimming, and more swimming, and when your done with that, it’s time to swim some more.
The seemingly big secret to swimming (I say it’s a secret because I never hear anyone talk about it in tri circles) is that you need to swim a lot in order to get better. Just like running and cycling, volume is a major key to improvement. For some reason this gets lost on triathletes. Usually this is because they hate to swim and would rather put in more miles on the bike or run.
Lets use running as a quick example. If you want to improve your running to that of your competitors and you are running 12 miles a week and your competition is running 25 miles per week, what is the first thing you need to do? You got it. Start running more.Exact same thing applies here, but for some reason everyone falls back on the old “I just need to work on my technique” argument. If you are swimming 2,000 yards per week and you want to get out of the water with the people swimming 10,000 yards per week, I got news for you. Technique is not the main problem. In fact, by doing more volume you will find that your stroke will improve without a bunch of drill work. Your body will naturally find a more efficient stroke just through practice.
Don’t worry, “Go Swim More” isn’t my only message here. You also need to mix up the strokes and learn to do flip turns. I know, the classic response to this is “Well, I only swim freestyle in races and there are no flip turns in open water”. While this is correct, the truth is that it’s easier to just swim freestyle and continue without flip turns. The other strokes can be very difficult, and doing an open turn allows for an extra breath and a short pause every 25 yards. By swimming some other strokes occasionally you are able to strengthen the supporting muscles that aid in a proper stroke. When those muscles fatigue and ultimately fail, your stroke starts to fall apart, like your elbow dropping during a pull, which reduces the effectiveness of your freestyle. Swimming the other strokes can also help prevent injury and promote flexibility. Butterfly and breastroke build up the shoulders and the breastroke kick can help build up the muscles around the knee, something that comes in handy on the bike and run. I’m not suggesting you get carried away here. A few hundred yards of non freestyle is all that’s needed. I regards to the flip turn, you need to get comfortable doing these on every turn. It keeps the workout and workload constant and cuts out that extra breath. As an added bonus, you’ll look like an athlete training for something and not a lap swimmer.
With, technique, volume, other strokes, and flip turns, creating the proper swim workout cocktail is not always easy, so is joining a swim team the best way to go? Yes and no. If you are new to swimming, have trouble getting enough volume in, or tend to swim nonstop, then I would recommend giving the local group a try. They will be able to show you how to structure a workout and give you tips on your stroke. If however, you have been swimming for a while and are comfortable putting together workouts, it might be easier to do your own thing. Either way, if you decide to put some focus on your swim, even for just a few weeks, I think you will be surprised with how fast you will see the results.