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Triathlon Swimming for Beginners

Triathlon Swimming for Beginners

Of the three sports of triathlon, swimming is perhaps the most debated. How to improve your swimming quickly, how to improve technique, be more efficient and ultimately faster are often asked questions. Many triathletes come from a background in running or cycling, hence swimming is usually their main limiter. One can find a lot of advice on blogs, discussion forums and on social networks on how to improve swimming, but little advice focuses on open water swimming, which, in fact, is the third discipline of triathlon.

As a non-swimmer who went into triathlon and had to learn how to crawl properly, I can speak from experience. It is tough, but not impossible! Later, in my education for becoming swimming and triathlon coach, I got influenced by great coaches like Alberto García Bataller, who taught swim theory at the University and Eduardo No, who taught me how to swim in rough waters. Also, renowned coaches like Dave Scott, Brett Sutton, Darren Smith, Joel Filliol, Paul Newsome and Gerry Rodriguez have helped me to fine-tune my own swimming and my swim coaching.

In this blog, I will give you my personal view on how beginner (and perhaps even intermediate) triathletes can improve their swimming. The advice is based on two foundations:

  • For an adult that does not have any or little swimming background, in order to improve swimming, we must first consider deficiencies in coordination, flexibility and strength. (For children, the process would be different).
  • We should focus on learning open-water swimming, which requires a different approach than pure pool swimming.

Since swimming is a sport that requires a lot of technique and coordination, the best advice I could give would be that the first thing a beginner triathlete should do is to hire a coach (preferably triathlon or swimming with experience in open water) and perform a swim analysis session. An hour or two would be enough and would give tremendous improvements. Very helpful would be to use underwater filming to better detect possible errors. It is definitely the best investment in time and money that the beginner can make. In one session you can correct many errors, or at least identify them and get suggestions on how to work on them. This process could be repeated every now and then in order to improve the swimming technique bit by bit. Another option is to let someone film your stroke at all angles and send the film to the coach for analysis and suggestions for improvements. This is in fact very easy and one could wonder why it is not done more often.

So how do we correct a swim stroke? And what exercises should we use to improve our technique? Of course, the answers to these questions depend to a large extent to the individual, his/her style and physical condition. However, some general advice can be considered valid for all beginners.

  1. Just swim often. The more often we swim, the better. Even when the technique is not perfect yet. It does not have to be long swims, just often. The more we swim, the more we activate the specific muscles, learn the movements and reduce muscle fatigue.
  2. Start swimming intervals. Swimming technique deteriorates rapidly when we are getting tired. Swimming too tired implies swimming with technical defects.
  3. Swim fast. Swimming slowly is one of the biggest mistakes I see in beginners. It emphasises the errors instead of making progress towards better technique. One could start with 25m fast repeats with short breaks of 5-10 seconds and progress towards repeats of 50m, 75m, 100m etc.
  4. Use swim aids. For longer swim sets, tools can be used to avoid getting too fatigued too quickly. Swimming with a pull buoy or with small paddles is a good way to improve technique. Special short fins can also be useful. One of the best tools available is the snorkel, which allows swimming with the face under water. When not having to worry about breathing, one can better focus on hand entry, body position and the pull phase of the stroke. Make sure to also swim without aids as otherwise the transition towards “real” open water swimming will be too big.
  5. Avoid useless swim drills. I often see triathletes doing endless swim drills that are not specifically aimed at correcting technique or sometimes do need even aid front crawl swimming. Instead do drills that strengthen specific muscles or learn how to propel your body in the water as efficient as possible.
  6. Do not try to decrease your stroke rate too much. Many beginners are given the advice to lengthen their stroke and glide through the water. However, this does not work in open water swimming. At a low stroke rate, a slower swimmer will reduce speed, sink and will need extra power to get back into proper horizontal position. This increases drag and energy expenditure. For some swimmers with a strong upper body and kick it might work, but for for most of us, swimming with a high stroke rate and subsequently continuous traction (like one is pulling a rope) will be much more efficient in open water.

– Guest Coach Jaime Vigaray