As a coach who works with a lot of triathletes remotely, I am generally pretty happy when my athletes join coached masters groups or otherwise engage with a local swim coach who can keep an eye on technique. While remote video analysis is a powerful tool, it’s generally beneficial to have a skilled coach on deck providing regular and immediate feedback throughout a workout.
I have great love for the best swim coaches and, in general, believe that as triathletes we should look to the best practices and techniques from each of the individual sports to help guide our technical training. In addition to being certified by USAT, I’m also a USA Swimming certified coach and keep up with the articles and research in the swimming world.
With that said, I present here the most common advice I hear from swim coaches that I don’t believe leads triathletes in the right direction. In some cases, I don’t think it’s good advice at all. But as a caveat (before I piss off a lot of great swim coaches), in many cases, the advice may be indicated for a swimmer who is in the pool every day, often twice, dedicating complete workouts (or even full weeks) to technique development while accumulating 20k or 40k or 60k every week and getting immediate feedback every day--all in the quest for dropping seconds or even tenths of seconds in pool races that typically last 20 seconds to a few minutes.
For age-group triathletes, who typically swim 2 to 4 times a week and are training to race in open water for 10 to 60+ minutes before getting on the bike and then going for a run, “swimming like a swimmer” isn’t always the best advice.
Advice to watch for:
1. Maximize Distance per Stroke (reduce your stroke count). This seems to be in the bible of high school and masters coaches. Just about every swimmer I’ve ever worked with has told me that their coach had them working on this at one point or another. And it can be good advice at the right time of development--it is definitely valuable up to a certain point. But after analyzing hundreds and hundreds of individual triathlete’s techniques, I very commonly advise triathletes to increase their stroke count--and not to maximize distance per stroke.
Calculating swimming speed is a simple formula: Stroke Rate x Distance per Stroke (DPS). If you make your DPS really, really big, your stroke rate will most likely drop significantly. Think about the extreme--really maximizing your distance per stroke--you’d practically be swimming a full catchup stroke with lots of gliding. Sure, you might get across a 25 yard pool in 8 or 9 or 10 strokes with the help of a nice strong kick (not a hallmark of most triathletes) but your stroke rate would be very low and you’d be swimming slowly.
There’s no magic number of strokes that any individual athlete should take to get across the pool--it varies by athlete. Don’t arbitrarily shoot for 12 or 15 strokes (or some rule-of-thumb number). Instead, experiment with your stroke count and length to find the combination that makes you fastest.
2. Recover with a High Elbow. In textbook swimming style, your arm will exit the water with a high elbow and during recovery, your hand will swing underneath your elbow, moving forward along the line of a pendulum. This keeps you aligned and encourages rotation. You’ve probably come across plenty of fingertip and thumb drag drills to work on this high elbow recovery. It makes for a great-looking stroke and is quite efficient for many swimmers, including triathletes. But it’s not ideal for everyone. In my experience, it can lead many triathletes to be very narrow at entry, causing them to have to over-rotate or begin their catch by pressing their hands outward (laterally, across then away from your body). This lateral overhead movement contributes to shoulder injuries.
Note also that triathletes race in open water, where having a bit of width to your recovery helps create a clear channel for sighting and carves out a little space next to you so that when you go to take a breath, there won’t be another swimmer in your face.
In general, I don’t worry about the “shape” of a triathlete’s recovery unless it’s causing problems elsewhere in the stroke. For most triathletes, it’s best to aim for an entry point where the inside of your thumbs are aligned with the outside of your shoulders and your hand/forearm doesn’t cross in front of your head. If you enter that way, how you get there probably doesn’t matter much.
3. Rotate More. Rotation, in and of itself, does nothing to move you forward in the water. Don’t believe me? The next time you go to the pool, spend a moment just floating and try to rotate--do you move forward? Rotation helps put your arms in the right position to execute a strong pull (using your lats). If you are wide at entry, you don’t need much rotation in order to pull with your back. If you’re narrow at entry, you’ll need to rotate more in order to recruit the right muscles for a powerful pull. So rotation, like everything else on this list, is really dependent to the swimmer’s overall technique. It’s not a “rule” that everyone should rotate X degrees. Of course, if your mouth doesn’t clear the surface of the water when you go to take a breath, you need to rotate more (regardless of the width of your stroke at the front).
Always focus rotation on your hips--don’t worry so much about your shoulders. For most swimmers I’ve worked with, as long as hip rotation is appropriate, shoulder rotation will be good. As you work toward the finish of your stroke, think about “snapping” your hips open to the other side rather than gently rolling your hips through the stroke. This is made much easier on race day in a wetsuit that floats you higher in the water (and many have “roll bars” to assist with hip rotation). But don’t worry about achieving a specific degree of rotation.
4. Finish Your Stroke. This advice ties into the idea of maximizing distance per stroke. In open water, with a churned up surface (from environmental conditions and all of the other swimmers “in your lane”), currents, wind, etc., having a nice long stroke isn’t often the best choice. Shorter, choppier strokes can often be faster. Extending your arm as far back as you can at the end of your stroke is made harder by your wetsuit (even with the awesome advances in wetsuit tech in recent years). And the last part of that arm extension for a long finish is driven by the tricep--a small muscle that you’re asking to do a big job (moving your body forward). In most cases, you’ll be faster if you don’t try to maximize length at the back of your stroke. Make sure your hand passes your hip, but it doesn’t need to press all the way down to mid-thigh. This will (gasp!) decrease your distance per stroke and (gasp!) increase the number of strokes it will take you to get across the pool, but it will also make you faster in open water.
5. Breathe Every 3 Strokes. Bilateral breathing is a fantastic skill and, ideally, every triathlete will become equally comfortable breathing to either side. But most triathletes (and pure swimmers) have a preferred side to breathe on and breathing to that side more often is likely faster. Sometimes in open water, conditions or traffic around you will necessitate breathing on your non-preferred side. Being able to do that effectively is important. But you don’t have to breathe in a 3-3-3-3 (classic bilateral) pattern. You can breathe 3-2-2-3-2-2, or 2-2-2-2-3-2-2-2, or 3-2-3-3-2-2-4-3-2-2 (no pattern at all). In general, my advice is to breathe when you need a breath--like you do when cycling or running. When your face is in the water, exhale. When you’re ready to breathe, breathe. Timing will be mostly determined by how hard you’re working. When you’re going hard, like in a sprint race, you may need to breathe every stroke cycle (2-2-2-2-2) in order to get enough oxygen to survive the pace. Midway through an Ironman swim, you might be relaxed and efficient enough to take longer gaps between breaths--perhaps breathing every 4 strokes. It is totally dependent to the conditions you find yourself in at any given moment. So develop some flexibility to your breathing patterns--there’s not magic in a 3-3-3-3 pattern. When you want to practice off-side breathing, just breathe to that side--you don’t have to follow a specific pattern.
And one final note on breathing. I haven’t seen any evidence that hypoxic swim sets (holding your breath) create any physiological benefit. Further, at the extreme, the results can be life-threatening. In no circumstances would I ever assign or participate in a “see how far you can swim without taking a breath” set (such as trying to swim a length without taking a breath). There are well-documented risks to this sort of practice. Always refuse to participate.
So what should you be working on? The most common opportunities I see are in improving body position, developing a strong catch with an early vertical forearm, and developing a rhythmic and propulsive kick (even if you don’t kick hard). Stay tuned for a future article.
Coach Dave Sheanin knows that you can’t win a triathlon in the swim (but you can definitely lose one). He’d rather his athletes spend time perfecting technique before adding volume. Practice not until they “get it right” but rather, until they “can’t get it wrong”. Dave is a certified USA Triathlon, USA Swimming, and Training Peaks coach.