Friday, February 13, 2015

The Swim - A Few Tips

Okay, I'm not a swim coach. And we all know that sometimes I secretly (or vocally) hate the swim. But, I also spent a very long time as a competitive swimmer and it remains my "strong suit" in triathlon. After giving a few friends some tips, drills, and sets to do lately, I thought I would share those same tips here as well.  There are so many things to think about on the swim and it can be very frustrating to be learning and / or not seeing results.  If you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to ask or to talk to your swim coach!


Suit: Ladies, I know it is awesome to have a pretty, colorful suit.  If that is what will get you to practice, by all means, go buy a pretty suit.  But, my preference are suits that last forever (mostly because SBR can be expensive (it doesn't have to be though) and I'd rather save my pennies for a fancy new bike than have to spend on new suits that wear out quickly).  Look for "endurance" or "poly" (as in polyester) fabric suits from Speedo or Nike. These suits last way, way longer than most.  The price point is usually pretty decent too, especially given how much wear you'll get out of it. Men, if you haven't already, it's time to get over your fear of wearing a speedo.  If need be, get a "drag suit" to help cover things up a bit more.

Goggles:  These are a personal preference. I have been a long-time fan of the Speedo Vanquisher, but honestly you may have to try a few pairs out before you find something that works for you. (I used to only wear Swedes, but I wouldn't recommend that torture on anyone.) I also always buy two pairs of goggles, one in a regular lens for indoor training and cloudy days and one with a tinted or mirrored lens for sunny days in open water. Try to wear the same goggles for practice as you do for racing.

Cap:  Don't get fancy. Just save up your swim caps from your races. If you're new to the sport, ask someone for a cap.  I haven't bought a swim cap in years.  And the only time I wear a silicone cap is if that's what the required cap for a race is made of.  Wet your hair before putting it on. Put the front of it on first.  Watch other swimmers do it if you need to.

Pull buoy:  I'm a big fan of using a pull buoy, mostly to improve your upper body strength.

Paddles:  Same goes for paddles, use them with or without the buoy.  Paddles will definitely tell you when the front end of your stroke is "wrong," because swimming with them will feel really strange.  When your stroke is good, you will feel like a powerful beast in the water.

Some tips: 

1) Body and Head Position: The water should hit at the crown of your head (slightly lower sometimes if you are a woman). You want to be looking out ahead of you at an angle (not straight down at the bottom of the pool or straight ahead of you.). Fins can help with body positioning at first (but core strength is really important if you wear fins a lot, don't let that belly collapse down).  It pains me when people suggest that they can just rely on their wetsuit to help with body positioning during a race.  Using equipment is never a substitute for learning proper technique and you never know when the water will be too warm and wetsuits won't be allowed during a race!!

2) Catch and front end of your stroke:  As in the photo above, as you start your catch with the front hand, the other arm is already coming through above the water with elbow slightly leading the way (important to note for your breathing as when your hand leads, you will be more likely to be getting mouthfuls of water instead of air).  And the thing that changed my swimming the most: I may end up posting a video to describe this a little bit better.  The thing that I like to think about is that you are not pulling your arm past your body, but rather you are trying to propel your body past your arm.  Imagine that your hand is an anchor and that it stays in one place as you propel past it.  To get a feel for this, I like to go to a starting block, place my right hand on it, palm flat, with my body facing the block (hand should be aligned just to the right of the center line of your body.  Then I try to pull myself up out of the water by bending my elbow and pressing my palm into the block.  Your hand can't go anywhere, but you have to try to move your body past your hand.

3) Rotation:  Imagine that there is a rotisserie spit through your body. To be most streamlined and efficient, you want to rotate your body around this spit as you swim.  Some of the drills below help to emphasize rotation.

4) Stroke rate:  I'll explain a bit more about stroke rate later in a separate post about open water swimming.  For now though, try to practice increasing your stroke rate during practice, because the best open water swimmers have a fairly quick stroke rate.  Don't forget to finish your stroke though!  You still want to be catching lots of water, so don't sacrifice technique for increased stroke rate.

5) Video:  If you can, have someone film you swimming (a GoPro is great for this).  Look for body positioning, a crossover out front, the finish, elbow positioning, rotation, and where you are breathing.  Watch videos of other swimmers too!


Finger Drag - helps to focus on high elbows

Six Kick switch - focus on fully rotating

Fist drill - instead of swimming with open palms, make a fist and swim. This drill forces you to feel the water on your forearm! This one is my favorite drill.

Catch-up drill - helps with crossover, but also with keeping your arms out in front. Use a kickboard to especially help eliminate crossover

Sculling - (do at least the first 2 from the video) - sculling is really good for getting a feel of the water. You will notice very quickly if you aren't grabbing much water, because you won't be moving at all! This one requires patience, and I recommend moving to the slow lane for this one.

For each workout, warm-up for at least 5-10 minutes with easy swimming, a few laps of backstroke in the warm-up, some kicking, and some drills. Have a plan when you go to the pool. Swim with a purpose.

Main sets: These sets are pretty basic.  The idea is that your main set should be either speed or endurance focused, and can sometimes be both, depending on your preferred triathlon distance.  Try to figure out your goal pace for your race.  In a "build" set, the final rep should be at your goal pace.  In a "fast" set, you should aim for 5-10 seconds faster than your goal pace.  Ideally in a build set, the difference between the first and last rep won't be that major (e.g., improving by 2-3 seconds per 100m for a total of a 6-10 second difference between the first and last 100 on 4x100m build)

4x50 - descend (getting faster each 50) (20 seconds rest)
4x75 - build (getting faster each 100) (20 seconds rest)
4x100 - descend (getting faster each 100) (40 seconds rest)


2x200 - moderate pace (30-45 seconds between each)
    1 minute rest
4x100 - descend 1-4 (20-30 seconds between each)
    1 minute rest
6x50 - descend 1-3 (15-20 seconds between each)


2-3x   1x200 - moderate pace - 45 seconds rest
          2x100 - fast (it should be very difficult to breathe after each one) - 20-30 seconds rest
          1 minute rest between rounds

The Ladder: Try to do the second half faster than the first half. Take 20-45 seconds rest between.

Kick Sets:

I believe in kicking for at least 200m during each practice. I know people say that triathletes need to "save our legs" for the other disciplines, but that still means we need to have a strong and EFFICIENT kick so that we get the most bang for our buck. Plus the swim is like a warmup for the rest of the race.  The kick provides propulsion and helps lift the body.  Kicking is also good for opening the hips up!  Use a board, kick on your back in streamline, do whatever works for you.

At a minimum, kick 200m without stopping during each swim training session. Or you can do 50s or 100s (8x50 or 4x100 with about 20-30 seconds rest in between).

Good Resources:

Total Immersion (lots of great videos to teach you how to swim properly)

Triathlete Magazine Swim Sets

Sara McLarty's blog (750 different swim sets)


  1. Great post, Kelsey! Even though I was a lifeguard and taught swimming lessons for years, I didn't grow up a swimmer (we didn't have a swim team at my high school), so swim tips are always helpful :) I'm a huge fan of the pull buoy and paddles, too. Need to get out the GoPro to film my swim!

  2. Awesome!! Great tips! thanks! I have only been "swimming" for 7 years. It is nice to read tips and think about my stroke and what I need to work on or how I can improve!! I love Sara McLarty's work outs!!

  3. This post is incredibly informative! Even someone like me who has a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with swimming can take away a lot from this and work on my weaknesses. Now that I am not doing triathlon this year, I've gone back and forth about whether I want to swim. I do, but I much prefer to do so once the weather is warmer and I can swim outside. I hear that it is really good for pregnancy and core - so I should probably just commit. Plus, I've been told that I will be more buoyant and probably get faster. YES! :)