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.