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Improving Your Swim

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 by Coach Kevin

It seems that the biggest struggle for most triathletes is the swim. This is not surprising since swimming requires much more technique than biking or running. Adding to the difficulties of the technique requirements is that that athletes have to be in an aquatic environment that they are not used to—no wonder people struggle. I find, however, that athletes who come to me for private swim coaching luckily only have a few big issues with lots of other minor problems that when combined cause the athlete to struggle. As a coach, I look at and concentrate on the BIG issues, one at a time, and ignore the rest. Why does this work? Athletes have a lot to think about when swimming—head down, don’t cross arms, grab the water, pull straight back, extend on before the power stroke, elbow in front of hand on recovery, feet together, stay horizontal—keeping the focus on the BIG issues keeps the training simple and manageable and leads to BIG results.

So what’s a swimmer to do? I think we all try to do too many things at once. Better to concentrate on one thing, gain muscle memory, engrain the new behavior, and then move on. Why don’t more swimmers do this? Well, this approach takes time, and everyone wants quick results, so they take short cuts. Be forewarned. It takes a good swimmer 3 years to meet their true potential, and taking shortcuts only delays the process of reaching your true swimming potential in the long-term.

So here is a list of the major issues I see with swimmers in order of frequency and what I do to correct them:

1. “Snowplowing”: Swimmers who don’t get on top of the water and swim horizontal create huge drag. Drag is your enemy. It slows you down and robs you of energy. To “go horizontal” you need to rotate your weight on top of your lungs. Your butt should be on top of the water and your heels should be on or just below surface. This is much harder than one would think. To make it easier, swim with pull buoys– A LOT OF PULL BUOYS. I have swimmers in some cases swimming with a pull buoy exclusively for months before letting them start to swim without it. It takes a lot of time to correct this issue.

2. “Feet parachutes”: Swimmers who lack balance typically spread their feet far apart to get better balance; unfortunately, spreading your feet creates drag, and we now all know drag is bad! Your feet should be pointed backwards and your kick should not go beyond the circumference of your body. Any time your feet get outside your body, you are throwing out a parachute that is slowing you down. To fix this, use a pull buoy that will give you balance and concentrate only on your feet. Another training option is to put a large rubber band around your feet, but use this option carefully since this can make you more unbalanced causing you to go vertical. If this is the case, switch back to the pull buoy option.

3. “Crossed Arms”: The point of swimming in triathlons is to make forward progress in the water; so, it would make sense that the triathlete would want to focus all their energy/effort pushing the water directly backwards and in doing so propel themselves forward. To do this efficiently, the athlete needs to reach as far forward as possible, grab the water, and pull parallel to their body all the way back to their thigh. If the athlete crosses their arms, there is wasted energy bringing the arm back parallel to the body. Additionally, crossing your arms makes it much more difficult to grab and hold the water. To fix this, I have athletes hold their heads slightly up and look at where their arms are when fully extended on starting their power stroke. I also have them overemphasize the angle of their arms, having them go wider than they should on their reach. With the drill, there is the risk that the athlete’s hips will sink due to their head being raised. Accordingly, if they are going to be doing this drill for a long time, we go back to the pull buoy to hold their hips up.

4. “Pressure-less Stroke”: I see a lot of swimmers that simply move through the water without putting real pressure on the water with each stroke. This is bad—no pressure means no propulsion forward since pressure on the water on each stroke is what moves us forward. To put pressure on the water, you first have to master the issues #1, #2, and #3 above. Assuming that to be the case, the athlete then has to have the muscle strength and mind power (will) to push on every stroke against the water. To practice this, I like to have the athlete take 3 HARD strokes and then move into the skate position fully extended until they have their balance, then take 3 hard strokes again.

There are certainly many other issues that slow athletes down on the swim; however, I see these 4 issues more than most, and typically I see at least two of the issues happening at the same time. Fight the urge to fix multiple issue at the same time when you swim and fix the biggest issue first, then move on to the next biggest issue. Before you know it, you will be swimming your normal laps and realize that you are faster!


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