Seven tips to improve your swim stroke in time for your next triathlon.
Written by: Sara McLarty
When you’re really hungry and you don’t have a lot of money, you go for the value meal. Whether it’s a sandwich, a side salad and a drink or whatever, the value meal usually gives you the most calories for the least amount of money.
An oddly similar phenomenon happens during swim training as well: You are hungry for improvement in your swimming yet have a limited budget of time and knowledge to spend on it. It’s a sad reality, but most triathletes just don’t have the time or money to invest in a good swim coach to watch and correct their strokes. Sometimes the closest thing to a coach available is a spouse, training partner or lane-mate who may share a piece of advice during practice. Athletes training solo can glance over at the faster swimmers and try to mimic their smooth strokes or, as a last resort, one can utilize swim tips from a world-class swimmer in a triathlon magazine.
The challenge for the uncoached swimmer is that there are so many nuances of the freestyle swim stroke to copy and so many tips for technique improvement to choose from that finding the most integral aspects can seem daunting. Which facets should you work on first? Which tips will result in the most improvement? See where I’m going with this?
Here are what I consider to be the most seven important aspects of freestyle to focus on. My “value meal” of swim tips applies to everyone: fast and slow, beginner and advanced, pure swimmer and triathlete.
1) Don’t hold your breath. The feeling of being out of breath is caused by carbon-dioxide buildup in the lungs. A steady and constant exhalation out your nose and mouth while your face is in the water will prevent this unpleasant phenomenon. Inhaling on every third stroke is a good breathing pattern to use because you will breathe on both sides of your body and get plenty of oxygen.
2) Relax, relax, relax! This advice seems so simple … until you start swimming! The best swimmers in the world look like they are gliding along the surface of the water. You cannot fight the water; it will always win. Instead, relax your whole body into the water and channel your power exclusively toward moving your body forward. Practice the simple art of floating facedown on the surface.
3) Align your spine. On dry land, stand up tall and look straight ahead. Notice how your neck is in alignment with your spine and your face is pointed forward. Take that position into the water. The waterline should cut the center of the top of your head and your face should be pointed at the bottom of the pool.
4) Remember to glide. The swim stroke differs from a cycling pedal stroke or a running stride because it is disconnected instead of continuous—or should be. In running there is no separation between each stride and the next, and in cycling the rotation of the cranks is continuous. In swimming, each stroke should be separated from the next with a brief glide. When your arm enters the water above your head, let it stay fully extended for a few moments before you start the catch phase. Don’t be a windmill.
5) Rotate, but don’t over-rotate. Body rotation is an art form. Those who get it perfectly are beautiful as their bodies cut through the water like a knife. The secret is they don’t over-rotate. If the bottom of the pool is 0 degrees and the side of the pool is 90 degrees, your torso should never go past 45 degrees on either side. Remember, your head and lower legs do not rotate with your torso and hips; keep your feet kicking straight up and down.
6) Never cross the forbidden centerline. Under no circumstances should either arm ever cross the centerline of your body. At the entry point of the stroke, drop your arm in the water directly in front your shoulder. Flare your arm out during the catch, sweep back and slightly in during the pull, and finish with your hand next to your thigh. The movement should look like a question mark. Keep your fingertips pointed at the bottom of the pool.
7) Kick from your hips. Relax your knees. Point your toes. Think about slapping the tops of your feet on the surface of the water; they should be making a small splash. If you feel tired and sore in your hip-flexor muscles, you’re doing it right!
Sara McLarty coaches swimming at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla. Visit her blog for daily swim set at Ntcmastersswim.blogspot.com, and send swim questions you’d like answered in the Triathlete magazine column to firstname.lastname@example.org.