How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 2

Following on from Part 1;

Scissors-kick

This is common and may be partially caused by increased thigh strength built up by running and cycling training. The legs kick wide, passing outside the silhouette of the body as seen from the front and adds very significant drag. In an elite sprint swimmer the kick only provides 15% of total forward propulsion and therefore provides less for most of the rest of us, and especially distance swimmers. The combination of added drag with reduced propulsive force means a scissors-kick is not just not providing little assistance, but is actually slowing the swimmer. For many triathletes less of a kick would be more effective in increasing speed and reducing effort. Note that the thigh muscles are the largest muscles in the body, with a higher density of fast twitch muscle fibres, which consume more oxygen and glycogen. If the muscles are being used inefficiently, the effects are systemic, adding drag while requiring more energy.

People who speed up while using a pull-buoy usually have a scissors-kick that is slowing them down normally. It is worth emphasising that, as I’m sure you have read, the kick is driven from the hips. However the lower leg is not stiff but is best described as having “soft knees.”

  • Do some swimming with a pull-buoy to determine if your kick is slowing you. If you are faster with a kick-buoy then it probably is. (Make sure you are NOT kicking while using a pull-buoy. This is the Aquasphere buoy that I use).
  • Another simple technique is to “make a fist with your toes“. This reduces the effectiveness of your hamstring muscles, reducing the range of motion of your kick. If you swim easier while doing this, you know your kick is adding drag. However this is not something you should be doing all the time, but only as a diagnostic tool or to get the feel of a more streamlined kick.
  • Tapping your big toes together when they pass will add bio-feedback for you to reduce the range of your kick. Again, this is not something you do every kick.
  • A long length of medium surgical tube or Theraband looped  over your ankles is useful for feeling the entire range of a kick. You will have to kick against the tubing which makes this an uncomfortable drill only used briefly but it will help stop your knees bending and again will demonstrate a better reduced kick range.
  • When using fins, make sure they are NOT long scuba-diving flipper types, but short stiff ones. Long flippers will force you to scissors-kick your lower legs more. I use Finis Z2 Zoomers.
  • One particular drill that I do occasionally is to swim with my ankles tied together with a large rubber band (or Finis ankle band though I simply use a loop of car inner-tube). This ensures I must concentrate on my chest buoy, which is a swimming phrase for the centre of buoyancy in the chest and lungs. To do this you must get yourself low in the water, your tied legs will be heavy and will sink down in the water, making you slower. So you must concentrate on elongating the body, staying smooth, and trying to elevate the legs. Don’t overdo this drill as it is too easy to use it to fall into a strength-only swimming technique. This drill is also useful as pool training for some choppy wind conditions, where getting low under oncoming chop is more effective than trying to swim over it.
  • Like many distance swimmers, I don’t do a lot of kick drills, but also like most experienced swimmers, I regularly use the side-kick drill as the most effective of all swimming drills. While I don’t recommend being as lazy as I am with kick-drills, this side-kick drill does work the kick, balance, elongation and rotation.
  • To do the side-kick drill you start by swimming a length on either side, one arm stretched out in front, the other relaxed by your side, on your hip. Concentrate on swimming straight and controlling your kick. Then you can add slow rotations to the other side. You can add a side-to-side transition every quarter of length, or every 12 kicks. The first side drill and a 6x kick (12 beat) rotation can be seen in the drill below. You are never too good to stop doing this drill and the various variations of it.

Not pulling through completely

The pull-phase in front crawl starts from when the hand engages the water at the catch (usually about 30 cm under the surface) until it starts to lift into the recovery phase. Many people shorten the pull phase and lose the power at the latter end of the pull.

  • When pulling, scrape your thumb against your thigh on every stroke

Concentration

Even the most experienced and even expert swimmer will develop technique errors once they lose focus on their stroke or get tired, as Evan points out. So you must concentrate on correct technique constantly, and always expect new errors to develop and need to be remedied.

Get some stroke analysis

Yes, I already mentioned this in the first part but it’s worth repeating. All of the above points are based on having those specific problems. People may have one or two or more. The BEST single thing you can do for your swimming is to get some simple stroke analysis. This sounds both complicated and expensive. But almost any experienced swimmer you meet will be happy to do so. They will have sufficient understanding of stroke mechanics, understand that everyone needs this assistance including themselves and most importantly be able to see things you can’t. Obviously experienced coaches and video analysis will give greater benefit but you could be surprised how easy it is for someone to see something you are not aware of, and therefore for you to make changes. (I went through all this myself earlier in the year when I visited the SwimSmooth clinic and discovered problems that had crept back into my stroke).

Conclusion

Proportionally speaking the swim leg of any distance triathlon is the leg, shortest and the one least likely to cause the athlete to gain or lose too much time. Therefore the best strategy for most people is to maximise efficiency during the swim leg, and get out of the water fresh without having lost too much time.

I’ve tried to address the most common issues which reduce efficiency and which are easiest to address. There are also common issues with crossover, thumb first entry, lifting too high to breathe, poor catch, s-pulling and working on the other previous problems will improve these also.

However you should address each of these issues separately at first, and NOT try to focus on everything at once.

By tackling these main issues you will reduce drag, develop a controlled a propulsive stroke technique with no dead spots, and have a good breathing pattern. You will be much further along the way to moving through any water conditions with improved efficiency. Some of these changes can be made made quickly but expect to repeat any muscle action at least 10,000 times for it to become ingrained in your muscle memory. So to change something you have to repeat it correctly at least once every metre swam.

There’s another swimming aphorism that applies to stroke correction and improvement that derives from this slow rate of improvement. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Note. I’ve now also written a How-To – Improving Open Water swimming performance for triathletes.

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