Around this time of the year, most triathletes swap out their race gear for #sweaterweather, choosing to hunker down for winter, the holidays, and plenty of eggnog. But before you get too comfortable, do yourself a favor: throw your swim gear into the gym bag and head to the pool for swim drills. Right now is the perfect time to focus on correcting your swim stroke.
If you train for the swim the same way you would for the bike or run, stop it. Most triathletes already have proper form and technique for running and cycling, so our training focus for those disciplines is geared toward speed and tempo for the most part. Swimming, on the other hand, typically requires a lot more attention to technique and form. Some of the most impactful changes you can make to your swim are subtle.
It’s all too common to see a triathlete who appears to be attacking the water, as opposed to swimming in it. They claw and scrape across the pool, and then take a few gasps at the wall before leaping back across the water for another frantic lap (then another, and another). Maybe you have seen that someone before, maybe you’ve been that someone before. There is a better way, and now is the perfect time to learn it.
Should you stop swimming in the winter?
When the weather outside gets dreadful, we get creative at avoiding the pool. It’s cold outside, and the pool dries out our skin, and somehow, we feel more awkward in a suit now, and it is impossible to remember the pool schedule, and, and, and… The reason behind all the reasons we avoid swimming is this: we’re not that great at it. Most of us come from a background in running or cycling and focus on the swim just enough to survive it.
Giving extra attention to the swim in the offseason is ideal because it affords us two commodities that are rare during race season: more time and less pressure. Refining stroke technique, forming good habits, or (real talk) unlearning some bad ones requires time and patience. Tuning up your swim stroke this offseason can have a significant impact on next year’s performance.
How often should you swim during the offseason?
To see noticeable improvement, get in the water at least twice a week. You can easily bump this up to 4-5 times a week without significantly increasing the risk of injury, because swimming is a low-impact activity (unlike running). Increasing your swim frequency is especially beneficial if you’re nursing aches and pains acquired from the most recent race season, or when snow and ice make outdoor running or cycling treacherous.
The five swim skills you need to master this offseason
1. Proper Body Position
Swimming draws more parallels to cycling than you might think. In cycling, it’s all about aerodynamics, while in swimming, we call it “streamline.” The two concepts are virtually identical: reduce resistance and get all the free speed you can. Very subtle changes to our body position can improve our body’s buoyancy and propulsion as well as conserve energy.
But most of us don’t know what influences good body position, or what good body position looks and feels like.
Swim drills for proper body position
Swim 1-2×50 at a moderate freestyle with what feels like perfect form to you. Pay attention to what you see and feel. Can you see what is directly in front of you? If so, you’re forcing your neck and torso underwater, increasing drag resistance. Resolve this by tilting your head downward, so that your neck is relaxed and you can see what is directly below. This will capitalize on your body’s natural buoyancy and glide. (Just remember there’s a wall at the other end of the pool!)
Swim 2×300 with a pull buoy. Our legs are heavy and drag our bodies low in the water. Swimming with a pull buoy raises the hips up and produces a more ‘downhill’ body position, which further uses the body’s natural buoyancy and glide.
Looking for more on proper body position? Check out these principles to (finally) becoming a faster swimmer.
2. Effective Air Exchange
As the first leg of the race, your swim can set the tone for the entire triathlon. Too often, triathletes overlook the importance of effective air exchange and the impact it has on the swim and the race as a whole. You want to come out of the water feeling strong, not winded with your heart rate dialed up to eleven. To conserve energy and control breathing and heart rate, it’s important to learn what efficient air exchange feels like.
Swim drills for better breathing
Do 10 bobs at the start of practice. Make sure you do them correctly: take one full inhalation, submerge, exhale most of the air in your lungs while submerged—no rush here—then pop up briefly for another single full inhalation and back down you go. This simple drill gets you comfortable being facedown/submerged, and primes the body for efficient inhalation when swimming.
Add 5-10 streamline jumps before/after each training set (such as set of 10×100). This is similar to the bobs (above), but with one modification: maintain a streamline during the drill. To do this, you’ll crouch to stay upright as you submerge, then jump vertically as high as you can off the bottom of the pool, streamline intact, fully submerge, and repeat. This drill is a terrific way to throw additional air exchange work into your cardio training.
Breathing Interval Pyramids:
Incorporating breathing intervals notably improves our comfort level with being face down in the water. You may be surprised by how much more efficiently you manage air exchange after this drill. Start with 10x100s using a 3-5-7-5-3 breathing pattern: for the first 100, you’ll take one breath every three strokes; the second 100, one breath every five strokes etc. Note: It is much better to form the habit of training with odd breathing intervals as opposed to even breathing intervals, for reasons I’ll explain in the next segment on bilateral breathing.
3. Bilateral Breathing
Bilateral breathing gives your visibility and flexibility. Without it, you’re swimming blind to half of the course and half of the competition! Knowing how to bilateral breathe also comes in handy when avoiding the wake of a nearby swimmer, or direct sunlight during outdoor swims—you can do this all without disrupting your air supply.
However, many swimmers avoid this skill, because trying to master bilateral breathing feels awkward and counterintuitive. Now is the time to correct this.
Swim drills for bilateral breathing
Begin streamline kicking on your front; maintain a steady kick and keep one arm fully outstretched (12 o’clock) and pull the other arm down to your side (6 o’clock). As you pull, you should have a natural lean toward the side of your outstretched arm—anywhere from a 45- to 90-degree lean is good. As you kick, position your head face down, toward the bottom of the pool. Unless you are inhaling, your head should remain facedown. Whenever you need to breathe, rotate your head face-up (toward the ceiling), get your air, then rotate back to facedown position. At first, you may feel off balance, like you are going to ‘fall.’ This feeling goes away as you strengthen your kick and gain greater body control. Do this set for 2 to 4 x 25 after you warm up.
Side Kicking 1-6-1:
Building from the side kicking position is the first real taste of bilateral breathing drill work. Take 1 stroke of freestyle, but at the end of the stroke, ‘freeze’ in the side kick position for six kicks. Then take 1 stroke, six more kicks, and repeat. Breathe only when you are in the side kicking position and rotate your head face down before taking your next stroke. Doing so helps prevent swinging your head and neck around while you stroke. Include this drill between main practice sets as active recovery.
Sick Kicking 3-6-3:
After mastering the 1-6-1, progress to sidekick 3-6-3. This drill may feel more natural and more comfortable. Take three strokes of freestyle and, like the previous drill, at the end of your third stroke, ‘freeze’ stroke in the side kicking position for 6 kicks. Be deliberate about breathing only while in the side kicking position. After 6 kicks, resume swimming for three more strokes, etc. Master this drill by focusing on fluid and seamless transitions between freestyle swimming and side kicking.
4. Distance Per Stroke
Want to conserve energy, get more power efficiency out of each stroke, and exit the water faster? Focus on how much you can cover with each stroke. We often do not consider variability in our stroke, or how that affects our swim. Taking a block of time in your swim workout to truly pay attention to this element of your swim can yield big results.
Swim drills for reducing stroke count
Stroke Count Variation:
Count how many strokes it takes to swim the length of a pool. Repeat this a handful of times to figure out your average stroke count. Once you have this number, start a set in which you focus on swimming at a lower stroke count (2 to 4 fewer strokes per length), and thus increase distance per stroke.
Using paddles will strengthen your stroke and help show inefficiencies in the catch pull or exit phases. Paddles force a swimmer to keep a high elbow, plus recruit the forearm into the swim stroke – both essential tweaks for a more efficient swim stroke.
Different distances or race conditions call for different speeds. Sometimes, you need to get some distance between you and another swimmer. Other times, you need to ease off the accelerator and regain control of your breathing and heart rate.
Yet many triathletes seem apprehensive about their swimming ability, and choose to adopt a strategy of “sink or sprint.” Hoping to reach solid ground before the tank is emptied is not an ideal race strategy. True, the point of triathlon is to race, and that includes the swim. But an excessive and inefficient level of effort during the swim will only undermine the triathlete’s overall performance. When you develop more than just one speed for the swim, you gain greater control of your race, because you can adjust to any condition thrown your way.
Swim drills for pacing
Variable Sprint Sequence:
4×50’s: 1) Easy/Fast, 2) Fast/Easy, 3) Fast, 4) Easy. Repeat this set and focus on emphasizing the contrast between the two speeds.
Variable Speed 200s:
Like the variable sprint sequence above, this follows a 4×200 format where the emphasis on speed varies as follows: 1) first 100 fast, 2) last 100 fast, 3) outer 100 fast [first and fourth 50’s], and 4) Inner 100 [2nd and 3rd 50’s]. Again, pay attention to the contrast between the two speeds.
Using a watch or pace clock, divide a mid- to long-distance swim into two equal parts. For the first half, focus on excellent form and a moderate pace that gradually accelerates. For the second half, accelerate to race pace, with a goal of completing the second half faster than the first.
Joel MacCaughey has 14 years coaching experience in USA Masters swimming, age group and senior swimming, high school swimming and diving, and triathlon.