Swimming 101

At this time of the year, whether you are with a coach or self-coached you will want to make some real improvements in your performance. The first step is to look at what is holding you back the most – what is your weakness. Despite the swim leg being relatively short compared to the bike and run, it is often the leg in triathlon that makes the rest of the race harder than it needs to be. In an Olympic Distance race losing 10 minutes to your rivals’ means they are already 5km up the road on the bike. This is even harder in Ironman – lose 20 minutes, and your competitors are likely to be 12km+ up the road. If you are a strong bike/runner then you will be riding through many slower riders, riding as the wind picks up and in long course, still competing in the warmer part of the day. So, if you are finding that swimming is your limiter in your tri performance, let’s work

on it now.

Positives of squad attendance:

  • Regular feedback from the coach on technique
  • Correct interval work and periodisation of your training
  • Being pushed along with others in a lane
  • Swimming with people of similar ability
  • Feedback on drills you are including
  • Practising swimming with others in a crowded environment when required.

Negatives of squad attendance:

  • Cost $$$
  • Swimming hard all the time.

Positives of swimming solo:

  • Focus on drills and technique with no pressure from other people in your lane
  • Cheaper option
  • Not restricted to going at a particular time or venue. So, you can go when it works for you.

Negatives of swimming solo:

No feedback on whether you are practising proper technique or even executing the drill the right way

More difficult to do, the harder the interval sets are

Fitting in with regular swimmers despite signs saying slow, medium, fast.

In summary, becoming involved in a squad is the way to go with swimming, especially for the majority who take up the sport with not much of a swimming background. You need regular feedback. Adding a solo swim, fortnightly, to practice things that may not be going quite right for you, is a great idea too.

Strength Training 

Strength is an important component of swimming, even more so in the open water. For those in the tri community, many may not have done a lot of activity with their upper body and core strength. So, doing some specific strength work to the swim leg will clearly develop this if there is a weakness. Swimming challenges your muscles as it takes extra work to move against the resistance of the water, though the water’s buoyancy means there is less impact on your joints.

Strength gains in the gym or the pool 

Positives of strength work in the pool:

  • This includes swimming with bands/pull buoy/drag pants and paddles or doing drills such as catch up, one arm swimming, kick sets.
  • Time efficient and cheaper to incorporate strength work each week
  • Incorporate the correct technique when loading the muscles for strength gains.

Negatives of strength work in the pool:

  • Poor technique could mean you overload the smaller muscle groups and end up with injuries
  • Hard to progressively overload as limited with the actual load of the resistance. For example – most people only have one set of paddles, not three different sizes.
  • If you have a gym membership or a few weights at home, it is very easy to incorporate a few swim specific exercises to help develop the extra strength in your swim-specific muscles.

A few swim specific exercises are: 

  • Plank row with or without dumbbells
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Push ups
  • Superman on a fit ball with or without weights
  • Upright row
  • Bands or cable pull simulating swim action.

Positives of strength work at the gym:

  • Periodisation of strength within your training program
  • Loading of specific muscles that are weak, especially after injury Rehab work can also be included
  • Great for injury prevention.

Negatives of strength work at the gym:

  • Another cost
  • For those that are time poor, it is just another session to add into an already busy schedule.

Correct Technique 

Finally, how important is technique and how can you address technique issues while still training and expecting to maintain fitness? This is a common question by athletes wanting to take the next step but not wanting to let go of their cardio fitness. Unfortunately, there has to be a trade-off. While you train your brain and muscles to work in a different patterning, you cannot expect to be pushing as hard as you would when peaking for a race.

A sensible strategy: identify your biggest limiter or what is slowing you down the most.

The top three swimmer limiters:

1. For many beginners or less experienced swimmers, this is dropped hips – this results in very poor body alignment through the water and therefore high drag. The focus must be getting your head/butt and heals all in a line. Kicking drills, swimming with a snorkel, so you don’t lift your head, and exercises that engage your core are a few drills to include.

2. Spinning your arms/no catch. Ever feel that your arms are entering and just going through the water and not getting you anywhere. They talk about this as not catching and pulling the water. A good catch technique will have you entering the water, locking on and pressing the water back behind you. You do not want to press the water down at the front of the stroke rather than back. Pressing water down creates a lot of pressure on the palm because you are changing the direction of the water flow (from towards you to downwards). When you change to a good technique and start to pull the water back behind you, will move more quickly and become a more efficient swimmer.

3. Swimming your arms in recovery and dropping your elbow on entry across the midline of your body. Once again this has a fair bit to do with setting up the hand for a good pull though under the water.
As your hand enters the water, take care to make sure it does so, fingertips first, lengthening forward in front of the same shoulder with the middle finger pointing the way to the far end of the pool. Avoid crossing over the centre line – this is critical to keeping a high elbow catch and pull through later on.


Julie Tedde

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