This time of the year is the off-season for triathlon. It is at this time that you would do well to concentrate on your swim technique. In the UK, this means in an indoor pool either of 25 or 33metres with 50metres for a privileged few.
Improving your freestyle technique.
For a novice triathlete the main emphasis will be on improving their freestyle technique. There are various components to think about.
Body posiition is the key to faster swimming. Many of us go faster with the aid of pull bouys and wetsuits. The reason for this is simply body position. Start with the head, and experiment with different angles. Look anywhere between straight down at the pool bottom and straight ahead with your eyes above the water surface the whole time. If you think about it, a good posture has the head looking straight ahead. This corresponds to a position where you look at the bottom of the pool. However the need to breath regularly means that for many a slightly raised head position is more efficient. Think also about your position in the water. You should be floating like a log with most of your body just beneath the surface of the water. Pushing down with your chest may also help you achieve a better position. Your hips and feet should be near the surface if you are to swim to your potential.
Breathing is the major component to add to body position. Once we have mastered both of these, we can condition our arms and legs to gain greater propulsion. When breathing look towards the side of the pool and no higher. Think of your head turned sideways on a pillow. Your head creates a bow wave and you should try and take advantage of this to breath without turning too far. Attempt to keep one goggle almost in the water. The problem you normally create by turning too far is over reaching at the front with your arms. This causes a corresponding reaction at the back with your legs scissoring. Both these effects create more frontal drag and slow you down. After minimising the disruption to body position you create by breathing you can then practice breathing fewer times per length, to improve your lung capacity. This helps you cope with conditions where taking more breaths is harder. Examples include learning to tumble turn and coping with open water races. In the open water many people take shorter breaths at turn bouys where their normal swimming rhythm becomes disrupted.
Kicking is a missing skill in the armoury of many triathletes. It shouldn't be. A strong kick allows for a better body position and faster acceleration, which can be very useful to avoid crunch situations in open water swimming. Kick conditioning can be done with kick boards, but don't forget to kick just with your arms outstretched in front as this is closer to your actual swim position. Rotate your body during these drills also as during freestyle most of the time you should be kicking with your body at a 45 degree angle.
Body Rotation gives the freestlye swimmer up to 6 inches more on their stroke length. Stand up and try reaching up with both hands towards the ceiling. Now, with one hand try to reach further. Let the other hand drop down. Now rotate your body like a corkscrew. You get higher still! This is what is happening when you rotate your body during freestyle. There are a number of drills that help swimmers develop a better body roll. Some you'll find in youtube links in session 4 below.
Forward propulsion from the arms is created both from when you acheive your catch on the water at the front of the stroke, and when you finally push the water back past your thigh at the back of the stroke. I will be helping my swimmers get a better feel for the water using drills such as fists only swimming and swimming with 1 or 2 instead of 4 fingers. The arm stroke begins with the catch and the arm outstretched with a small amount of elbow bend. As you pull your hand should head downwards below the level of your elbow. Your elbow should bend to between 80 and 130 degrees by the time your hand is below your shoulder. The final push is a key part of the stroke and you should try to push with your hands all the way to your upper thigh before your hands exit the water.
Pacing is very important in training and racing. More than half the triathletes I see swimming are poor at it. You need to be able to start off slow as well as fast and become aware how much effort you are putting in at any given time. If you start off too fast in a race you could blow up badly, especially in open water. Conversely, it can be important to cope with a fast start in open water races if you are trying to swim to your potential. Knowing the pace to use is the key, as is practicing swimming in oxygen debt.
Winter is a good time to practice pool skills such as underwater dolphin stroke, starts and turns. They may not apply directly to open water swimming competitions, but will be important for any pool swim competitions and the skills component will have a knock on effect on your swimming pace, allowing you to train at a greater speed and not lose time each time you have to turn.The dolphin swimming will strengthen your core muscles allowing you to improve your body position and therefore swim faster with less effort.
Usage of other strokes such as breastroke, butterfly and backstroke.
More advanced swimmers may well benefit from using other strokes and generally mixing it up. The advantage of this is that you improve your feel for the water and build up more swimming muscles which can help prevent injury during the season. Do remember however that the other strokes, and especially butterfly need to be built up slowly if you are not used to them. Swimming half a mile of butterfly in your first off-season session, is a recipe for injury if you are not already highly proficient at the stroke.
This Autumn 2011 I'm running a 12 week swimming technique course at a local gym for triathletes of all standards. The emphasis is on acquiring a better technique from which faster times should be possible. Each session is 60 minutes in duration and is pitched at a level that should suit most people. If you are an outright novice just reduce the number of reps and if advanced increase them.