6 ways to improve your triathlon swim technique

Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome breaks down the art of swimming into six key areas

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Swim Smooth’s Paul Newsome is one of the leading coaches for triathlon swimmers. Here he breaks down the art of swimming into six essential areas to master:

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1. Breathing

Paul says: “If you hold your breath under the water it’s likely that you’re of the mindset that swimming is a lot harder than it should be; you store lots of air in your lungs, your chest is buoyant and you suffer ‘sinky leg syndrome’.

“Not breathing out enough causes you to store carbon dioxide, which will quickly make you feel anxious and out of breath.

“Use simple breathing exercises to help you develop a smooth exhalation in the water and feel more comfortable. This will help give you a better body position and really improve your swimming dramatically.”

Triathlete in pool training

2. Head position 

Paul says: “Many swimmers (and some coaches) believe that every swimmer should look straight down at the bottom of the pool to improve their body position. However, if you have good stroke technique, you can achieve a high body position despite looking forwards, and for open-water swimming this is a major tactical advantage.

“There’s no universal head position that’s best for everyone and selection should come down to the individual. Try swimming 100m experimenting with your head position. Start by looking straight down, then elevate your head slightly every 25m and choose the best fit for your stroke that allows you to swim faster and more efficiently.

“Repeat this exercise in your wetsuit in the open water and you might well find that you can look further forwards, which can be a great advantage for navigation and drafting.”

Triathlete in pool training

3. Kicking

Paul says: “Traditional swim coaching taught everyone to swim with a six-beat flutter kick. But a slower style, where the swimmer kicks twice for a full arm cycle, can be more efficient over longer distances. When performed well, it’s like a switch-kick, moving between the two positions. 

“That said, if you’re a classic leg-sinker, although a six-beat kick takes a little more energy, your body will be lifted higher, reducing drag and with it your overall effort level. Many swimmers try to combine a two-beat kick with a pause-and-glide in the stroke as they’re looking to use as little energy as possible, but this causes them to stall between strokes and sink lower, particularly in disturbed choppy water. 

Triathlete in pool training

“If you’re still working on the basics of your stroke technique such as breathing, alignment, body position and catch, then you’re going to be much better served using a light six-beat kick. Swim Smooth’s coaching philosophy is to only think about developing a two-beat kick if you’re quite an advanced swimmer starting to develop a refined swinger style of stroke.

“Elite triathletes like the Brownlees and fellow England Commonwealth medallists Jodie Stimpson and Vicky Holland swim with this style. The continuous transition from one stroke to the next means they don’t need a six-beat flutter kick to keep their momentum going.” 

To read the second part of our ‘Supercharge your swim’ feature click here

Continuing our feature on how to supercharge your swim this autumn, Swim Smooth’s founder and head coach Paul Newsome gives his next three tips…

4. Posture/alignment

Paul says: “A good swimming posture is tall and proud, but many of us have office jobs and spend our days itching to break free from the PC and head out of the door to train. Unless you’re careful, you’ll develop a slouched posture with hunched-forward shoulders and a bent-forward spine and neck, which can cause arm cross-overs, scissor kicks, reduced rotation and snaking through the water. So sit up! 

“Having better posture keeps you straighter in the water, particularly your arm extension forwards. This means you’ll expend less energy travelling down the pool. Being straighter will also avoid cross-overs, which ruin your catch technique and lead to shoulder injury. Better posture helps develop good body roll to give you a longer more powerful stroke.”

Triathlete in pool training

5. Stroke rate

Paul says: “Stroke rate is how many strokes you take per minute (one arm pull is one stroke). This is useful to know because it tells you about your rhythm and timing. Too low a stroke rate and your arms are moving over too slowly and you almost certainly have some large dead spots in your timing. Too high a stroke rate shows your stroke technique is too short and needs lengthening.

“Swim Smooth has designed a special ramp test to help you understand your individual stroke efficiency and find the optimal stroke rate, as there’s no magic number that suits everyone. It’s a series of 50m swims using rate of perceived exertion and time splits on an increasing stroke rate.

“For information on how to do it, visit swimsmooth.com/ramptest. If you find this stroke rate ‘sweet spot’ you can swim faster for the same amount of effort, saving that all-important energy for the bike and run.”

Triathlete swimming in open water

6. Catch & pull

Paul says: “Traditional swim coaching first focuses on improving elements of your stroke, such as body position and kicking technique, and only later, as you become more competent, does it start to address your catch. More attention should be given to developing a basic feel for the water at the outset.

“The catch phase of the freestyle stroke is elusive for most swimmers. ‘Feel for the water’ is a concept that elite swimmers talk about to describe the feeling of getting hold of the water for good propulsion. If their hands and arms slip through the stroke with little attachment, they lose that sense of engagement or ‘feel’ they are looking for and are slower and less efficient as a result.

“This phase of the stroke is called ‘the catch’, because you are literally trying to catch a hold of the water and press the water backwards to send yourself forwards. Understanding and performing a great catch and pull-through will really take your swimming to the next level.” 

Triathlete in swim training

■ Entry. As the hand enters the water, make sure it does so fingertips first, lengthening forward in front of the same shoulder with the middle finger pointing the way to the far end of the pool. Avoid crossing over the centre line. This is critical to keeping a high elbow catch and pull-through later on.

■ Extension. As you reach forward with good body roll, make sure the palm of the hand is facing the bottom of the pool, but with the finger tips angled slightly down. Flex from the wrist, not the knuckles, with the palm flat and open, and fingers closed loosely together. Avoid dropping the wrist and pushing forward – that’s effectively applying the brakes.

■ Initial catch. At full reach and without dropping the elbow, flex the wrist and at the same time start bending the elbow and pressing back on the water with the forearm in a near-vertical position. This is where the elbow stays high and you start pressing the water back behind you rather than pushing it down.

■ Pull-through. Concentrate your efforts on simply pressing water back behind you, with the palm of your hand still facing behind you. Combined with good rotation, this pull-through will lead to an efficient stroke technique, but one that isn’t overly long.

(Images: Michael Rauschendorfer / Atila Sbruzzi / Jonny Gawler)

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