Throughout the years, I continue to reflect on the quote: “The most important step in any journey is the first step.”  A triathlon is very similar, and depending upon the swimming ability of a triathlete, the first step of the swim can be exciting and something to look forward to.  Or it can be the phase of the event that you dread, dislike, and find most unpleasant.  (That’s not a great way to start the day.)

For many triathletes, swimming is the one discipline that creates the most difficulty.  First, you are in the water with your face down and people are in front of you, behind you, and beside you.  Second, there is no conversation between athletes during the swim. (This makes it even more difficult relative to making any possible adjustments to pacing and positioning.)  Third, if a triathlete does not have an understanding and mastery of good swimming technique and mechanics, it can lead to inefficiently and being in the water much longer than necessary.

Consider integrating the following into your training routine to help you improve your swim technique and mechanics, and more importantly, contribute to a better swim in your upcoming races.

  • Frequency:  To become a better swimmer, get into the water on a regular basis.  As a former AAU and community college swimming coach, I can assure you that being in the water 3-4 times a week pays dividends.  Being in the water more often should make you more comfortable and provide more opportunities to develop better swimming technique.  Conversely, it is really tough to get significant gains in your endurance, strength, and swimming technique when you only swim 1-2 times per week.
  • Intensity:  Intensity counts!  I believe it is better to swim faster for a shorter distance as compared to swimming long and slow.  Swimming long, slow distances will lead to poor swimming technique.  
  • Duration:  Duration is the last factor to consider.  Ideally, a triathlete can sustain his/her swimming technique for at least 30 minutes during a training session at a moderate intensity.  If you start to lose your technique during a swimming workout, think about calling it a day.  Reinforcing bad technique will do more harm than good.
  • Technique:  Never underestimate the importance of good swimming technique.  Triathletes who come out of the swim near the front typically have exceptional swimming technique.  Breaking down each phase includes a smooth entry, strong catch, and increased acceleration through the pull and push phases. Your recovery phase is a time to relax your arm and there is a lot of variation from swimmer to swimmer. Of course, if you’ve never had your stroke critiqued by a swimming coach, now is the time.  Find someone who can give you some feedback so that you can make adjustments. These adjustments will make you more efficient in the water. If possible, have someone videotape you.  (You will be amazed at how handy a smartphone can be for assessing your stroke!)
  • Breathing: Breathing patterns vary from person to person. Some people are more comfortable breathing on the left side, some like the right side, while others prefer bilateral breathing.  The most important factor when selecting your breathing preference is to make sure you are exhaling when your face is in the water.  Not exhaling will cause an increase in heart rate, build-up of carbon dioxide, fatigue, and dizziness. (This is not a good combination and will not contribute to a good swim. ) Additionally, if you don’t warm-up or are swimming in cold water, exhaling is even more important than ever.  Cold water can cause a sudden desperation for more oxygen and an increase in your heart rate within the first 1-2 minutes.  When starting the swim and throughout this phase of a triathlon, keep telling yourself to “exhale, exhale, and exhale.”
  • Body Position:  The preferred position for swimming is to remain horizontal in the water for the duration of your swim.  Understand that when your head comes up your feet typically will go down.   You will go from a horizontal position to a diagonal position, which can cause more resistance and more drag. As you swim, think about having the water at your hairline. (If you don’t have much hair, imagine where you hairline was at one point in your life.) The other factor to remember to help maintain a horizontal position is your kicking pattern.  Are you kicking two times per stroke or six times per stroke? For a swim of 500 yards or fewer, more kicking will be of more benefit; however, a 1.2 or 2.4-mile swim is much longer, so a reduced kick would be my recommendation. Think about letting your upper body do the work, kick from your hip, and eliminate excessive bending of the knees.  Excessive bending of the knees will have a negative effect on forward propulsion and body position.

The swimming phase of a triathlon should be enjoyable, and it should set the tone for the entire race.  A good swim can really make a huge difference when you transition into the bike phase of the race.  Additionally, as your swimming technique and efficiency improve, you will appreciate and understand the importance of a good swim.

Contributing Author: Jason McFaul

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