Obviously you need, and want, to swim faster (unless you’re already sub 18mins – and if you are, you won’t be reading this article), but how are you going to make that happen?
Is it a technical issue or a conditioning issue? Could it be psychological? You need to be really specific about what happened in your swim legs if you’re going to make informed decisions about how to improve. There could be hundreds of reasons, but some of the most likely are Form Drag, dropped elbows, poor feel for the water and bad breathing.
What a drag!
As mentioned in the ‘Front crawl vs breaststroke’ section below, Form Drag is one of the biggest contributors to speed loss. Most triathletes are capable of swimming 1,500m in 25mins or less, but what separates the best swimmers from the rest is the ability to minimise drag. A wetsuit will help when you’re in open water, but if you can master balance and streamlining in the pool, you’ll be even better.
The ability to keep your elbows high under the water cannot be overestimated, but what exactly is a dropped elbow? It’s when your elbow leads the pull (underwater phase of the stroke), so that instead of your forearm being perpendicular to the top of the water, it’s at an angle. This leaves only your hand as a propulsive surface, which is like Steve Redgrave rowing with a teaspoon.
Many swimmers make the mistake of dropping their elbows when breathing. If your balance is poor, you’ll probably use your leading arm as a lever to press down on the water in an attempt to support yourself as you take in air. At the same time, you’ll rotate your body to breathe and, as a result, your leading arm will sink deep in the water and sweep across the centre line. This will create over-rotation and further loss of balance and propulsion.
Another cause of dropped elbow is when your fingers point across your body during the underwater phase. Try to ensure that your fingertips are always pointing towards the bottom of the lake or pool
A feel for the water
Many triathletes make the mistake of imagining their hands are paddles – stiff and rigid – and hold their fingers tightly together. This not only reduces the surface area of your hand by squeezing all the flesh together, but it also increases the tension in your hand and forearm, and leads to fatigue in those small associated muscles. This, in turn, causes increased blood flow and therefore an increased heart rate.
Instead, try swimming with a relaxed hand, keeping your fingers very lightly together. (You’ll see a little daylight through some of the fingers, but this won’t be enough to reduce propulsion.) As you engage the water, your hands spread a little and shape to the water.
Here’s a technique to help with shaping: extend your arm in front of you with your palm facing up, your hand relaxed and your fingers lightly together. There should be a small dip in the centre of your palm (a bit like holding your hand out for money!) Now turn your hand over, place it on a table and press down. Notice how your hand spreads; this is how it ‘shapes’ to the water.
There are a number of ways in which your breathing could be costing you time in the water: are you taking too few breaths (breathing every third, fourth or fifth stroke)? Are you exhaling too much? Are you holding your breath underwater?
If you can hear yourself breathe, then you are almost certainly over-breathing. You shouldn’t try to breathe as if you’re having your lungs checked by a doctor, but rather like a goldfish. If you’ve expelled enough air during the rest of your stroke cycle, then you’ll put your lungs into a slight negative pressure.
So as you turn/roll to the air, all you have to do is open your mouth, relax and take a shallow breath. You’ll be taking another breath in about 2secs, so it’s simply a case of keeping yourself ‘topped up’.
Over-breathing’s a form of hyperventilation and disrupts your body’s balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. If you hyperventilate, your body doesn’t get any more oxygen; instead it flushes out too much carbon dioxide. With insufficient carbon dioxide, not enough oxygen can get to the brain and you feel faint. This leads to greater anxiety which, in turn, leads to more over-breathing. And so the spiral descends…
Taking too few breaths can also put a severe dent in your pool time. For most competitors the swim is just the beginning of a long race, and you don’t want to go into oxygen debt too soon. So, while bilateral breathing is great for training sets, it offers too few opportunities to breathe when you’re racing – especially when your anxiety levels are high at the start. Breathe on every stroke cycle during the race and save your hypoxic tendencies for the pool.
No prizes for style
While it’s true that improved technique will help you swim faster in the long run, there must be a trade-off because there are no prizes for the swimmer who looks the prettiest in the water.
The key to speed through the water is increased stroke rate without loss of stroke length. Loss of stroke length occurs as a result of muscles lacking endurance and becoming tired. When this happens, the natural reaction is to take the easy way out and apply less force to the water.
As for loss of stroke rate, well, this usually happens after the initial burst off the start line. Most tri swimmers aren’t used to working in this zone and go into oxygen debt for a short while. As a result, they slow the stroke rate down and try to settle into a rhythm once they have clear water. Unfortunately, the stroke rate only has to slow by 1⁄10 of a second to have a disastrous effect on the overall swim time.
Here’s a clear example: 1m per stroke at 1sec per stroke equals 1,500m in 1,500secs or 25mins, while 1m per stroke at 1.1secs per stroke equals 1,500m in 1,650secs or 27.5mins. That’s the loss of a potentially race-wrecking 2:30mins for an imperceptible slowing of the stroke rate. Factor in a loss of stroke length and you can see how a time of 25mins can quite easily become 35mins.
Now it’s time to get into the pool and work on your balance and streamlining. But first I’ll let you into a secret: there’s no such thing as a perfect swimmer. The fastest Olympians can only reach 5mph, and then for just 20secs. Remember that and you’ll do just fine.
Front crawl vs breaststroke
If you go down to your local pool, 97% of recreational swimmers will be doing what I call the ‘Riviera crawl’. They swim with their heads out of the water, so as not to get their hair or make-up wet – and they’re usually doing it in the fast lane!
This is not the super-fast breaststroke you might see at the Olympics (the world record is 59secs for 100m and 2:08mins for 200m): the kick is too wide, the arm pulls are too big and the body never gets into a streamlined position.
As a result, their bodies move through the water like a transit van into a headwind on the M4, except they also get a pain in the neck and the lower back into the bargain.
This lower-back pain is exaggerated in a wetsuit because, as a result of being wrapped in neoprene, their legs won’t sink.
Ironically, breaststroke is often the first stroke we learn as children because we can keep our heads above water and don’t have to worry about breathing, but it’s also the slowest of all four competitive strokes.
The reason breaststroke is so slow through the water is because of Form Drag (also know as ‘Profile Drag’). Form Drag increases as the square of your speed, so if you double your speed, Form Drag multiplies by four.
Think of our transit van bludgeoning through the air on the M4, then consider a Ferrari cutting through the air and you’ll get the picture. Swimming breaststroke in a triathlon is like buying a Ferrari and fitting it with a roof rack!
Glen Walke was fifth out of the water at Ironman Hawaii 1983. He now runs Slippery Fish Swim Clinics.