Greg Roberts – AcroYogi – Life in Flow

Triathlon Tips : Part I : Optimizing your swim

train for your swim in a local lake

train for your swim like you’ll race : in the open water. photo credit : tara house

This is part 1 of a 5 part series of triathlon tips and tricks. The goal of these tips are to optimize your performance on race day, and to get you the best finish time possible.

First, Learn to Swim. Really.

Even though swimming generally is less than 10% of the total time in a race (30 minutes of 5 hours, or 1 hour of 11), some basic swimming skills can radically improve your time. While just about every athlete can run decently, and most have some fundamental biking skills, the swim is often left out as ancillary. That said, you should be able to at least drive towards a 30 minute mile in the swim. This shows a basic comprehension of technique, without hitting exhaustion or taxing your system early on.

There are some key tenets to basic swimming:

1. Flow. Find your rhythm. Your strokes should be smooth and rhythmic, like a metronome. Just as you do in running, experiment with cadence, power, and length. Find your comfort zone and ease into it.

2. Reach. for every stroke, reach as far as you possibly can forward, stretching. The goal is to go X distance with as few strokes as possible, delivering maximum power and distance per stroke. You can tune this value in the lap pool. Simply count the strokes from one end of the pool to the other. Modify your stroke technique and count again. Generally fewer strokes per length is a more powerful, efficient technique.

spock-hands3. Spock hands. You want to maximize the surface area of your paddle (i.e. hand) to maximize delivery of power. Beginners will simply cup their hands, no gaps between fingers and thumbs. But by placing a 1-2 cm gap between your middle and ring fingers, you can increase surface area by 10% while decreasing efficiency by only 5%… a net 5% power gain. Try it.

4. Sprint. From time to time, rock a full power sprint for 25, 50, 100 meters. This is where you will start to feel your optimal form emerging. If you can go more than 100 meters at this speed, then you’re not sprinting fast enough.

5. Optimize. swimming, just like running and biking, is about efficiency. Your goal is to move the maximum distance per stroke, using the absolute minimum amount of energy and effort. Sense the inefficiencies in your movement, the wobbles and wiggles that slow you down, the thrashing an d flailing of the arms, the sloppy haphazard kicks. Tune your form.

6. Visualize. Think about how sharks and dolphins move, with absolute and total efficiency and grace. Study underwater videos of Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin on Youtube.

7. Meditate. repeat the mantra as you swim: Steady, Smooth, Strong.

8. Experiment. Try slowing down your stroke and injecting more confident power into the water, like you would in high gear on a bike.

Second: It’s all about the open water.

Once you acquire the basic skill of swimming, you can leave the pool behind. Open water is so different from lap swimming that its like driving a car vs. riding a bike. Aside from the basic rules of the road, the two activities don’t have much in common.

So… practice in open water

Find a lake, river, bay or ocean near you. Find the best points for entry. Use your smartphone maps, and plot rough courses. Open water has so many advantages:

1. there are no breaks in the swim. Just as in your race, you learn to swim continuously. There are no kick-offs, rail-tags, or flip-turns. Just straight, constant swimming.

2. You learn to deal with wind, weather, and current.

Be one with the rhythms of the waves.

This is one of the key benefits of open water training and racing. You can fight the waves or use them to your advantage. When there are waves or pulsing current, take some time to feel the rhythm of the water. Optimally, you can find a stroke and breathing cadence that is in synchrony with the natural rhythm of the waves. In this way, you can literally deliver your maximum power stroke just as the wave is pulling you, in effect turbocharging your strokes as you literally bodysurf towards your destination.

Learn to navigate

You learn to navigate. There is no such thing as navigating in a pool. You see the markings on the floor through your goggles, if you enter a total trace state, you bump into the rail floats in mere seconds. In the open water, you learn from experience and repetition, how to swim in a straight line without guides. This skill alone can shave your split time by 10 minutes on race day.

pro mens swim finish
Practice your open water exit. (advanced)

You can win or lose entire minutes based on your exit technique. Most open water swim exits feature a gentle taper of the beach, where the competitors are allowed to walk, run, claw, swim, etc to the land. Find the combination of movements that gets you to dry ground most effectively. A technique I’ve seen many pros use successfully is a modified butterfly stroke, where they actually stand up, leap forward, rock two butterfly strokes while digging their hands into the sand, then stand up again and repeat the cycle. This technique is highly cardiovascular, and very effective at moving in water less than 24″ deep.

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Did these pointers help you?

Got some tips to share that aren’t covered here?

Comment below!

And be sure to check in for the next part of my series, Optimizing your Cycling.

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