How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 1

This post is one of a combined series of triathlon swim articles with Evan Morrison. Evan is a top American open water and marathon swimmer who holds several long distance records including Santa Barbara and the Ederle marathon swims.  His article considers some common mistakes people make while pool swim training (not technique errors) and how to improve. (We are also the co-founders and administrators of Evan also recently wrote  an excellent, easy-to-understand and follow simple front-crawl stroke tip.

While I written quite a few open water How To’s that are useful for both triathletes and open water novices, I thought some observations on the most common triathlete stroke problems that I’ve seen wouldn’t go astray and simple corrections for these problems may be useful.

Stroke Analysis

While all of these issues are visible to a good coach, many triathletes, (like myself as a swimmer), don’t have a local swim squad, regular coach or other swimmers to observe, intervene, or even to casually analyse their strokes. Swimming is the most technically difficult discipline in a triathlon. Quite unlike running or cycling, simply swimming more won’t necessarily improve your technique, and may even embed stroke errors more deeply. Fitness alone also isn’t sufficient. Swimming is a two-person sport in that it requires someone else to see what you are doing. So the best first tip is to get some stroke analysis. This doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. You can ask at your pool or if you see someone whom is a good swimmer. I can pretty much guarantee that they’d be happy to help as almost all experienced swimmers understand this requirement. (Just make sure to ask when they between sets, not in the middle of one).

I know a triathlete who has been swimming for twenty twenty-one years. That should make him an excellent swimmer. But because he not only doesn’t ask for input, but refuses any assistance he is offered by anyone, his swimming hasn’t progressed or improved in any way in all that time. (And he also makes most to of the errors that Evan points out).


The most common question or complaint from novice swimmers refers to breathing. It is  often in the form of “I am very fit, I can run and cycle for miles, but I run out of air almost immediately when swimming“. You can have a sports car in the garage but if you don’t have fuel in the car it’s not going to go anywhere. In swimming the primary fuel isn’t food but oxygen. Stretching the car analogy, food is more like the lubricant used for an internal combustion engine, and air is more like the primary fuel. You need one to start and for power, and the other to keep the system working. So it is most important that you are continuously getting enough air by breathing. As all swimmers have favourite sayings they have heard from their coaches, one of mine that is relevant to this is you need to swim around your breathing, not breathe between your swimming. Many beginners seem to think of breathing as an addendum to swimming. The oldest and still most important instruction to swimmers is relax. Without being relaxed it’s difficult to breathe efficiently. A drill that helps this is the side kicking drill (below).

  • Don’t hold your breathe but exhale continuously underwater. Use both mouth and nose exhalation.
  • Don’t worry about speed, but take controlled strokes. (You can’t swim fast or efficiently without being able to swim slow).
  • To help control your breathing you can speak a word like “breathe” underwater on every arm-cycle, or even hum underwater.
  • Learn to exhale fully. Exhale and see if you sink. If you don’t try again, this time exhaling from lower down in your abdomen and stomach. Pursing your lips adds exhalation pressure. (Easily demonstrated. Exhale as much as you can while reading this, then purse your lips and you will be able to exhale a little more).

Inflexible ankles

Inflexible ankles are common in triathletes who originally come from a running background or who emphasise running training. The repetitive impacts combined with a lack of focus on ankle flexibility leads to a decreased Range of Motion (ROM) in the ankles and leave some triathletes being unable to point their toes. In some cases not being able to point the foot at all, so the foot remains at up to 90 degrees to the lower leg. This adds significant drag, in effect a water-anchor to the swimmer. Stiff ankles will also cause the legs to drop down in the water, thereby adding yet more drag.

  • A simple solution to this is to increase ankle flexibility stretching. This has the great advantage of being amenable to being done while the person is sitting and relaxing or working. Two effective stretches from Michael Alter’s excellent Sport Stretches.

Ankle stretches 1-resized

Part 2.

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3 thoughts on “How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Swimming for beginning open water swimmers and triathletes is like planting a tree. Twenty common beginner triathlete questions answered. | LoneSwimmer

  2. Pingback: Improving Triathlon Swimming Performance | The Iron Blog

  3. Pingback: How to get an effective workout at public lap swim

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