Swimming 101 for Multisport Athletes

Swimmer does laps in the pool.

Over the next few weeks I am going to look at some of the biggest hurdles that athletes must overcome in each of the three disciplines of triathlon.

Having come to the sport as a non swimmer, occasional biker and reluctant runner I learned most of these hurdles first hand. Over the past decade and a half as a coach I have watched others come up against some of the exact same frustrations and physical limitations that I experienced. The important thing to realize is that these limitations (perceived or real) can be overcome with patience, dedication, practice and a willingness to slow down and in some cases actually go slower. This idea of going slower can be extremely frustrating for the typical “type A” triathlete who sees progression simply in terms of pace times in training. Nowhere else is this need to slow down and hone skill development more evident than in the pool.

Anyone who comes from a non swimming background can tell you that there is a direct co-relation between working harder and going slower. The harder you “try” in swimming without proper technique and body position, the faster you will fatigue. The faster you fatigue, the more you feel like you are pulling your arms through quick sand as your legs and hips sink deeper and deeper in the water. Voila, you are doing the “sea horse”. Bobbing in place and just wanting to keep your head above water and get to the other end of the pool.

Now, there are two ways to try and get faster.

1 – You can keep swimming with this poor body position (pray for wetsuit swims) and improper technique (hope they cancel the swim altogether) and you will get incrementally faster as you get fitter in the water. But there is a very low ceiling here and you will hit it quickly. You can only go SO fast if you aren’t swimming well. Take it from me, I tried this method for the first few months when I started out.

2 – You can slow down, spend the bulk of your time stretching, doing drills, making every stroke count and swimming more often (frequency vs. volume). Really focusing on the quality of what you are doing in the water, and not the quantity, has a much higher ceiling for your overall success as a swimmer than option one.

Balance, Rotation, Propulsion

If you decide to go with option two the following order is key; Balance, Rotation, Propulsion.

Balance. The first thing I look at when a swimmer gets in the water is balance. Are their hips at the waters surface. Once you learn to float easily in the water with balance, everything that follows is much easier. There are a number of drills out there that will improve your balance, but there are none that is as effective as simply learning to kick on your front with your arms at your side. It sounds very easy until you try it. Once you have it mastered though, you can move onto the next step.

Rotation. Can you keep your hips at the surface (balance) when you are on your side. Practice kicking on your side with your lead arm (arm that is towards the bottom of the pool) outstretched. Learn to kick on your side with your head in the water. If you need to take a breath simply turn your head so that you can get some air and then put your head back into the water.  Try and do 25 meters on each side and when you get comfortable doing this start taking strokes and pausing on each side for 6 kicks or a 3 count. This will get you comfortable rotating from side to side. An important thing to remember when doing this drill is to keep the palm of the lead hand facing down so your shoulder is internally rotated.  Dropping that lead elbow can lead to problems when we move to the next step (propulsion).

Propulsion. Once you have mastered balance it is time to actually start working on propulsion and how to “feel” water. For the non swimmer this can be elusive and the bottom line is that some people do have an innate feel for water. Others do not. I would have considered myself one of the second group when I started out. Even if you are someone who struggles with “feel” all is not lost. Patience and practice are key. The # 1 way to find “feel” in the water is by doing “sculling” drills. These drills are best to do on your own. You can not be rushed. If you have mastered body position you can do these without a pull buoy and simply lock your elbows in place in front of you and gently move your forearms from side to side. This video demonstrates what we are after perfectly when sculling.

Once you have mastered these three things you can move on to doing harder swim sets and going faster, but in the meantime what you want to focus on more than time is your Distance Per Stroke (DPS) or stroke count per 25 or 50 meters. Generally, the more you can get your stroke count down, the more efficient you will have become.

There are a few other hurdles to swimming that one might encounter when getting into the open water and I will discuss those as we get closer to the race season here in Canada. In the meantime focusing on Balance, Rotation and Propulsion now will make those open water hurdles that much easier to overcome and they will make you a faster swimmer overall when it comes around to your races.

This is a photo of five young people along the wall of the pool treading water. They are looking to the left and wearing swim caps and goggles.
These fierce young racers are the athletes of tomorrow!