Sunday, December 18, 2011

How to become a faster swimmer

For some triathletes, the swim portion of a triathlon can be a source of anxiety and frustration.  But it doesn't have to be!  I have been swimming for a great number years and was a competitive swimmer in a past life.  I've stared at the black line on the bottom of the pool for many hours, swam thousand's of kilometers, and had my fingers turn to prunes on many occasions.  I like to think of myself as a strong and experienced swimmer.  Here I've come up with a list of guidelines and tips so that you too may become faster, stronger and improve your swim times.

1.  Get flexible.
-Improving the flexibility in your shoulders is very important if you want to become a better swimmer.  More flexible shoulders equals a bigger range of motion, which directly affects the mechanics of your stroke.  With better flexibility, you will be able to reach further, pull deeper, and not drop the elbows on the catch phase.  So start stretching your shoulders/chest muscles regularly, while watching t.v., brushing your teeth, or working at the computer.  Every bit helps!

2.  Get thyself to a pool.
-This one may sound obvious, but if you don't put the time in, you won't see the results.  You can maintain fitness on 2 swims a week, but you'll be able to improve your fitness and times on 3 quality swims a week.  If you really want to see results, aim for 4 swims a week (doing proper quality sessions, of course).  Normally, all my workouts are somewhere between around 2200m and about 2600m (except when I was training for Ironman, then I did one long swim a week between 4000-4500m).  

3.  Do kick - and lots of it.  
-Contrary to many triathlon coaches' beliefs, it is my philosophy that the kick is a very important part of the overall stroke, and therefore time must be spent practicing it.  A strong kick allows you to achieve a higher body position in the water and more efficient stroke.  I don't buy into the theory that you need to 'save your legs' in the swim portion of a triathlon, so that you will be able to bike and run better.  You are using different muscles while kicking in the water compared to on land, and you are non-weight bearing in the water.  In most workouts, I include a specific kick set (usually between 400-600m, sometimes with swim mixed in; e.g. 4 x 150 as 50 side kick/50 fly kick/50 swim or 4 x 100 as 25 kick/50 swim/25 kick).

4.  Use gadgets properly.
-A lot of triathletes will use a pullboy or fins as a 'crutch', and start to rely on them on when they start getting tired.  These types of tools should always be used with a purpose in mind - fin sets should be hard, and specific to working on kick and body position.  Pullboys should be used for specific sets as well, including longer aerobic sets, hypoxic breathing sets, pull with paddles, etc.  DON'T grab for your pullboys or fins when you are in the middle of a hard set and you are struggling - you certainly can't slap on a pullboy in the middle of a race!  Also, if you are pulling, make sure to wear a band around your ankles - you should not be kicking at all when using a pullboy.

5.  Ask a coach.
-Find a knowledgeable coach or experienced swimmer and ask them to critique your stroke, in order to learn what you should be focusing on to improve stroke mechanics and efficiency.  If you didn't come from a swimming background, it's difficult to know what may be off or what you could change in order to improve your stroke.  Getting a pair of trained eyes to check out your stroke can be very beneficial. 

6.  Socialize!
-If possible, swim with your local Master's or triathlon swim group.  Swimming all on your lonesome can be tedious and boring, and it's always more fun with a group.  Also, if you are meeting others at the pool at a scheduled time, you become accountable and less likely to skip your session.  However, there is such a thing as too much chatting - you still need to put the work in!

7. Embrace IM.
-And by IM, I mean individual medley, not ironman! Many people think that since the swim leg in a triathlon is all freestyle, you should only do freestyle all the time in your workouts.  But doing an IM set once in a while can be really beneficial, as you're working other muscle groups in the other strokes, and not to mention it can break up the monotony!  Make sure to get some instruction from an experienced swimmer or coach on  proper stroke mechanics for fly/breaststroke.  Some examples of IM sets I use on a regular basis are: 4 x 100 IM (25 fly/25 back/25 breast/25 free); 6 x 75 as odd: 25 fly/25 back/25 breast, even: 25 back/25 breast/25 free; 8 x 50 IM order. 

8. Flip turn.
-Learn how to do a proper flip turn/push off/breakout, and do it at every wall!  There may be no flip turns in an open water triathlon, but there are flip turns in a pool swim, and lets face it - many of us Albertans will typically be doing at least one pool swim triathlon a year! Additionally, flip turns allow you to swim more soundly and efficiently, they prevent you from 'resting' at the wall, and they are much faster! A quick, efficient flip turn should take off at least a second per wall compared to a 'touch turn'.  If you're doing an 800m time trial, that's 32 seconds off your overall time right there, just from cleaning up the walls!  Also, work on your 'breakout'.  And by that I mean your push off and streamline off each wall, where you should aim to be taking a stroke before breathing and coming up for your first stroke off the wall right around the flags.  This takes time to practice and become a habit, but you'll be more efficient overall if you do so.

9. Work hard in the water.
-Avoid doing all your workouts/sets at the same pace.  If you want to get faster, some of your workouts/sets need to be really hard!  Typically the total distance of the main set in my workouts is between about 1200m-1800m, comprised of different interval distances depending on what the workout is targeting, and sometimes so hard you feel like you're gonna puke!  If you are looking for some hard, focused workouts to try, let me know and I'll be happy to send you some.

So there you have it!  Let me know how it goes... Happy swimming!


Julie said...

These are great tips!! Thank you so much for posting them!! :)

Joel Maley said...

If you have time in the new year I could probably use some help with #5.