Swimming Drills that Give Better Results for Triathletes

You don’t have to swim faster to beat your best time in a triathlon

triathlon swimmer doing a face down floatYou just have to swim better than you are right now.

Many triathletes go to the pool with a soggy workout printed off the internet and a bag of pool toys like paddles, fins and a snorkel   But what most end up being frustrated  by is not knowing if their work with the drills and toys translates to better swimming.

When you begin to realize that just doing a drill doesn’t mean you’ve learned a better swim skill, you’ll start to pay attention to the quality of your training plan.

it’s better to have a specific body based focus that you can pay attention to while swimming.

Let’s take just one example.  most triathletes carry a lot of tension in their neck which impacts their streamlining, efficiency and breathing.  Here’s one way to approach improving this micro skill and improve awareness.

“25 kick, 25 swim”

Does this look familiar?  “25 kick, 25 swim”.   This is an extremely common example of a freestyle drill set for triathletes.    It would seem that the main intent is to practice kicking, right? But without further direction or a coach on deck, it’s unclear and doesn’t give you the focus you need to improve your freestyle swimming for triathlon.

Instead of “25 kick, 25 swim”, let’s add a specific thought to direct your muscles while doing the drill.

“Relax your neck” while kicking with one arm extended for 25 yards.  Stroke once to breath or roll to the sky for a breath.   Then swim 25 yards while maintaining your relaxed neck.  Does your neck feel relaxed with and without arm strokes?   

Aside from using a few more words, what’s the subtle difference between these two drill sets? The second set addresses a specific issue that impacts your swimming in both drilling and full stroke freestyle.   You see most people will tense their neck and instinctively pick their head up a bit to look ahead.  This creates tension in the neck and creates misalignment.   Both issues require more effort to swim, and create an even bigger problem when trying to breath.

Great swim practices move your attention instead moving body parts

By removing the arms and just kicking (with or without fins) you can move your attention to your neck and experiment with different levels of relaxation and tone.  When followed immediately with swimming it’s easy to compare the results of the new focus and attention to the neck.

Since new movements feel awkward and foreign, a drill set that addresses a specific thought (“relax the neck”) rather than an exercise (“Kicking”) is a supercharged way to increase your learning speed and adopt better swim skills faster.

Next time you go to the pool and are faced with a drill set, try substituting a body awareness focal point, or simply layering it on top of the drill.   Some examples

  • One armed swimming becomes “Stroke with your Left (Right) arm, while keepign the neck relaxed and the spine aligned during the entire arm cycle.”
  • Cat & Mouse drill becomes “Keep your neck relaxed while exploring how much overlap is in your stroke while playing cat & mouse. At what point in your overlap can you keep your neck most relaxed?

12 Weeks of Better Swim Practices

If you’re ready to apply these principles to your own training, my dedicated triathlon swimming plan for Olympic or Half Distance races contains 12 weeks (32 unique workouts) of practical swimming workouts just like these. Just head on over here to purchase a dedicated triathlon swimming plan to prepare you for an Olympic or Half Distance Triathlon.  

(You can apply this plan over top of any other training plan you’re currently using and just swap out the swims) 

SWOLF – Your Ultimate Guide to Improve your Swimming with Swim Golf

SWOLF is a contraction of the words  Swim Golf or Swimming Golf.   This article will help you understand what it is, how it  is measured and how you can experiment with different ways to “play” swim golf in order to improve your swimming.  When you understand the different ways to use SWOLF, you can create a variety of interesting and engaging swim workouts that will help you become faster.

What is swim golf (or swimming golf)?

Swim golf is a fun way you can add some gamification to your swimming workouts in order to see if you are making improvements. Just like in regular golf, a lower score in swim golf is usually better.

How is SWOLF measured?

Your swim golf score is the total of the number of strokes you took, plus the time in seconds.   It doesn’t matter if you are swimming in yards or meters, and it doesn’t matter what length the interval is, as long as you are being consistent with your own measurements.

For example:  If you swim 50 yards in 45 seconds, your swim golf or SWOLF is 50 + 45 , or 95.

If you swim a 100 meter interval with a total of 40 strokes and swam it in 65 seconds, your SWOLF would be 105.

How do swim watches measure SWOLF?

Many swim watches such as the  Garmin Forerunner models, Garmin Swim 2, Moov Now, the Apple watch, Swimovate Poolmate, and many more will automatically calculate a SWOLF score for you.

These swim watches calculate the swim golf score by counting your strokes and time per length of the pool.  So whether you swim in a 25 yard pool, 25 meter pool or 50 meter pool, the calculation is based on 1 length of that pool.

For example:  with a 200meter swim interval in a 50 meter pool, the software will show 4 SWOLF scores for that interval, one for each length.

On the other hand, a 500 yard swim in a 25 yard pool will show a graph of 20 SWOLF scores for the entire interval.

Here is an example of multiple swim golf scores shown in a graph after downloading the data to the watch’s software.   The red filled portion with the heavier red outline is the SWOLF score for each length.

 

Swolf Score Graph

This graph represents a swim set of ten 100 yard repeats with a very short rest between them

If you are interested in a detailed discussion of how to interpret entire sets of swim golf scores for a workout, I’ve written about that in an article called What can SWOLF tell us? Interpreting data from your GPS watch – Part 1 and Part 2: Swim watch analysis- A case study in a mid-pack triathlete
.

How do you “Play” Swim Golf?

In order to “play” swim golf,  you would want to lower your SWOLF score over time. These could be short term goals within the same workout, or longer term goals over time.

If your score is the sum of your strokes and your time, then there are two ways to decrease your score. You can either lower your strokes (ie take fewer strokes to complete your interval), or swim in a faster time.   The tricky part is that in order to actually get a lower sun, you need to prevent the other score from increasing.

For example, these two swims would result in the same score for a 50 yard swim: A) 43 seconds in 52 strokes or B) 45 seconds in 50 strokes.  Both of them result in a score if 95 for a 50 yard interval.

Two ways to lower your SWOLF score

Take fewer strokes in the same amount of time

For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.

In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim in 22 seconds while still taking fewer than 18 strokes, for a score less than 40

Repeat 1: 22 seconds + 18 strokes = 40
Repeat 2: 22 seconds + 17 strokes = 39
Repeat 3: 22 seconds + 16 strokes = 38

Swim faster while taking the same number of strokes

For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.

In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim faster than 22 seconds while still taking 18 strokes for a score less than 40.

Repeat 1: 22 seconds + 18 strokes = 40
Repeat 2: 21 seconds + 18 strokes = 39
Repeat 3: 20 seconds + 18 strokes = 38

What’s a Good SWOLF Score?

Since stroke count is half of your swim golf score, and stroke count can change based on a persons height or wing span, it’s hard to compare your score against anyone else’s score.  Everyone has different physical features that can influence their strokes per length.   The best way to use SWOLF is as a personal measure of change or improvement.

How can I Incorporate SWOLF into my swim workouts?

You can create sets like the examples above to add some focus to your swims that are centered around using SWOLF to improve your swimming.

For beginning and early intermediate swimmers, usually the best bang for the buck is to try to lower stroke count first in order to lower your score.  This is because most of these swimmers have several technique areas that when improved, can reduce drag and lower the number of strokes needed to get across the pool.

Intermediate swimmers may enjoy trying to hold their SPL the same, while trying to swim faster.   This means that they are traveling the same distance with each arm stroke ,but because their time is faster, they are taking each stroke at a slightly faster tempo.

Alternatively, intermediate swimmers can experiment with different ways to prevent SWOLF from climbing, but trading a stroke for a second.  That means that by allowing an extra stroke during the length, you can often gain a second…so it’s an even tradeoff.   When there are multiple ways to achieve the same SWOLF score, it’s worth spending time evaluating the effort required at different stroke counts.   Your goal would be to use the score combination that results in the least effort as a target for practice and improvement.

More advanced swimmers will enjoy trying to lower both scores…swim faster AND take fewer strokes  This requires precision technique as well as properly applied power in your stroke.

Can I track SWOLF without a swim watch?
Of course you can!  What do you think coaches and swimmers did before swim watches were available?  Many swimmers ask if you should count one arm only or both arms.   I teach my swimmers to count each arm entry as a stroke. This is because you will get a more precise number instead of estimating 1/2 cycles.

But you’ll have to remember that your swim watch usually counts cycles…one arm through the whole stroke cycle. So when YOU count two strokes (right arm entry, left arm entry), your swim watch is counting 1 cycle (right arm entry to next right arm entry).

Counting strokes is a great skill to learn to make improvements to your swim, so it’s time well spent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathing in Swimming – Instinct, Reflex or Choice?

When I am totally race fit, I don’t worry about breathing or technique – they take care of themselves. -Frank Shorter

Breathing isn’t optional, but it IS a choice.

It is one of those body functions that your brain maintains whether you’re aware of it or not…like your heartbeat.   However there are many circumstances in which you can choose to breath in a different pattern…faster, shallower or just differently.

Imagine how hard it would be to sing or even have a conversation if we had no willful control of when we breathe in and when we exhale? When speaking or singing, we’re able to use breath control to create phrases, delaying an inhalation until the end of a musical phrase or sentence in speech. Yet, as soon as we’re done with that activity, the brain immediately takes over again and continues respiration, in and out, indefinitely as long as we’re alive.

It’s one part autonomous, one part reflex and one part choice.   When we swim we get to choose how and when we breath…and also why.  My goal with swimming is to make my breathing seem so seamless that I get a sensation I’m breathing under the water.  My breathing no longer becomes a conscious choice, nor an instinct of survival, but an automatic part of my stroke matched with my effort at that time.

Rocky Mountain Swimming High

I recall the first time I experienced this sensation and it was a direct result of TWO things combined that might have otherwise derailed me for that summer.   The first was dislocating my thumb on my first day of work in Colorado.  The second was the fact that I was working and living at 7500 feet of altitude…thin air for sure!

With the thumb injury, I was unable to ride a bike or go fly fishing for several weeks while my hand was splinted.   The occupational therapist I saw made me a waterproof splint I could wear for working and swimming, so off to the pool I went for my daily exercise.  Two new problems cropped up once I was int he pool.   However I was so in love with swimming that I couldn’t imagine these stopping me. Instead i found a way to make these into assets for improving my breathing.

The first problem was the altitude.  At 7500 feet, most folks who do not live there and are acclimated will experience an increased breathing rate both at rest and while exercising.  That’s no consequence when you’re riding a bike or fly fishing. It happens and you don’t have to think about it.  However in the pool, where I chose to get my main exercise those first few weeks of injury, having to breath more often was almost enough to make me question if I should even bother.

My breathing wasn’t bad by any measure, but it wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t realize how many flows there were until I was forced to breath every stroke even when swimming easily.    Essentially I had created an environment not dissimilar to a beginner in which they feel the need to breath every stroke not because of a lack of oxygen, but because they are swimming inefficiently and using up a lot of oxygen…basically the same situation I was in.

While i hadn’t noticed any major flaws in my breathing before arriving at altitude, once I was there, the errors were many!

 

Breathing Skills Practice – Intermediate to Advanced Skill Level

Here are some of the skills I practiced during those weeks of recovering from my hand injury and adjusting to the altitude.  There was no other time in my swimming career where my breathing improved so much, because I was forced to work on it under those circumstances.

Breathing Skills Practice: (total ~ 2000 – 3200) 

Dry land:

Practice tall posture, pulling up through the crown of the head, draw chin back just a bit since most of us tend to slouch a little bit.  Check your posture from the side with a selfie, in the mirror or with your back against the wall.

Look for these checkpoints:

  • Are your ears over your shoulders? (if not where are they?)
  • Are your eyes looking directly forward? (if not where are they looking?)
  • Can you inhale fully drawing air downward through your diaphragm?
  • Are your glutes engaged with your hips over your heels?
  • Bonus points:  Can you stand on your tip toes without losing balance and posture?
  • Finally… are you relaxed and comfortable?

If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, don’t worry, nothing is wrong, you’ve just highlighted some elements of your posture, flexibility and build that may need to be addressed through some daily exercises (or physical therapy).  But now that you’ve practiced that in the locker room head to the pool

Tune up: (150) 

  • 4 x 5 yards – head lead tall posture, gentle kick. I call this “toy soldier” because it reminds me of a wooden nutcracker toy, tall and toned.
  • 4 x 10 yds – start with arms extended, tall posture, gentle kick for a 5-10 seconds then add a few strokes
  • 4 x 25 yds – Start as above with soldier drill, arms extended, then swim to the end, gently focusing on posture

4 x 50  “Catch & Push” Drill, alternating right arm and left arm focus.  (200)

  • 1st 25 down:   With each push extend the lead arm and let your chin rotate towards the air along with your hips and shoulder on that same side.  When you need to breath, take a full stroke with each arm and breath to the same side.
  • 2nd 25 back:   Swim full stroke freestyle breathing to the same side as the first 25. Try to stay relaxed in the recovery arm while extending the lead arm as you breathe.

4 x 150 (600)

  • Within each 150, swim as follows:
    1st 50 breath every 4 to the right on the way down, and every 4 on the left on the way back. Easy effort
    2nd 50 breath every 3rd stroke for the entire 50.  note that you can increase your speed a little since you’re exchanging air more often
    3rd 50 breath every 2nd stroke to the right on the way down and to the left on the way back.  You can increase your effort even more since you’re exchanging air every time you stroke.

2-4 Rounds of (200 + 2 x 100 + 4 x 50) (1200-2400)

  • 200s Swim very easy breathing every 4 strokes to the same side. Alternate right and left every length.  Compare your posture in breathing strokes with your posture in non breathing strokes. Do you still feel tall and aligned like in the dry land activity?
  • 100s Swim moderately breathing every 3rd stroke (alternating breathing sides regularly).  Note that with a slight speed increase your body must rotate around a skewer in order to maintain access to air on each side.
  • 50s Swim faster, breathing every 2nd stroke, switching for the 2nd half.  Again note that your posture remains tall and with even more speed, you’ll have a better pocket to breath into making it seem as if you’re almost breathing under the surface of the water.

Swimming Through Change

What do you love about swimming?

For me, I’ve just always loved being in the water and playing games with my friends. Starting from when I was 7 or 8 years old, I walked to our neighborhood pool, met my friends, and we played cards during adult swim, and sharks & minnows when there were enough of us there, and I swam on the swim team until I was 15 years old.  The swimming pool was the fabric of my summer existence.

During & after high school, other priorities came up, other sports, other interests, academics and eventually a job.  My first job out of college was with Voyageur Outward Bound School where we took groups of teenagers on backcountry wilderness canoe trips.  We taught them life skills and expedition skills. But my favorite days were teaching the kids whitewater kayaking skills. It seemed that again, water became the fabric of my existence.  It’s a miracle I never developed trench foot during a 3 week expedition in which it rained every day but one.

Dusting Off the Clubs

By the time I was 26 I longed for work that was more meaningful and impactful and in a roundabout way I decided to try to get into medical school.   The day I took my MCATs (Medical College Admission Test), I thought to myself, “If I’m going to become a doctor, I need to learn how to golf.”   So I dug around in the garage, found some dusty old clubs that my parents had owned and enjoyed when they were 20 years younger, and took myself and a few balls up to the ballfield that I had played in as a kid…the same ballfield that was on the way to the pool from my youth.

Let’s just say that it didn’t go well. I decided I would be a non-golfing doctor.

Diving Back in…

Fast forward five years, I had matched into residency, and somehow made the bizarre decision that training for a triathlon, rather than pure running for exercise, would give me more free time.  What was I thinking??  I started riding my bicycle to the rec center and took up swimming again after about 10 years away from the water sports I’d loved during my childhood and those first years after college.

It was…just as I had remembered it.  Smooth. Silent. Silky. Weightless. Magical. Mystical. Mysterious. Consistent. It was an activity where I could both disappear from the demands of Emergency Medicine training, and immerse myself into something familiar and comforting.  “You have a nice stroke,” was something I heard often.

Let’s fast forward again.   Since then…Back Surgery. Total Immersion. Pain free Swimming. Triathlon Coach. Youtube Host, interviewing legends like Mark Allen, Terry Laughlin, Gwen Jorgensen, Leanda Cave. Did I mention Mark Allen? Kirsten Sass. Volker Winkler.  (Look them all up)

My pursuit of triathlon became it’s own career path, and throughout it all the water was my place that was both familiar and challenging. Endless improvement and ingrained patterns from my youth. New friendships and YouTube “fame” had people introducing themselves to me at the World Championships…”You’re Suzanne Atkinson, I love your podcasts and interviews.”

Holding Things Together

The water was the glue. It always brought things back together. Even things that had fallen apart, like my body from a bucket tear disc injury, back surgery, car accident, physical therapy, ankle arthritis (those soccer moves!), and most recently being a temporary caregiver for my partner who had a cardiac arrest (he’s fine now, 1 in 10,000 survivor of 3 cardiac arrests…now we train together), and navigating my mothers progression with dementia, aricept overdoses, and the relentless march of time.  I submerged myself in the water and the water made me whole again.

At 50, I suddenly feel fit and fresh. I’m not in the same physical shape or the same weight I was at 47, or even 48…but 50 feels different. It feels fresh.  It feels ready. It feels forward. I’m optimistic.   The water is still there as it has been the past 45 years of my life.

What do I love about swimming? Everything.

 

What do YOU love about swimming? Post in the comments…

Ironman Racing – Three Most Important Components on Race Day

Every once in awhile we get to talk with some fantastic racers and amazing athletes who seem to be able to train and race consistently year after year, race after race, in multiple distances.

How do they do it?  What’s going on inside their head?

From the outside it may seem like it’s all smooth sailing, but in reality they are constantly working on getting better, eliminating the rough spots, and paying attention to where they can focus better.

In Episode 8 of Tri 2 Listen, Suzanne Atkinson (head coach of Steel City Endurance, and also host of the podcast) talks with Kirsten about what was going through her mind on race day when she sealed her spot at Kona by winning her age group.

Listen to this audiogram to hear how Kirsten divides the race into three major components (no, not swim, bike and run, lol)

You can hear the entire episode with Kirsten and her father Volker at Tri 2 Listen or on iTunes, Apple or Spotify podcasting apps.  Just search for “Tri 2 Listen”, or click below.

Listen to Tri 2 Listen on Apple
Listen on Tri 2 Listen Spotify
Listen on Tri 2 Listen Google