How to Improve Your Swimming Stroke When Training for a Triathlon

If you ask the average age group triathlete, there is a good chance many of them will tell you that the Swim is the most daunting task of the three. Many have run before, riding a bike 30 miles isn’t something completely over the top, but getting in the pool and swimming laps, or actually figuring out a ‘workout’ in the pool seems to much. So many just do a small amount of swim training and then on race day, spend much more time in the water than they would like.

I was in this ‘boat’ myself in that running and cycling were something I had lots of experience in but swimming laps was not something I had ever really done. A friend who was a very accomplished collegiate swimmer gave me some tips and training that, honestly, made all the difference. After a few hours with him, the fear was gone and replaced with an understanding of swimming in a much different way which enabled me to train properly and actually love getting in the water. So first off, if you have access to a pool that has a ‘coach on deck’ while you are swimming or even workouts that are written on a board at the pool that you can follow, take advantage of that.

Time in the water is what it’s going to take so if you read this and think, ‘Oh I can do that’ (but you think you can do it in two weeks) it’s not going to happen. Sorry to break your bubble, but you are going to have to work at this. Swimming was much more ‘technical’ than I thought it was when I got in the pool. Technical, in that, you are thinking about multiple different aspects of your body and what it’s doing, and then getting your body to do some of these things at the same time effectively. So to begin, without being overwhelmed with all that you need to do, just concentrate on your upper body. This is what I was taught and it was huge. Buy a ‘pull buoy’, put it between your legs and don’t kick, just let your legs relax, sort of, and just work on your upper body.

Upper body means your head, (part one) breathing ‘every OTHER’ stroke. So on the third arm pull, turn your head just enough that your mouth gets air. Do not lift your head up, you don’t need to. When you pull through with your right arm and then breathe to the right, there is actually this small ‘pocket’ where the water dips down from your arm pull and you can just get your mouth in that pocket fast enough to take a breath and then put your head back in the water and do the same thing on the next third stroke on the left side. Getting comfortable breathing is big for beginner swimmers. You want to feel safe, and your not going to drown so working on your breathing will allow you to get comfortable and more confident in the water. (Cuz in a race, it’s just not you, it’s a few hundred/thousand of you).

Upper body (part two) is your upper body, it is not just your arms. When I say this I want you to think of a shark, only because they are big enough that you can visualize how it moves because its bigger than a fish. Think of how its body ‘swerves’ it just doesn’t move through the water like a torpedo. So when your upper body moves you also have to think about ‘swerving’ through the water. Getting as fast as a torpedo will come later. Your hands go in the water first to create the ‘pull’. The hand should be tight, no space between the fingers, and a ‘cup’ shape to your hand, not flat. This creates more for your hand to grab as well as engages your arm to start the ‘skinny S’ shape that your arm is going to create while you are pulling through. So the arm goes up over your head, the hand enters the water, cupped position, thumb and pointer finger entering first, which means your hand goes in at an angle too. (practice this at home to get the feel before you get in the water, it helps).

The ‘skinny S’ is the motion you want to create while following through with your stroke under water. Your pull should follow all the way through so that the tip of your thumb should hit the outside of your upper thigh, don’t pull your arm out of the water at your hip/stomach area. It’s a wasted stroke, you cheat yourself out of distance covered and speed when you do this. The arm should follow a complete circle from start to finish. Get out of bad habits early and learn the proper way to perform the stroke early on in your swim training and it will make a huge difference in your acceleration in this part of the Triathlon.

Part three of the ‘upper body’ is the subtle swerving you need to do with your shoulders that flow down through your hips. This is the part where the swerve for sharks translates to a ‘corkscrew’ style move for us mere mortal ‘humans’. When your hand hits the water to start the pull you need to begin to start thinking of rolling your shoulder through your hip into the water. This cork screw type movement through the water is what my coach described as ‘cutting through’ the water, and moving it out of your way. It is subtle, it’s not a complete turn on your side it’s like a little ‘wiggle’ when you are dancing.

If you can see now what I mean about ‘technical’ then your with me. There are a few things going on with your body and it’s a bit to think about when you may be starting in the sport of Triathlon and swimming to train not just swim leisurely. So don’t worry about your legs at first. I think when I got started I spent the first month just working on my upper body stroke, doing drills, working on my breath and getting really, really comfortable in the water. You need to do this to feel confident in a race. When you start to feel that some of these things are working you can add the kick. You can grab a kick board and just kick and work on that ‘corkscrew’ wiggle in your hips if you need a break for your arms. But give yourself some time to really ‘get’ this part of swimming. Get the technique down first and then work on the speed. It does come, but again, it’s not going to happen in two weeks. You have to give yourself time and put in the effort. You may find that you love to swim, like I did and get in the water more than you thought you would. So go get in the water.

One last tip, if you can fit it into your schedule, try to get your body ready to swim early in the morning, before work. Races are early and when your body has become accustomed to getting in cold water early it is easier to do it on race day.

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