If you’ve followed this blog for while you’ve probably noticed two things about my swims: I’ve never considered it my strength, but I am doing relatively well.
Like most triathletes I’ve had a difficult relationship with swimming from the beginning. I’ve never really swum. I learned to not drown as a kid, I’ve spent endless hours at the lake or public pools in my youth. But I’ve never swum properly. My first triathlon-swim will sound reminiscent of many novice‘ triathletes experience. My memory is a blur of terror, other people, leaky goggles, cold water, fear of the dark underneath, losing a contact, hyperventilation, breast stroking.
Keep Your Intervals Short
I quickly moved to the 70.3 distance. The goal was to survive the swim, a 40 minute swim was my benchmark. Our coach taught us well and explained the basic elements of a proper stroke: head down, engaged core, hand close to body, high elbow, streamlining, little head movement for breathing, exhaling under water. It was like learning learning the alphabet and drawing basic letters. That early in my swim „career“ my main concern was to go the distance without breast stroking or suffocating. And because of this I would strive for longer and longer intervals, needing reassurance that I actually can swim 1.9k at once. It was extremely important to me mentally, but it was actually terrible. What makes you swim a long time is a clean, relaxed and fluid stroke, exactly the opposite of what a novice swimmer exhibits after 1500m without a break. Instead we are much better off doing plenty of short intervals, no longer than what we can maintain at lest acceptable form for. There is no shame in taking a break after 50 or 100m if it means that you can spend more time total swimming with good technique.
Technique is Everything
You’ve heard it a million times. I’ll say it again. Swimming is like running with a backpack of rocks. The better your technique, the lighter the rock sin your backpack become. Of course you can neglect technique and go for strength and endurance by swimming a lot, utilizing paddles and doing relevant strength conditioning in the gym. But that can only gets you so far, in the end you’re just becoming better at running with a backpack full of rocks.
Do Not Forget the „How“ of Good Technique
I see this mentioned rarely, but looking very closely at the nature of swimming there are two dimensions to good form. One aspect is what you execute, the elements of good form which an outside observe can see. High elbow, straight spine, high legs and so on. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that highlight all aspects of good form, so many in fact that it takes some effort and deliberation to decide where you want to start. A second aspect that gets overlooked often, I believe it is almost impossible to be taught, is how you execute. When we are riding our bike, we have a machine that is strictly limiting the planes in which we move, which muscles to activate, and when to fire them. In running, the moment out foot hits the ground acts as an anchor to calibrate our movements and timing. But in the water everything is fluid, no pun intended. Nothing to anchor your timing to and nothing to calibrate your movements, you have to coordinate and time it all by yourself. Among all things this is the toughest nut to crack. We have to develop a delicate feeling for which muscles to fire and which to relax, at which time in our stroke. For me, this is still an open issue. Sometimes I find swim bliss and everything clicks. I pull strongly, my kick is in sync with the rest, breathing timed perfectly. And aminute later it is gone and I feel like I am squirming like an eel.
Drills Are Important. Understanding the Purpose of Each Drill is Importanter
When you start out you’ll quickly learn that triathletes are supposed to do many drills. Just like we have no shame riding bikes with stupid helmets and weird handlebars, we’re also the ones lugging bags full of equipment to the pool deck with a straight face. And that is all well and good because we’re in desperate need to clean up our stroke and develop our rhythm. However, too often we execute a drill we read about or somebody told us to do without really understanding the point of it. Which is risky, because a poorly executed drill might cause more harm than good. Let’s take the most popular of all drills, the catch-up, as an example. Why is it important? Because it teaches you very important things. Having your hand way out front and leaving it there for longer does two good things. A long reach gives you a longer pull and more speed. And having the arm extended helps straighten your core and lifting your hip and feet. We want to spend as much time as possible in this streamlined position with an arm extended. The drill teaches extension, timing and a quick but forceful pull. You have to understand this in order to execute the drill properly and learn from it, otherwise you’re just becoming better at executing your personal interpretation of that drill. Even worse, execute it wrong and you’re going backwards. With catch-ups a common mistake is to actuall touch hands before pulling through. It is bad because it teaches you to guide your hand so that it enters the water on or worse across your centerline. Crossing over is a very common mistake, holding back many beginners, don’t reinforce bad habits.
The Correct Way to Pick Your Drills
Building on my previous ramblings then, how do we treat drills? I’d say start with your way. Analyze your stroke, have a coach or experienced buddy on deck, post videos on the internet. Break down your stroke and try to isolate single aspects of your stroke that could be improved. Really understand what your currently doing, because our subjective truth might be deviating far from reality, and then really understand the proper way of doing it. Videos of experienced swimmers can help with this analysis.
Now that you’ve identified your skill gap, think long and hard about how to close that gap. There is not shortage of drills for every conceivable flaw in your stroke. Identify the most suitable one and execute, frequently.
I’d say focus on one thing at a time, constantly monitor your progress. And once you are sure that you’ve reduced your skill gap you can move on to the next flaw. This approach gives you structure and allows you to really focus on a single thing.