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) 

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.
When to Lower Your Stroke Count in Swimming

When to Lower Your Stroke Count in Swimming

green sea turtle swimming towards camera

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Why would you want to lower stroke count?

Well, if it’s too high of course. 😉  So how do you know if it’s too high?When swimming at an easy pace, ie, not adding much power or force, you should be able to move forward through the water with relative ease indicating that you’re well balanced and streamlined in the water.

Everyone will find a limit where either swimming easier turns into drilling, or there is a lower limit to how slow you can swim before you feel you start to sink.   Just above that point…what’s your stroke count?

You can reduce Stroke Count or (strokes per length) by reducing drag or increasing power.  Stroke count is only a reflection of two competing forces water resistance vs stroking force.

These are some additional ways to think about balancing two swim skills to achieve speed in swimming:

Streamlining vs power
Flexibility vs Mobility
Slipperiness vs Strength

Based on your height, an “ideal number” for your stroke count can vary.  For a 5’2″ person, maybe 18 is a conservative lower end target. For a 6’2″ person, perhaps 15 a good lower end target.   If you can’t hit those targets at ANY speed…there are streamlining and /or balance issues…basically problems with drag.

As you increase your tempo, time between strokes decreases, travel distance decreases and stroke count goes up.  What’s the upper limit of the number of strokes where you still feel smooth and in control?  For me…around 21-22 SPL in a SCY pool when swimming comfortably fast.

Can you choose your stroke count at will?   This would indicate that you’ve got great control over your form.  Does your stroke count vary widely (maybe more than 2 SPL) when swimming at the same sustainable pace ?  This suggests poor technique or technique that’s not wired in…as an 18 stroke 25 yd swim at 30 seconds is a very different stroke than a 16 or 20 SPL 25 yd swim at 30 seconds.

The stroke rate ramp test is a good test…but it only shows you your current comfort level. It doesn’t help you diagnose if your SPL and tempo ranges are good for you…only what feels good to you now.  Unless we all have perfect technique, what feels good can always been improved.

FWIW at 5’3″ I can swim equally comfortably at 14 SPL or at 22 SPL…the difference is speed.  at 14 SPL I’m swimming 1:50/100s easily and relaxed.  at 22 SPL I’m swimming 1:30s and getting tired.  A sustainable 1000 yd swim for me is around 1:40/100 and 18/19 SPL…unwavering from that narrow range.

Finally, if tempo stays the same, lowering your SPL (by either improving streamlining or adding efficient propulsion) will make you go faster!

Lots of good reasons to consider lowering SPL as part of a well balanced diet of swim practice and improvement exercises.

Note: This originally appeared in the USA Triathlon Coaching email forum in January, 2013.  Going through and cleaning up old emails I thought it was worth sharing here.

The best Freestyle Kicking Pattern for Triathletes

Underwater view of a man swimming in a pool

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“The design is finished not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”

Kicking has Multiple Functions in the Freestyle Swim

The kick can help rotate the body, create forward movement, and provide lift in the back end. Each swimmer needs to understand how their kick is fitting in to their stroke, what benefit it’s giving them and how they can improve it. Some folks will use kicking to keep the back end up, while in the mean time they are pushing down on the front of the water with their stroke. If they were to fix the front end, the back end could be repurposed and the same energy used would help them go faster. Yet in many swim squads, as long as the athlete is doing a continuous or 6 beat kick the coach is happy, and hopes over time they’ll get better at it.

Kick Removed equals the popular “band swimming” drill

If you take the above quote to the extreme and “take away” all the leg movements you’re left with the ever popular “band” swimming or no kick swimming, which helps teach swimmer how to quiet the legs, create good balance in the front half and identify the core muscles better.

Progress from there to 2 beat kicking which adds additional rotational component and not a lot of lift.  A 4 beat may provide more lift and compensate for balance asymmetries at various stroke points (sun yang uses a 4 beat on his breathing cycle) and often a 2 beat on non -breathing for example.

Progressing again, a well timed 6 beat kick provides rotation as well as propulsion. Each step also uses more energy and is less efficient when comparing energy spent for forward movement produced. Having the technical ability to choose your kick strategically based on energy management as well as swim speed in a triathlon is a high level goal for any triathlete.

How much Energy should Triathletes spend in the Swim?

No one suggests that a triathlete should go all out on the bike portion of a tri, or that their best tri run split should be equal to their best standalone run split. Yet many swim-centric triathlon or masters coaches will suggest swimming with a 6 beat kick during a triathlon.  This inconsistency in energy expenditure is baffling.

So why the inconsistency in suggesting a 6 beat or flutter kick…  is it best for a triathlete because it will result in the best speed ? It may be faster when done well…but also uses more energy than a 2 beat kick. If a triathlete needs to manage energy across 3 sports, why not use kick timing as an energy management strategy and opt for a 2 beat kick more often?

Why not spend time developing both a 2 and a 6 so you have choices? After all, you train in more than one bike gear too, right?

Triathletes Should get Confident with Multiple Patterns for Maximum Choices while Racing.

It seems like the same coaches who advise against a 2 Beat Kick are also gung-ho for the “band” swimming drill.  In this drill an elastic band is placed around the ankles to remove the kick, and force the athlete to focus on balance and the front end of the stroke.  I think it’s also an excellent drill…especially when it can be done as a no-kick drill withOUT the band! Learnign to control the legs adequately and keep them closely streamlined without having a restricting band, also teaches the swimmer how to control the legs while kicking in any pattern.

If the kick is a progression of frequency from no kicking to a rapid flutter kick, then a 2, 4 & 6 beat kick all fall along this spectrum.   It’s incongrunent to prescribe band drills but proscribe the two beat kick.    Practice all types and expand your options while getting faster as well.

Some examples of Elite Swimmers & Their Kicks…

Here’s a fast female with a 2 beat kick from what I can tell… honesty with a tempo that fast I don’t know how she’d fit in 4 or 6 beats.  This is the incomparable Janet Evans, a 5’0″ powerhouse champion.

 

Here is Katie Ledecky, World Record Holder in the 1500m at her performance in the 2015 World championship.  This is a great video to wtach because she displays a variety of kick patterns including 2, 4 & 6 beat.  her 4 beat kick is an asymmetric 1-3 kick, which means it resembles a 2 Beat kick on one half of the body and a 6  beat kick on the other half.   Take a look and let me know what you see…

Here’s a great one of Katie Ledecky & Simone Manuel competing in the 200m race.  Simone Manuel who I have written about before, is racing at the long end of her competitive ability, and Katie Ledecky is racing at the short end.   Who do you think will win? Both are using 6 beat kicks here the entire way as far as I can tell.    This shows that the distance can help determine the kick pattern.  In the 1500m Ledecky kicks less often.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

What are your thoughts on the best kick timing for triathletes?

Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/tpsdave-12019/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>David Mark</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=79592″>Pixabay</a>

A Christmas Inspired Swim!

Christmas Swim: Choose the best tree for your home and Decorate it! 

Did you ever have the opportunity as a child (or adult) to choose your own tree from a farm, cut it down and haul it back home…only  to discover it was too tall or too short?  I recall setting up a beautiful spruce in our living room when I was 9, 10, 11, 12…(it was a yearly ritual), only to have my father curse, take the tree out of the (&@#%) tree stand, Lay it down one the coffee table and slice off a 1/2″ segment with a orange handled hand saw.   Some years this ritual repeated itself half a dozen times before the cursing stopped.  Only when the tree was just the right height and standing up straight, did we string the lights–starting at the top– and then finally begin to decorate the tree.

This practice is inspired by that yearly ritual in three parts

  • A) Choose the right tree for the house
  • B) String the lights evenly form top to bottom
  • C) Decorate and hang the ornaments.

Warmup: 500 – Choose the right tree
The tree you bring into your home needs to be just the right height. Not too tall and not too short.  When you swim too tall, you risk stressing your shoulder, neck or lower back.  Strive to have your posture “just right” so you’re tall from crown of head through heels, and your arm extends forward, but only enough to keep the line of posture and not force you to arch too tall when you extend

4 x 25 sequential focal points. Repeat three times total for 300 y/m total

  • Point the crown of your head in the direction you’re swimming (Tall like a christmas tree)
  • lengthen your spine by imagining a rope pulling you forward from the crown of your head.
  • Gently squeeze your glutes as you extend the arm, feeling how good posture crosses the waist into the lower limbs as well
  • Point your toes as you feel a long line form crown of head through your feet.

200 continues freestyle, rotating through any focal points above that felt most helpful

Set 1:  String the Lights 1000
We String the lights starting at the top and try to space them evenly.   In this set you’ll do a body scan from head to toe as you did in the posture focused warmup.   Look for symmetry between right and left sides as you do so.

5 x 50 sequential focal points. Repeat for a total of 500 yds

  • Head Stable – head doesn’t wobble side to side as you rotate the body with each stroke
  • Arms extend on tracks – send arm forward as the body rotates, not across the body. Slide the arm out a little bit away from the center if you sense any crossing in front. Make each side even
  • Shoulder Blade (not full shoulder) clears the water with each rotation.  How far do you rotate? See if you can rotate “just enough”, so that the shoulder blade and back of shoulder clear the water, but the entire shoulder doesn’t come to air.
  • Hips align with shoulders. The hips should rotate as a unit with the shoulders. Pay attention that when the right shoulder blade clears the water and comes to the surface, the right hip should come to the surface as well.
  • Legs quietly respond – Try to quiet the legs instead of kicking the legs. Allow them to respond to the symmetrical rotation and stability created with the focal points above.

500 Freestyle Swim – Rotate or pick and choose from any of the preceding “top down” focal points as you string the lights on your tree.  Occasionally check in to make sure that the height of your tree is still the right size for your room. In other words check in on your posture once every hundred or so.

 

Set 2:  “Decorate the tree”

In swimming we can think of decorations as all the fine points that happen in the periphery of your stroke.  Fingertips, toes, elbows, knees, nose, chin etc.   These small body parts are of course attached to the bigger parts and usually follow where the core, shoulders and hips go. But directing awareness and attention to them can heighten your ability to improve quickly and make a smoother, more efficient and faster stroke.

4 x 75 rotate focus by 25

  • Chin – is your chin jutted forward, pulled back, teeth clenched or face puckered?  Focus on a soft chin gently drawn back to help align your cervical spine with good posture
  • Elbow – allow your elbows to swing toward the sides of the pool building during your recovery rather than up towards the ceiling or behind your back.  Pair this with the torso rotation focal point to really stabilize your side to side rotation with each stroke
  • Knee – Focus on the back fold of the knee and try to keep it open and pressing gently toward the ceiling when you bring your leg up prior to your kick. This helps lengthen the legs by helping remove excess knee bend. Soften the knee during the down beat of the kick, then press the back of the knee toward the ceiling again.

300 Freestyle Swim – Rotate through each of these three “decorations” as you swim a continuous 300.

There Goes My Hero, Terry Laughlin, Farewell.

4 swimmers in the waterThe first time I met Terry was at my coach training course. When he walked in the room, he illuminated it with his smile, and greeted me by name without hesitation. I felt as if we had known each other for years, even though we had only corresponded by email for a few weeks. His capacity for remembering names, details, focal points and moments of mastery, even after years had elapsed mesmerized me. Every time I listened to Terry speak or coach, I learned something new from him. His capacity for bringing in fields seemingly unrelated to swimming and tying them into the sport was uniquely academic, insightful and set him apart from any other coach I’ve ever met.

During my coach training course, we discussed a test set at the deep end of the 50m pool. He leaned over the edge, while sitting on the diving block and asked me for my times and stroke counts. He took the time to not only suggest how I modify the set to try and achieve better master, but also explained his thought process and multiple options. He empowered me to become a better coach, not just a better swimmer.

Here is a swim set you may want to try, inspired by that first impression of Terry coaching me in a sunny California pool.

Terry’s Mile (1600 y/m total)


(200) Swim 2 Rounds of 4 x 25, 10 seconds rest. count strokes for the 25 as follows. #1 Count hand entries. #2 Count hip rotations, #3 count kicks (can you do it?) #4 count what felt easiest.
(300) 4 x [3 x 25] rest 5 seconds between 25s, leave “on the top” of the pace clock for each set. Use the stroke count from swim #4 above as “N”, and for each 25 swim “N-1”, “N”, “N+1” Try to calibrate your recovery speed to hit your stroke count. Slow your recovery to lower count, speed up recovery to increase stroke count
(600) 4 x [3 x 50] Rotating through these three focal points focusing on “shaping the vessel”
#1) Let the hand and forearm slice into the water through a small hole
#2) Let the lead arm part the water as it extends forward
#3) Let the body follow the path created by the lead arm
(300) 4 x [3×25] use each focal point above and while counting strokes (do the streamlining thoughts decrease stroke count?)
(200) 2 x [4×25] Count strokes as follows #1 Hand entries #2 Hip rotations #3 Count kicks (2bk), #4 count what felt best. Did your SPL decrease from set #1?

His and Hers bread

Also, I wanted to share something about my last exchange with Terry…words are so inadequate to describe the loss of such a wonderful teacher, friend and mentor. He had an infectious laugh and could find something wonderful in nearly any topic…even bread.

He loved to travel, try new foods, and especially seemed to appreciate artisan breads and unique lodgings.

The last time I saw Terry in person was at a Total Immersion clinic in Yellow Springs Ohio. For the clinic, fellow TI Coach Vicky and I stayed at a grand hotel in downtown Yellow Springs. Terry bought two loaves of bread for us,  they were sold as ‘his’ and ‘her’, fresh, whole grain seeded loaves. ‘Hers’ had seeds on the inside and ‘his’ had seeds on the outside. We texted about the amazing bread and the clean lodgings with the cute café.And the best part of this memory was how funny he thought the names were and his belly laugh when he explained why they were called his and hers loaves.

His last text to me was ‘Everyone here enjoyed your company and Vicky’s’. Heartwarming.