The Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Triathlon Swims
Scroll down for Installments II and III (click on photos to enlarge).
Does this sound familiar?
You’ve done your laps at the pool diligently all winter long and have gotten into rather good shape; the best shape you’ve been in, in years! Sure your swim technique may not be the best, but still, you’ve done the work and can confidently swim a mile in the pool with no problem. You’re looking forward to your first Tri of the season. The gun sounds…
• Scenario #1. Fifty yards into the swim… “Oh my God the water is cold. Crap, my goggles just fogged up. I can’t see anything except the blinding sun. Oh, God, there is a lot of thrashing going on around me! That jackass just kicked me in the face. OMG the water is cold, even in this new wetsuit, which by the way is tightening around my throat. I can’t even extend my arms. The Velcro strap is tearing away my flesh. I can’t breathe! I need air… #*!#%*…. I’m going to drown. PANIC. Where’s the life guard? Get me out of here.”
• Scenario #2. Fifty yards into the swim… “I am so glad I warmed up. I fixed those foggy goggles and readjusted my wet suit; I got my heart rate up and my blood flowing. I am really feeling the buoyancy of this new wet suit. I am flying by all the rookies out here. There’s the first buoy. It’s time to churn.”
#1. Avoid panic by warming up.
- Panic, a frequent complaint in open water swims, happens to some of the strongest and ablest of swimmers. The best way to prevent panic is to get an adequate warm-up. The swim warm-up is the most disregarded of the essential pre-race activities. Unfortunately, the nature of the venue or the size of the field sometimes prevents triathletes from warming up, but if at all possible, get in, get moving and get acclimated to the cold. Not only will you get your cardiovascular system ready for the impending start, but you can test your goggles and wetsuit for mechanical problems.
Why is panic so common? There is a well-studied physiological response called the “mammalian diving reflex.” Simply stated, when a human or other mammal submerges their face in cold water, there is an immediate reflex which slows the heart rate and narrows the blood vessels in the extremities. This reflex conserves oxygen for the brain and enables diving mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals to stay submerged for prolonged periods. Unfortunately the reflex does not afford us the same advantage. Nevertheless, when starting a triathlon, the last thing you want to do is to lower your heart rate and constrict the flow of blood to your arms and legs. Without an adequate warm-up, the diving reflex will win out over your adrenaline and will deprive you of the oxygen you need. You will become anaerobic. Fear of drowning will overcome you and you will be in full panic mode.
I’ve swum over 100 open water races in cold and warm water, in fresh and salt water, from 400 meters up to five miles. Panic still surprises me if I take shortcuts before an open water swim. It’s physiology. The diving reflex exists in our brain stem (or some dark recess) – a remnant from our primordial ‘aquatic’ past. Warm up and have a great swim!
The Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Triathlon Swims
Scroll down for Installment III (click on photos to enlarge).
- #2. Swim horizontally in a streamlined manner – Water presents incredible resistance. To minimize this resistance (drag) you need to be as straight as an arrow. Your toes should be pointed and legs should be high in the water and close together. Keep your knees and ankles bumping each other while they float behind in the slipstream created by your head and torso.
- Any body part outside the stream creates more drag. This includes the head when it’s held too high or during a breath, and the hips if they bend sideways. Most flaws in swimming technique directly affect the streamline position so you will hear more about this.
- # 3. Don’t kick so furiously. Please stop kicking, especially with bent knees (bicycle kick). A powerful kick will certainly help good swimmers swim faster, but without good technique, kicking will slow you down, deplete your oxygen, and, ultimately, make you hate swimming. I tell struggling swimmers to stop kicking altogether and to practice with a pull buoy to improve your horizontal position and to eliminate your legs from the equation. Almost immediately, you will notice that it’s much easier to swim without the added resistance of thrashing legs and with the extra oxygen normally lost to them. Once the proper horizontal position is achieved, try to develop a proper kick which begins at the hips with propulsive forces traveling down the leg like a whip. It’s OK to use fins, but I recommend the longer fins rather than the short ones. Your knees will bend some, but the less so the better.
- #4. Rotation – Just as in swinging a golf club or baseball bat, the power stroke in swimming is driven by rotation of the hips and is transmitted through the entire body from toes to fingertips. In addition to making it easier to breath because your head rotates with your body out of the water, the hip (and shoulder) rotation powers the underwater stroke where propulsion originates. When your right arm begins the pull, your right hip and shoulder should rotate out of the water powering the stroke. If you are swimming “flat”, without rotation, you will have less power and your body will naturally bend sideways at the hips to assist arm recovery creating more drag.
- #5. Eliminate the arm crossover – An efficient “catch” initiates the power stroke. It should begin directly in front of your shoulder, not in front of your head, or worse, in front of your opposite shoulder. First problem: crossing over causes lateral movement of the hips which destroys your streamline, and 2nd, during the power stroke with a crossover, you push water sideways rather pulling and then pushing water from directly in front of you to directly behind you. The opposite problem, equally bad, is pulling too wide. During a proper pull, the path of your thumb should trace your midline. Do this with a slightly bent elbow, fingertips pointing down, but do not cross over the midline.
- #6. Keep your head aligned with your spine. Triathletes who struggle with swimming complain that their legs sink. And they do! To overcome this, work on proper head position and use a pull buoy. Push your chest down. Your eyes should be looking straight down at the black line, not where you are going. (Open water swimming requires some additional visual skills – see below). The water line should be on the crown of your head, not on your forehead. Keep your forehead in the water at all times and keep one goggle in the water during the breath.
Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Triathlon Swims
#7. Breathe more often. You don’t hold your breath while running or biking. Don’t do it while swimming. If you breathe to one side only, then breathe every two or four strokes maximum. Right, left, is two strokes. You will be a lot happier with plenty of oxygen. If you breathe on alternate sides (a valuable skill) then every three strokes is great. If you are breathing every 5 or 6 strokes, then you are not working hard enough. Most important, exhale underwater and begin exhaling again as soon as your face is back in the water after your breath. Ventilate your lungs just as you would while running. Breathe in – breathe out – no breath holding (except while sighting – see below). Keep your head down and rotate your body to breathe. Your head will create a bow wave which creates an air pocket where you can breathe (see photo in Installment II). If you lift your head, your hips and legs will sink creating more drag and the air pocket will disappear.
#8. Keep your elbow high during recovery, catch and pull. Recovery should be with a relaxed arm with elbow high and rotated body (see photo in Installment II). Once you initiate a catch, rotate that hip and shoulder downward to extend your reach underwater while keeping your wrist above your fingers, and your elbow above your wrist for maximum power. If you drop your elbow below your wrist, you’ve transitioned to dog paddle, which works OK for dogs, but not so much for humans. After the catch, when you begin your power stroke, that same shoulder and hip will rotate upward to drive the stroke.
#9. Improve Your Open Water Sighting Skills. With a symmetrical stroke you can swim straight without sighting for considerable distance. Most of us do not swim symmetrically, so sighting is a key skill. Find something high on the horizon that you can spot in an instant. Don’t keep searching for buoys; they disappear in almost any wave action or turbulence caused by swimmers. Every ten to 20 strokes, depending on how straight you swim, take a quick glance and adjust. Do this by simply raising your head slightly without taking a breath using “alligator eyes” or by taking one or two “Tarzan” strokes with your head out of the water. If you are searching for a tall tree on the horizon or a house on a hill, then a quick glimpse is all you need to make adjustments. If the sun is shining, you can keep the position of the sun shining into the water as a reference point. Alternatively, you can draft off a comparable swimmer who will be doing all the work of sighting. If that swimmer is off course, you’ll discover that soon enough and you can move on to someone else.
#10. Don’t just do lap swimming. Just as when you slog endless miles running slowly, endless laps may help you swim farther, but not faster. Work with a group in the pool, or if you must swim alone, go in with a plan and do interval workouts. Watch the clock and limit your rest. Break up the monotony with structured sets which vary in speed and distance. Plenty of workouts are available online. For example, go to https://swimopenwater.net/swim-workouts/Attention to these common swimming flaws will improve your swim overall, not necessarily making you faster right away, (that will come with your improved technique and increased swimming fitness), but it will get you out of the water with added confidence and energy and get you on your bike with an improved transition. Have a great swim!