Tag Archives: triathlon swim

How To: Improving triathlon swimming performance – Part 2

Following on from Part 1;


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


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).


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.

Related articles

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 marathonswimmers.org). 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 correction for these problems. 

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 ask when they between sets).

I know a triathlete who has been swimming for twenty years. That should make him an excellent swimmer. But because he not only doesn’t ask for input, but refuses any 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 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.