The Magnificent Seven: 7 Tips to Improve Your Triathlon Swim this Season

We’re less than 4 months out from the Chicago Triathlon. It’s a truism that the swim doesn’t make your triathlon performance but it can sure break it.  After all, if your swim is more like a “near death experience,” you won’t have much energy left for the longer biking and running legs.

And on a positive note, we’ve seen OVER AND OVER that triathletes who make their swim faster and more efficient improve their overall race times. If you’re not as exhausted and stressed after the swim, you’ll have more energy to bike harder and run faster.

As tri training season heats up, here’s our advice for improving your swim, and ultimately, your overall race time:

Tip 1: Work Obsessively To Reduce Drag

Triathlon swimmer in a pool | Chicago Blue Dolphins Swim School

Don’t abandon the pool as you get closer to your triathlon. It’s important to practice in the open water AND in a pool.

Swimming is a technique-limited sport, and nowhere does this show up more than creating excess drag and resistance when we swim.  The U.S. Navy estimated that the average lap swimmer converts 3 percent of energy expended into forward motion and wastes the other 97 percent in drag. By comparison, the best swimmers are 10 percent efficient. 

The takeaway from this statistic is that you have a nearly limitless ability to improve the way you move through the water. You can swim faster by reducing drag, and subsequently, slowing down less after each stroke.  How?

  • Work on balancing your body.
  • Swim longer on each stroke.
  • Improve your timing and breathing mechanics.
  • Reduce tension.

Eliminating drag means reducing the amount of energy you need to go the speed that you want to go.  That saves more energy for cycling and swimming, and ultimately, leads to a faster finish time. Focus on having a faster triathlon rather than just a faster swim. Work on your efficiency in every swim practice you do.

Tip 2: Count Your Strokes When You Swim – Even in the Lake

At the end of every freestyle workshop I conduct, I say to the students: “If you remember only one thing from this clinic, remember to count your strokes regularly.”

An easy way to count your strokes is to count one for every time your hand hits the water.  The number of strokes that you take to get down the pool is a great estimate of your efficiency.  Total Immersion coaches like me tell our swimmers to follow the model of the best swimmers in the world and cover between 55-70 percent of their height on every stroke.  Assuming a 5 yard push-off from the wall, taller swimmers can shoot for 13-16 strokes to get across the pool and shorter swimmers would be around 17-20 strokes.

You can use this information in two ways:

  1. To determine a trend.
  2. To monitor for consistency.

If your count is above that number, you’re wasting too much energy and need to work on your mechanics to reduce the count.  If you’re  6’2” and take 25 strokes to get down the pool, 13 strokes might seem like a crazy goal.  Don’t fret.  Focus on gradually reducing your count, but be super-consistent during your swim practices.  If you start your practice around 22 strokes, try to stay within 2-3 strokes of that count throughout your swim. If your count goes up more than that, your stroke is breaking down and it’s worth your time to slow down or stop and figure out what’s happening.

I love stroke counting so much that I have my swimmers count when they are out in Lake Michigan. We choose a fixed distance, such as the distance between beach ladders. We’ll swim between those ladders and count strokes. Consistent or lower counts over time indicates better form, navigation and fitness.

Many watches will count strokes for you but they will only count the number of times the watch hand enters the water. A good rule of thumb for these devices: Double your strokes and add one to get the two-arm count.  I still like having my swimmers count their strokes manually as a way of staying in the moment and making real-time adjustments if their counts falter.

Tip 3: Learn to Breathe on Both Sides & Build It Into Your Training

Most swimmers have a favorite breathing side.  We urge all of our swimmers to work on learning to breathe to both sides. From a practical standpoint, it gives you the flexibility of avoiding glare on one side, getting hit by waves on both side, and seeing packs or landmarks on both sides. Breathing to both sides also distributes the load on both sides of your body and helps to prevent neck and shoulder stiffness going onto the bike leg.

Tip 4: Incorporate Triathlon Skills into Your Swim Practices

Open water swimming has a slew of specific skills that make it different from pool swimming. You need to:

  • See where you are going (“sighting”).
  • Swim straight when there are no walls, no lines and often in cloudy water.
  • Start from a beach, start from a tread, or jump off a boat or pier.
  • Deal with the inevitable collisions involved with swimming in close quarters.

Don’t wait until race day to start working on these skills.  Incorporate them into every swim practice, whether you’re in a pool or in open water.  Here’s how:

  • Sighting – Practice integrating a “peek forward” into your stroke in your training sets. Sight 1-2 times per length of the pool and work on integrating it into your stroke with the least amount of disturbance possible.  Work on sighting and then going for a breath.  The better you can get a view without losing balance and flow, the better your open water swim will be.
  • Navigation – Practice swimming with your eyes closed in the pool to identify if you are veering one way or the other. Open your eyes every 5-6 strokes by sighting forward and then close them up again.  If your arms are extending straight forward and you’re maintaining a straight body line, you’ll swim straight.  Increase the number of strokes between sights to add a challenge.  Safety Note: Make sure no one else is in the lane with you.
  • Starts and Exits – Simulate a deep water start by practicing going from a vertical tread to a horizontal swimming position. Do these in place of sprints on your training plan. If you’re at a beach, practice running into the beach and starting your swim when your thighs are under water.  Finish your swims by running out of the beach to practice that simply bizarre feeling of having gravity slam you after being buoyant and horizontal for 30+ minutes.
  • Side by Side Swimming – Practice swimming with 2-3 friends side by side or in a line in a single pool lane. This will help you get used to swimming in close quarters and drafting. The more you get used to bumping around, the better prepared you’ll be for elbows and feet on race day.

Tip 5: Take a Tempo Trainer to the Lake

Use a tempo trainer like this one from Finis during open water swim practices.

Use a tempo trainer like this one from Finis during open water swim practices.

The Tempo Trainer by Finis is one of the best tools for swimming, and this is especially true when it comes to open water swimming.  It’s a metronome that you can put under your cap and set a cadence for your swim.  Without walls and distance markings, you lose a lot of the feedback you can get from the pool.  The open space and cold, cloudy water leads swimmers to spin and thrash more than they would in a pool.

By having a beat that you can set, speed up or slow down, you can get real-time feedback on your stroke and ensure a more consistent and accurate swim in open water.  If you know that a particular cadence and feel will yield a mile time in a pool, you can compare the results in your next open water swim.

Tip 6: Practice Open Water Swims In & Out of a Wetsuit

I usually don’t have to convince my triathletes to use wetsuits, but it’s important to do some practice swims in your neoprene sausage casing.  The added buoyancy will change how your body floats and rests in the water, brings your legs higher and affects your kick, and can affect range of motion in your neck and shoulders.  Get out into open water with your wetsuit at least once before your race to reacquaint yourself with the feel. If you have an early season race before the beaches open, take your wetsuit to the pool.  Make sure you rinse your wetsuit off when you’re done because chlorinated water is not good for the neoprene.

If it’s been a hot summer or you’re racing in a warm climate, practice swimming in open water without your wetsuit. In a USAT race, you’ll be penalized if the water temperature is above 78 degrees and you’re wearing a wetsuit.  Even if you don’t mind the penalty, you can overheat and become dehydrated.

Tip 7: Open Water Swims are Rehearsals, Not a Replacement for the Pool

Many triathletes stop going to the pool in the middle of June and just head to the lake for their training.  I completely understand why you’d want to enjoy the 6 weeks of summer we have in Chicago, but it’s not the best strategy for triathlon success.

Because the pool is a more controlled environment, you get much more feedback on your swim than you do with a “1-mile straight swim” in the lake.  In a pool, you can count strokes, do stroke drills, work off a pace clock, do controlled and precise speed changes, etc.  Think of your open water swims as rehearsals for how well your pool training is going.  Testing your fitness and the time to complete a race distance is valuable information.  If you aren’t satisfied with the results you got, you can more easily work on the components in a pool and then return in a week to compare results.

Find these tips helpful? Let us know which ones you put into practice–and what your results are.  Not sure where to start? Contact us to learn more about our private lessons and tri training programs. 

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