So, You Want To Be A Better Swimmer?

It’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of the swim leg in a triathlon. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy swimming (leisurely) and being out in the open water (I love the ocean) but swim training, squad, racing – these elements of swimming make me sweaty, anxious and slightly nauseous. Why? Why is swim training and the swim leg in a triathlon such a point of anxiety, nerves and contention among triathletes? Why is it so hard to learn to swim well and fast? As the saying goes, you can’t win a triathlon in the swim, but you can certainly lose it.

So, how do we learn to enjoy swimming? How do we get over the fear and anxiety and how do we make this, the most feared and perhaps hated part of triathlon, something enjoyable?

I spoke with some of the best triathlon/swim coaches in Victoria to get the low down on all things swimming.

Ollie Allan (OA) – Tri Alliance
Dan Weekes (DW) – Process_3
Brenton Ford (BF) – Effortless Swimming
John Van Wisse (JVW) – Expert in open water swimming

STEP 1 Join a swim squad

I’ve been told, time and time again – the best way to improve your swimming is by swimming with a squad. That may be true but if you’re new to swimming joining a swim squad can be as daunting as walking into a gym for the first time – it can be quite intimidating. Questions such as: “What if I can’t keep up?” “What if I’m too slow?” plague peoples minds. So where do you start with swimming and how do you go about joining a squad?

Australian Triathlete (AT): First up – why is swimming such a point of contention among some triathletes (especially newbies) and how can athletes gain speed/strength/confidence in the water?
Dan Weekes (DW): I think the point of contention among newbie triathletes – especially those that are new to swimming – is that they convince themselves that
the swim portion of a triathlon is not significant in time so therefore neither should their training be! This is the easiest to answer though – speed, strength and confidence all come down to one thing: spending time in the water. Not the gym, not the library – in the water.

AT: OK. So then where does one start with swimming? At what point should you join a squad? Do you have to be able to swim at a certain level before joining?
DW: If an athlete is new to squad swimming, confidence needs to come first. Finding – and choosing – the right triathlon or swim squad will come down to numerous factors such as social aspects, timing of sessions and how fast the coach is expecting you to go! Whether it’s for fitness or racing, I would suggest being able to swim non-stop for 200m before joining up. If this isn’t possible, either book some one-to-one time with a swim coach or just do some laps in the public lanes each week until you’re ready to talk to a squad coach. Every squad will have different paced lanes for different goals – there will always be a slower and a faster swimmer! Obviously, if the athlete is aiming at a sprint distance triathlon, swimming non-stop for 750m should be the primary goal.

Ollie Allan (OA): All athletes and abilities are welcome and encouraged to join a swim squad if they want to improve. Typically at swim squads you will have multiple lanes dedicated to squad training, with each lane catering for athletes of different abilities.

At Tri Alliance we have six levels of swimmers. We have a strict criterion as outlined on our website detailing what athletes have to achieve before they’re able to move up a level or lane. With the large number of athletes that come to us (we have a lot of athletes of different abilities, from beginners to seasoned swimmers), we need to be fair and reasonable with a clear pathway for each athlete to progress. We also swim at two locations – St Michael’s (beginners) and MSAC (intermediate/advance) to cater for all swim abilities fairly.

For example, the criterion for Level 1, Lane 1 Swimmers at St Michael’s is –

  1. Criteria to Participate: Must be able to demonstrate the ability to swim 25m freestyle, unaided.
  2. Time Cycles: Not applicable
  3. Description of Session: Athletes will practice drills and learn techniques to improve their swim ability and fitness.
  4. Goal: Individual’s goal for Level 1 is to swim a straight 500m efficiently and to take no longer than
    15 minutes to complete. Once competent on time and ability to swim 500m they graduate
    to Level 2 swimming at St Michael’s. Discretion of the coach will apply.

For more information on the criteria see tri-alliance.com.

AT: Great! Are there any ‘bridging’ squads/lessons new athletes could join in with before joining the main squad?
OA: We have a number of options for athletes who need to progress from a zero-swim background and that is where our free Try the Tri program kicks in. We work hard on introducing newbies to the basic skills of swimming; we teach them to relax in the water and swim efficiently. We have put over 2000 newbies through this program.

If you’re new to triathlon and swimming, and you live in Victoria, to check out the Try the Tri program, visit – vic.tri-alliance.com/training-options/beginner-try-the-tri

AT: How many times a week should athletes swim with the squad?
OA: I am a massive believer that a minimum of two sessions a week for newbies is important to gain swim fitness and learn technique. I encourage all athletes to then progress toward three sessions per week (or more) for improvement. So, two sessions a week is great for six to eight weeks of conditioning. After this it’s important to swim at least three times a week.

DW: This is a tricky one and down to the individual athlete, how much time they have and what their goals are. If they are strong runners and riders, but weak swimmers I would advocate swimming shorter sessions more often during the week. For example, forget the gym or even a shorter run session and aim for four or five 40-minute sessions in the water spending most time on drills – similar to doing our scales on the piano. This will yield the most improvement as it limits the time spent enforcing bad habits. Typically though, a full week of triathlon training would see an athlete in the pool three times. If you can only swim with the squad once or twice, try and make up the remainder of the three alone. Humans aren’t born to swim, so the more time spent in the wet stuff the better.

AT: What about swimming solo? Is that OK to do or is it better to swim with a squad?
DW: As above, mixing time spent with a swim squad with some solo swims is fine as long as the athlete is getting some coaching advice and pointers on technique. Most people prefer the squad sessions because it means some social interaction in a lane that’s reserved rather than having to negotiate with other swimmers in public lanes. If the athlete can hit the pool at quiet times, members of the public won’t be an issue but again make sure some coaching advice is being sought at some point.

OA: I think – squad sessions every time over solo swimming. In a squad you have other athletes to push you. Swimming on your own is OK if you’re working on more volume or doing endurance sets where you want to swim without pressure, otherwise it’s best to swim with a squad if you want to improve your swim.

AT: What sort of things can athletes expect to get out of swimming with a squad? What might a session look like?
DW: Swimming with a squad provides the two most important aspects of preparing for a race or getting fit: an organised structure to training, and feedback on technique. A quality swim or triathlon coach will be able to structure different sessions over a matter of months to ensure the correct progression of fitness – we call this ‘Periodisation’. On top of that, to ensure development is holistic, the coach will be able to pinpoint areas of a swim stroke that need attention to enable improvement. A swim program for fitness or a specific race goal could last from 12 weeks to six months. Depending on the periodisation, a single session could aim to develop any of the four key attributes: drills for technique, endurance, speed or recovery. Each session would typically contain a warm-up of easy swimming and drills, followed by the key or ‘main set’, which would focus on one of the four key energy systems. For the final 10 minutes or so, swimmers are encouraged to cool down with some easy swimming, usually focussing on an individual weakness or ‘limiter’.

Technique is king: The biggest mistake athletes make in swimming is not practising correct technique.

STEP 2 It’s all about technique

Picture this: you’ve attended swim squad for months/years but you’re still not getting any faster. Sound familiar? So, what are you doing wrong? Apparently technique is king but how do you know if your technique needs improvement? How do you improve your technique with the ultimate goal being to get faster and more efficient in the water?

AT: First up – what are some of the biggest mistake triathletes make with swimming?
DW: It is very common for athletes to treat swim practise like run or bike training by convincing themselves that harder and faster intervals will make them a more efficient and therefore faster swimmer – this is a big mistake. This is searching for speed as opposed to searching for efficiency. Once the athlete accepts that efficiency should come first, speed will come to them, not the other way around. Another big mistake is that swimmers become reliant on tools such as fins and pull buoys because they suddenly feel like relaxed and super-streamlined swimmers. These tools become a crutch and simply take time away from learning to swim efficiently without them; on top of that, these tools enforce the thinking that swimming is legs that kick and arms that pull, which is a mistake.

Brenton Ford (BF): The most common errors I see are a crossover in front of the head, too slow and gentle in the recovery and entry, which causes a loss of momentum, and rhythm and poor posture through the torso and hips, which sinks the legs and ruins the cross-body connection.

AT: OK. So, what are the fundamentals of freestyle? How do triathletes get better at swimming freestyle?
DW: Like all four of the traditional swim strokes, freestyle (specifically endurance or long distance freestyle) should have a ‘whole body’ approach. Splitting the body at the waist between limbs that kick and limbs that pull, will not yield the best results. Elite sprint swimmers in pool events up to around a minute can gain 15 per cent more speed from a powerful kick whereas endurance freestyle within triathlon and open water should be saving the legs while they draft behind the body. To aid this skill, the arms and the legs should be synchronised while keeping the body as streamlined as possible.

BF: To me it’s posture, reach and rhythm and developing them in that order.

AT: Why is technique so important in swimming?
DW: Simple. Technique provides efficiency. Swimming is the most technique heavy part of triathlon, and learning new skills as an adult takes time and application. Dragging your butt through an hour of swimming just to tick a box is not a good idea if 50 of those minutes are spent programming poor technique. I compare it to learning the piano as an adult: first we must master the scales – lots of time spent programming a new skill doing seemingly mundane exercises. There’s no point spending an hour hitting bum notes. Gasping and uncomfortable 100m intervals struggling to keep up with the guys at the front of the lane will also yield limited improvement. Practising with the best technique will mean racing with the best technique and that means efficiency. In simple terms, that’s fewer calories spent, less heart beats used and leaving the water more comfortable before getting on the bike.

AT: What is your biggest tip for athletes wanting to improve their swim?
DW: I have just one tip – the athlete should have some stroke analysis carried out. Some coaches will record video to talk back over what is going right and wrong in the water (what happens out of the water doesn’t matter nearly as much but that’s another discussion). Once the athlete knows the issues to work on drills, drills and more drills. Aerobic fitness can be developed while running and riding – don’t worry it won’t disappear.

AT: Good one. So what’s involved in video analysis and swim/stroke correction?
BF: We run regular stroke correction clinics – which include video analysis – at Effortless Swimming. Our philosophy is that every person is different and there’s more than one way to swim fast freestyle. We don’t teach the same style to every person, it’s individualised. Especially for triathletes who are often time poor and may not come from a swimming background, it’s unrealistic to think they’ll swim like Ian Thorpe or Mack Horton. It can also impede their speed if they’re always aiming for a lower stroke count over the most important thing – swimming fast. We go against what a lot of swim coaches teach but especially for triathletes, we’ve been able to get results for them where they’ve been stuck at the same pace for years.

When swimmers come to one of our clinics, we step them through everything they need to know become a better swimmer. We look at their mobility and flexibility through their shoulders and upper back and give them ways to improve this. When you spend so much time on the bike and running you lose range of motion in these areas and this can impact your catch and pull in your swimming unless you address it with some foam roller and trigger point ball exercises. We then do underwater filming and record the athlete swimming at race pace from multiple angles. This allows us to break down what they’re doing well and most importantly, where they’re losing speed and efficiency. It’s a real eye opener for most people. How you think you swim and how you actually swim are often two very different things. We record the video analysis of the swimmer, which is sent to them so they can watch it back as many times as they like after the clinic. Once we’ve found the two or three biggest opportunities in their stroke for more speed and less effort, we go through drills and exercises in the pool to help them make the changes they’re looking for.

The swimmer is given a lot of feedback throughout this time as we keep the class size small with a maximum of six swimmers to a coach. The freestyle
clinic is $220, which includes a copy their underwater swim footage and video analysis.

For more on Effortless Swimming and the swim clinics, visit – effortlessswimming.com/freestyle-clinics

AT: Who would benefit from swim/stroke correction? Is it largely for athletes looking for the one or two per cent improvement or would newbies benefit from starting off right with the right technique as well, rather than just attending squad or doing solo swims, and potentially getting into bad habits?
BF: Our minimum requirement for swimmers attending the clinic is to be able to do 400m without stopping. We have a wide range of athletes attend from someone who only learned to swim six weeks ago to professional triathletes. Every level of triathlete is able to take away something that will help them improve. It’s never too late to learn.

AT: How long does it typically take to see change in stroke? In your experience how long does it take to break bad habits?
BF: Changes to your technique can be immediate, but to be able to do it automatically under race pressure takes longer. My rule of thumb is to practice the stroke changes for 66 days to replace the old habit, but ultimately give it 18 months to dramatically change your swimming. It’s not to say you can’t have significant improvements in a few weeks, but the athletes who think long term seem to have more success.

AT: How often should athletes come and see you for stroke correction session/video analysis? Is it OK to just do a one off session or would athletes benefit from regular follow-up?
BF: One session can be enough for someone for six to 12 months if they have good awareness in the water and a coach with a keen eye for swimming. In an ideal world, video analysis every four to six weeks is the best way to keep your progress on track. We have swimmers in the Effortless Swimming membership (our online coaching program) send me videos this regularly.

Suit Up: Make sure your wetsuit fits correctly and that there is slack around the shoulder area for easy rotation.

STEP 3 Get in the open water

Now, it’s all well and good to swim efficiently in the pool but does this automatically translate to the open water? Unfortunately (or fortunately perhaps) triathlons are not done at the local pool – swimming in a triathlon is an open water adventure. So, after swimming thousands of laps in the pool, following that black line for hours on end, how do you translate it all to the open water? Additionally, how do you become comfortable in the open water and overcome any fears and anxieties you might have with swimming in the ocean? (Hot tip: do not watch Jaws before your event).

AT: How do athletes transition from pool to open water swimming?
DW: Once an athlete is confident in the pool, the same progression should follow for open water swimming: go with a group of the same performance level together with a coach who can guide you.

AT: What are the main differences between swimming in a pool vs. swimming in the open water?
John Van Wisse (JVW): To start with, the main differences between the pool and open water is drafting, getting a good start in open water by warming up properly, positioning on the start line and going out fast for the first few minutes is really important. Generally the swim settles down after a few minutes – you want to be on the best ‘train’ possible once it does. Learning how to sight in your stroke is essential too, as you can’t give a centimetre away once you find your train. So, you have to be aware of what’s going on. It’s the same mentality as elite pack riding on the bike. Swimming in rough conditions is also different to pool swimming as you might need to change your arm recovery to attack the waves back. Waves slow everybody down and often throw your body off balance but even the lead swimmers will feel this so don’t be negative and think you’re having a bad day. The harder you punch through the wave the less it slows you down. You can also push your chest down as a wave comes over you. Learn to take fast shallow breaths to the roof of your mouth – this will stop you swallowing water. When it’s rough it’s a lot harder to draft too.

Another super important part of open water swimming is your wetsuit fitting. Make sure you work the sleeves up on your suit so you have a bit of slack around the shoulders. If you still feel restricted lifting your arms out of the water (the recovery phase) then the suit is too small. When you try the suit on in the shop before buying; pull the sleeves up and do arm swings. Of course, if you have a short sleeve suit then it doesn’t matter. Be careful pulling the sleeves up though, as you can easily rip the material.

AT: How many times a week should triathletes swim in the open water?
JVW: The best open water swimmers do most of their work in the pool, as you can get more fitness out of a pool session generally, but that’s after they’ve gotten on top of any issues i.e. dealing with waves, draft practice, wetsuit testing, sighting, etc. Panic attacks are a common issue too.
A lot of people have had a bad experience as a child in open water, which has carried on into adulthood. I’ve seen strong pool swimmers struggle to put their face down in open water due to anxiety (people have it in the pool too). It can all be overcome through persistence though, and you can’t help but admire people who overcome it.

DW: The more time spent in the water the better, but once per week in the lead up to the race season is fine. Ideally, this is in addition to the normal pool sessions, as the open water session is more about sensory awareness than fitness or technique. Diving deeper (no pun intended) – if an athlete is travelling to a new race venue and swim course that is unfamiliar, arriving a couple of days early to get used to the water and surroundings is very valuable. If an athlete is self-admittedly terrified of the open water (not surprising in Australia, let’s be frank) the best option to take as much time with a patient buddy or coach to traverse from simply being near the shoreline to standing, sitting then moving through the water. A lot of swimming development comes from training the mind – rather than body – through repetition of movement. This applies just as much for phobia of the open water too: train the mind in the best way possible.

AT: John, I understand you run open water swim sessions in summer. What sort of things can athletes expect to get out of open water swim sessions? What does an open water swim session look like?
JVW: Yes, thanks, Margs – Wednesday nights at Half Moon Bay [on Port Phillip, Victoria] in summertime. We just do a lot of racing, varying the distances each week. It’s all about getting athletes confidence up and getting over any issues, and about nailing their starts – to get on the best toes possible and to concentrate to stay there. If it’s rough we spend time practicing not being the victim and attacking the conditions back. Most people wear wetsuits but there’s channel swimmers there to that just go in speedos. I get swimmers with anxiety to stick together and practice drafting in the shallows where they can stand until their confidence builds up.

For more information on John’s open water swim sessions at Half Moon Bay, visit – johnvanwisse.com/coaching/swim-squad

AT: What level of swimmer do athletes have to be to come along to the open water swim sessions? Or can anyone attend?
JVW: As long as you’re reasonably confident, come along – it’d be great to have you there. I have a paddler and I swim to bark orders at anyone who is not on toes, but we can’t keep an eye on everyone all the time. The swimmers who get panic attacks I tend to get to stick together in the shallows and do turns until we come back (if we’re doing longer races – it changes every week). We generally get good numbers, so it makes for great race simulations and we always swim no matter how rough the waves are – so if it’s rough race day you’ve been in worse.

AT: What are the main safety precautions to take when swimming in the open water?
JVW: Build your confidence and skill set. Swim with a friend if you’re uncertain but start where you can stand up. If you want to swim more but are mate-less on certain days go to somewhere like the Brighton Sea Baths where there’s people around, shallow water and hot showers. I’ve seen many people who could barely put their face down finish local races at first, then Ironman distances.

AT: When is it safest to swim in the open water e.g. time of day/month?
JVW: It depends on the strip of water. Do your research. Port Phillip Bay is fantastic. There are no rips or massive tides, or many large hungry fish. Watch out for stingrays when walking in (it rarely happens but I’ve had a few mates get barbed). If you’re swimming in the colder months, go to places like the Brighton Baths [in Victoria] as they have a steam room/hot showers and people around.

AT: How can athletes gain confidence in the open water? What do you do if you have a panic attack? How do you control your fear?
JVW: The best way to get over your fears is take them on. You will beat your fears through repetition and building your skill sets. Be smart about it though – build into it. Like I said before – start in the shallows with a wetsuit on or fins (or both). If possible swim with others. Practice drafting with them/grabbing legs/swimming over each other – keep it fun and try to laugh about it (in the shallows first). On race day if you’re really swim fit but get anxiety issues in open water do a massive warm up at race pace. That’s the best way to get it out of your system.
You’ll be fine once the gun goes after that.

Core work: TRX Suspension or therabands are not only great training tools to build effective core muscles but also to prepare the limbs before getting into the water.

STEP 4 Consider your core

Last but not least – to be a strong swimmer you need to be, well, strong. What can you do to increase your strength out of the water?

AT: Core strength seems to be a big component of overall sports performance – it helps with swim, bike and run efficiency. What exercises do you recommend athletes do to strengthen their core for swimming?
BF: I’m a big fan the TRX Suspension kits for developing a stronger core, but basic core exercises like dead bugs (lying on your back and raising/lowering one arm and your opposite leg) or a double leg raise laying on your back are excellent.

AT: Dry land activation – why is this important to do before starting a swim session? Should all athletes be doing this?
DW: I do advocate stretching and activation before swim practise. The stretching part is not to avoid injury or specifically to warm up muscle groups, but more so to prepare the limbs – the arms and shoulders – for achieving the most useful positions while in the water. Most age groupers are not ultra-flexible like elite swimmers, so getting our elbows and forearms into the most useful positions is difficult without a little preparation. If we accept that freestyle should be a whole-body approach, then most of the power comes from the hips and core – where rotation is controlled. Doing some Pilates-style activation on the poolside before practise will warm up the core and back muscles while kick-starting the brain to hold you flat in the water.

BF: I’m a big fan of therabands and using them to warm up before every session. Working through different yoga poses and movements is starting to gain traction with a lot of elite swim squads as a pre-session warm up. Because most triathletes are swimming early in the morning it’s best to do some sort of dry land activation and warm up especially for preventing shoulder problems down the track.

If you boil it down to four simple steps (as above), swimming can be easy and fun. Best of all, through regular practice, time in the water and consistency you can and you will become a better, stronger, faster and more confident swimmer. There is hope for us all! So, join a local squad and get swimming.

 

Swim services/squads around Australia:

• i4 Coaching i4coaching.com.au
• Elite Triathlon Performance Australia etpa.com.au/stroke- correction-program
• Effortless Swimming effortlessswimming.com
• Process_3 @process_3
• Open Water Mastery openwaterswimmingmastery.com
• Tri Alliance tri-alliance.com
• John Van Wisse johnvanwisse.com/ coaching/swim-squad
• Masters Swimming South Australia mastersswimmingsa. org.au
• Vlad Swim vladswim.com.au

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Margaret Mielczarek

Margaret Mielczarek is the deputy editor at Australian Triathlete Magazine and writes the web series 'Shenanigans of a Deputy 2.0'. She is a passionate age-group triathlete and four-time Ironman finisher - currently in training for Ironman number five!

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