Swim like a Golfer

Swimming is fundamentally different than running and biking because – like golf – it is primarily a technique sport. Mastering a technique sport demands that you spend focused time drilling the elements of the sport. Golfers will spend hours perfecting their drive by analyzing the bend in their knees, their body rotation, the bend in their elbows, their grip, and more. Swimming is very much the same.

It is important for triathletes to understand this because in order to be successful in swimming, you need to practice swimming like a golfer – not like a cyclist or runner. That means spending focused time in the water working on perfecting your technique and working on lots of drills.

Unfortunately, I constantly see triathletes taking the exact same approach to swimming as they do to biking and running. If you find yourself saying things like, “I just need to get in x laps a week and I’ll get faster.” or “If I can swim x yards today, I’ll get faster” – STOP! Simply getting in more and more distance in the water is not the best way to become a better swimmer. In fact, if you’re swimming with poor technique, you’re actually making it harder to improve because the more you swim with improper technique the more you re-enforce bad habits.

What areas of your stroke should you focus on? The three most important things are 1) an early, high elbow catch, 2) a strong pull, and 3) a streamlined body position.

The catch (early, high elbow)

The catch refers to the moment your arm grabs hold of the water and puts it in a position to pull you through the water. The goal with the catch is to make it early with a high elbow. You need to reach far infront of your body (towards the end of your lane) so that you can increase the distance you cover with every stroke. In order to actually grab the water, you need a high elbow. This will get your forearm and hand perpendicular to the direction you are swimming. You quickly notice that this is not a natural position and it is unlike anything else you would ever do. It also requires a tremendous amount of flexibility in your shoulders, so if you can’t get it yet, work on your flexibility.

The catch-up drill is a great way to work on an early catch. Catch-up isolates each arm and allows you to slow things down and focus on what your arm is doing. Make sure you make your catch, then start to pull. Avoid making the catch and starting to pull at the same time.

The pull (vertical forearm, accelerate)

The pull is the movement of your arm that propels you forward through the water. The first key to the pull is to keep your forearm and hand vertical in the water – perpendicular to the direction you are swimming. If your arm is less than vertical, you will lose efficiency because the water will slip off the end of your finger tips instead of your arm grabbing hold of the water and propelling your body past that point. The second key to the pull is to accelerate your arm through to the finish. Be patient at the catch to let yourself make the catch before you start to pull, then accelerate your hand through the pull.

A couple of my favorite drills to work on a good pull are sculling and fist. They each help you focus on getting your forearms vertical in the water – elbows high and press your forearms toward your feet. Swimming with paddles is another great way to work on your pull and especially on accelerating your arm through to the finish. When you swim with a paddle, make sure you are patient at the catch and then gradually accelerate through to the finish. Avoid putting too much pressure on right at the start of the stroke.


Streamlined Body Position

The last piece to focus on is a streamlined body position. When we swim, we move our bodies through a dense material – water. By putting ourselves in a streamlined position, we can reduce the amount of drag our body creates which reduces the amount of work we have to do in order to swim fast. The idea is that if you look head-on at someone swimming towards you, their entire body – torso, hips, and legs – should be hidden behind their shoulders. From the side, your body should look flat near the surface of the water.

Doing kicking drills is a great way to work on your streamlined position. Practice kicking with or without flippers with your arms held above your head (biceps squeezing your ears). For triathletes who race in open water, it is also important to learn how lifting your head to sight affects your body position (it makes your hips drop). We need to minimize that hip drop so that we can sight and still maintain good position. To do that, practice the Tarzan drill (swimming with head up) and also just practice sighting focusing on body position.


I know this is a lot to take in at once. Fortunately, finding your individual strengths and weaknesses is easier now than it ever because it is so easy to video yourself. If you have a GoPro and can video underwater, that’s the best way to go, but even using your cell phone above water is helpful. Get in the pool with a friend and take turns taking video of one another then review the film. Look for where your catch occurs, if your forearm is vertical during your pull, and if you are balanced in the water. What do you see? What are you doing well and what can you improve? Take what you find and start to incorporate it into your regular swim workouts. Pick one or two things to focus on at a time and then take a video again in a few weeks.

If you take this approach to swimming, you will start to see improvements quickly. Remember, every incremental improvement is going to make you faster. Even if you can’t get your body perfectly at the surface of the water, even if you can’t get your forearm perfectly vertical, every small step in that direction will make you a better swimmer.

Cycling Technique for Triathletes

On the spectrum of technique sports to fitness sports, road cycling leans pretty far to the fitness end. A triathlete’s and cyclist’s ability is primarily dependent on their fitness level. Nevertheless, there are a few key technique elements that will make a significant difference in your race day performance. Master these skills and you will become a more efficient rider as well as dramatically reduce your risk of injury.

Pedal in Circles

The single most important thing to learn to do appropriately is to pedal in circles. Sounds easy, right? Your crank arm is a fixed length, your pedal attaches to the end of it, and the pedal is forced to go in a circle. The big question is, “Are you pushing on the tangent of that circle at all times?” Many cyclists – new and experienced – are not and instead they pedal up and down. They slam their foot down like they want to kick through the pavement thinking that they’re generating more power. In reality, they’re wasting energy. You need to teach your body to pedal in circles and round out the bottom of your pedal stroke so that you’re pulling back at the bottom of the stroke.

There are a lot of trainer drills and ways to think about pedaling in circles that can be effective to improve your pedal stroke. What I have found to be most helpful is to do spin-ups at a low resistance (easiest gear) and a high cadence (30-40 rpm or even higher than where you normally ride). At this low resistance, you’ll immediately feel your hips start to bounce around in the saddle when you’re pedaling up and down. When you do it right, you’ll feel your hips sink into the saddle and stay in place as you increase the rpms. This immediate feedback from your body is why I like the drill.

Another drill that I like is the single leg drill. By pedaling with only one leg, you can feel if there is a disconnect in where you are applying power. Unclip one foot and rest it on the back of your trainer then pedal with the other foot. Focus on pulling back at the bottom of your pedal stroke, then all the way up and over the top. Since you only have one foot clipped in, you won’t be able to cheat and let your opposite foot pushing down lift your foot that’s clipped in. Work on this first sitting up with your hands on the handlebars. Once you master that, drop into aero position for an extra challenge. When you do it right, your pedal stroke will feel nice and smooth, but when you do it wrong you’ll feel a clicking/jerking pedal stroke. Again, I like this immediate feedback.

Relax Your Upper Body

The power you generate on your bike is coming from your legs – relax your upper body! If you’re riding a road bike, support your upper body with your core, keep a slight bend in your elbows, and make sure there is very little weight in your hands. If your hands/fingers start to get sore/tingly or completely lose feeling, that’s a sign that you’re putting too much weight in your arms. The same principles apply when you move to a tri bike with aero bars. Make sure you support from the core. Avoid letting your chest drop too far and your shoulder blades pinch together across your back.

Shift, Shift, Shift

I’m still amazed at how many triathletes I see that shift poorly. First, make sure you’re comfortable using both the gears in your big and small chain ring (left hand shifter) and all the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter). Next, think of shifting as a way to make the resistance level that your legs are feeling constant for the whole ride. Strive to make it feel like you’re riding on an indoor trainer where the wind and grade never changes. If the grade of the road starts to increase (uphill), shift down to an easier gear. Likewise, as the grade decreases (downhill), shift up to a harder gear. Listen to your legs and be in tune with how hard they are working so that you can shift immediately with the variations in terrain. Same goes for the wind – as that changes, shift as necessary.

If you have a power meter, you’ll be able to measure the difference – watch your power while you ride and keep a low variability index. It is eye-opening for most cyclists when they first start using a power meter and can see how much their power spikes from even small hills if they aren’t shifting appropriately. Triathlon, time-trial, non-drafting cycling is all about energy efficiency – especially over longer and longer distances. To be efficient, you need to reduce the variability through shifting.

Work on these tips next time you’re out riding or working on the trainer. Pedaling technique and relaxing your upper body are great things to work on during trainer rides in the winter. You’ll see the benefits by the time race season comes around.

Focus on Form

Use your base building phase to improve and perfect technique in each sport to be efficient and injury-free

Most of us are getting back into a normal training routine after some down time in the fall and over the holidays. Now that winter is here, we enter what is called the base building phase of training. A well-structured training plan consists of multiple phases each focused on different key elements of improving an athlete’s performance. The key to the base building phase, is improving and perfecting technique in each sport. Improving technique means working on drills in each sport and that means lots of repetition. This will accomplish two major things. First, it will lower an athlete’s risk of injury later in the season as we increase volume and intensity. Second, it will improve efficiency and in turn performance. Here’s more info on what the base building phase is and how it works.

Swimming is the most technique oriented of the three triathlon sports. Athletes need to focus on things like an early catch, strong pull, and appropriate body position. Cycling technique for triathletes is largely about pedaling efficiency (we won’t worry about the technique that mountain bikers need to master), body control, and appropriate shifting. Great run technique includes landing lightly on the balls of your feet and maintaining a slight forward lean. During base building, it’s important to work on all of these elements. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be publishing articles that go into greater detail on each sport.

Strength training also plays a large role in injury prevention and is a great thing to focus on during base building. Leg strength and core strength play a crucial role for triathletes, so be sure to emphasize those areas in your training. Not only that, but endurance athletes also need to focus on lateral strength (moving sideways). We spend so much time moving straight forward, that we create muscle imbalances which can lead to injury – particularly with running. Improving lateral strength will help reduce that risk.

As you move into base building, keep this info in mind so that you focus on the right training elements.