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5 Things + 5 Processes

Oh, the swim. Many triathletes struggle in the water, and it’s no surprise. Swimming more closely resembles golf from a technical perspective than it does cycling or running, rewarding long and careful practice. Triathlon already demands most of our time, so dedicating even more time to it strikes many in our sport as a possible waste. Add in the fact that the swim comprises far less time than either the bike or the run in competition, and you’ve got the perfect conditions for athletes to say “meh” when it comes to the first discipline. But neglecting the swim comes at a cost. First of all, if you are aiming for the front of your age group and trying to get to Kona, you’re going to have to focus on your swimming. Secondly, triathlon is an energy cascade (well, not technically, but the metaphor is close), meaning that you surrender energy during each step from sport to sport. Since the best triathletes are not the fastest athletes, but the ones who slow down the least, being swim fit sets you up for a great remainder of your day. Simply put, the less you spend here, the more you have to spend later in your day. So here are five tools and five techniques to make your swimming more fun, more effective, and more rewarding.

A Tempo Trainer, and a Commitment to Longer Intervals

You probably own a power meter for your bike (or even for your running), poring over your wattage numbers the way a Talmudic scholar peruses the Torah. But when it comes to swimming, you rely on a watch with a semi-accurate accelerometer to tell you what you did. Ditch the watch when you head to the pool (use that pace clock hanging on the wall, as swimmers have done for decades to great effect), or better yet put a watch inside your swim cap. That’s what a Finis Tempo Trainer does, and it will help you improve by holding you accountable to a certain pace. First of all, triathletes tend to be terrible at pacing themselves in the water. They usually display a toxic combination of aggressiveness and a desire for the interval to be finished. The swimmer next to you who sprints for 50 meters and then disappears, as if jerked backwards on a cord? Very likely a triathlete. A Tempo Trainer fixes this problem via a very simple mechanic. Let’s say you’d like to swim 1:30 per 100 yards. If you set the tempo trainer to beep every 22.5 seconds (astute readers will notice that is exactly ¼ of 90 seconds) then—if you’re swimming correctly—the tempo trainer will alert you when you should be finishing each length of the pool. By simply staying with the beep and meeting it at each wall, you know that you’re swimming every 25 yards in 22.5 seconds, or, by extrapolation, 1:30 per 100.
Now that you’ve got your pacing figured out, let’s talk about your interval distance. Many triathletes, citing boredom (you picked an endurance sport, for god’s sake!) swim with Masters Swim groups. No shade on USMS, but most of their participants are former single-sport athletes, and the events they train for are the ones you’ll find at a swim meet: short, all-out efforts that complete within minutes, not hours. Many USMS groups never swim farther than 200 yards in one interval, and that is just not what you need. You are a diesel engine, or you should be one. That means you need to get comfortable swimming intervals that are much longer: 400s to 1500s, really. Hey, look at it this way: you’ll have so many fewer intervals in each session!

Good Stretch Cords, and a Plan to Use Them

You probably own a set of stretch cords, buried in the depths of your training bin, near that “therapy” ball you never use for therapy, but using stretch cords regularly will make you stronger in the water and more resistant to swim-related injury. Swimming requires almost constant movement of the shoulder joint, and resistance training helps improve the mobility of that joint and how it functions. So grab a set and put them in your swim bag, not in your “recovery box” at home.

OK, so how do you use them? Chiefly, you deploy them before each session. Show up a few minutes early and perform about five minutes of a simple stretch cord routine, outlined below:

45” double-arm pulls
45” single-arm pulls
1’ double-arm pulls
1’ single-arm pulls
45” double-arm pulls
45” single-arm pulls
That’s it for before the swim. Doing so will help you get warmed up, and will tell the muscles the movements they are about to make. Away from the pool, perform some longer stretch cord routines that take 15-20 minutes, one or two times per week. You’ll be stronger, and by “talking” to those muscles away from the pool, you remind them how they should be moving. If you follow these recommendations for only a few months, you’ll be surprised by the change in your swimming, and by the decrease in your shoulder dysfunction.

A Proper Swim Analysis, and the Swim Smooth Guru

A swim analysis is like a good bike fit—once you’ve had one done, you’re boggled that you didn’t do it sooner. We’ve sat next to many swimmers, listening to them say “Oh. Oh my. That’s what I’m doing?” You can’t change or improve something until you know what you’re doing, and a good video analysis of your stroke will expose (in all their glory) your faults. Remember that we are bipedal creatures, though, so cut yourself some slack. You’re supposed to travel upright through the world, and swimming is a horizontal sport, in a medium that can kill you. Don’t fret about what you look like.
Once you’ve got an idea of what needs fixing, we can’t plug the Swim Smooth Guru enough. This rich resource featured hundreds of hours of footage, detailing elite swim strokes, stroke faults, drills, dryland routines, and ways to think about swim technique and swim training. For $3/month, you can’t get a better value in swim instruction. Coupled with a swim analysis, you’ll know what you’re doing wrong, and how to fix it.

A Helpful Set of Fins, and the Ankle Stretches to Complement

Triathletes seem to think that fins are evil, or a cheating device, which is odd, since most triathletes reach for their paddles any chance they can get. Fins will help you improve in the swim through several pathways, listed below:

  • Ankle mobilization: triathletes have horribly tight ankles, which is a problem in the pool. Most of the propulsion from your kick comes from your ankle moving from pointed (plantarflexion) to flexed (dorsiflexion). If your ankles don’t move, your toes will point at the floor of the pool or lake, generating a ton of drag
  • Fins will help you perform drills. If you’re trying to do drills that limit your front-end propulsion, then having something that helps keep your legs afloat while encouraging proper kick technique is key to improving.
  • Fins make fast swimming harder, not easier. Sure, at first it seems easier, but the reason you’re going faster is because fins raise the amount of resistance your feet encounter while kicking. More resistance = more speed, because, well, physics, but more resistance also equals more work! And if you’re trying to get a good workout, more resistance is what you’re after. Go and do a set of 10x200 as fast as possible with fins on, and then come back here and tell me you didn’t puke in the pool, because I know you did.
Now that I’ve convinced you to use some fins, do some ankle stretches right after swimming. The best (and simplest) way to do this is as follows.

  • Kneel on the floor, making sure you have a pad under your knees; lay your feet flat underneath you, so the top of your foot is flush against the floor and your toes point behind you
  • Sit down onto your heels, maintaining that position for 30-60 seconds. If that is too easy, rock slightly back, popping your knees up off the ground, to get a dynamic stretch
  • Now tuck your toes under, so the bottom of your toes are flat on the ground and you’re sitting on your heels; you may feel this stretch more in your big toes than your ankles, but that’s fine; stay here for another 30-60 seconds
  • Repeat the whole process, spending 30-60 seconds in each position

The Right Set of Paddles, and an Understanding About What they Do

If triathletes think fins are for cheating, they certainly seem to think that paddles are totally fine. They also seem to think that the bigger the paddle, the better, since a big paddle brings up resistance which, as we pointed out above, makes you go faster. The problem is that your shoulder joint is probably not made for tons of resistance, and it will give out after a while.
Paddles are a technique tool, not a training tool, and their purpose is to keep you swimming with good form as long as possible. When you fatigue while swimming, your form begins to go, and using paddles can keep your form in place for longer, since it drops the effort level needed to swim at any given pace. Paddles also help swimmers feel the water correctly, since a good set of paddles will have some mechanism for reminding the swimmer if he or she is doing it wrong. For this reason, we suggest steering clear of any paddle that has a wrist strap. Wrist straps work as crutches, removing the focus necessary to swim with the paddle lying flat against your palm. Pull those off and just leave the finger straps. Or, better yet, purchase a pair of Finis Agility paddles, which only have thumb-holes instead of straps. If you take a stroke with these incorrectly, the paddles fall off, which is a great educator about keeping pressing steadily on the water behind you.


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