How to avoid common mistakes in Triathlon swimming

The Open Water Stroke


Triathlon Swim Technique

Without a doubt the top swimmers in the world have beautiful technique, with long, smooth, powerful strokes swum with little apparent effort. As triathletes we can learn a lot that can be used for our own performance, such as developing relaxation when we swim, correct pulling technique and arm recovery. But beyond that we are best to leave some characteristics of this stroke to the swimmers – their technique is specific to racing in pools, one person to a lane and to get them only to the end of their swim, usually far shorter than most triathlon swims.

For triathlon swimming we need a technique that is both fast and efficient and also allows us to navigate the chaotic conditions of open water. We need a stroke that is not easily disrupted by other swimmers but that also enables us to conserve energy for the bike and run to follow.

Swimming Efficiency

The long, smooth powerful strokes used by top swimmers relies on high power output to carry the glide through disruptions, which only depletes our limited energy stores early in the race. Even with the ability to generate this power, a long-smooth-stroke technique leaves us more vulnerable to disruption from waves, moving water and other swimmers. In open water the stroke needs to be faster, shorter and continuous to minimize the disruption of our forward progress – the opposite of long, distance-per-stroke swimming.


Training for Triathlon Swimming

To train for triathlon swimming we need to move slightly away from the typical swim training prescribed by swim coaches, mainly in the area of technique. Swim coaches tend to spend most technique training time working on increasing stroke length, reducing strokes per length, and developing power throughout the stroke. However, as triathletes we need to focus on:

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• Powerful front end of stroke to accelerate quickly with each stroke, using major muscle groups such as the pectorals propel ourselves forward
• Improving stroke rate (strokes per minute) so that we move quickly from stroke to stroke without leaving ourselves open to external disruptions
• Eliminating dead points in the stroke so that we don’t ourselves contribute to the factors that stall our progress
By changing the focus of our swim training we can improve our performance while also reducing energy expenditure, which leads not only to improved swim performance but also better bike and run performances. We carry less fatigue out of the water, and we have increased energy levels later in the race.

How do we develop this new technique?

To implement a new technique takes time because our brain controls how our muscles work to move us through the water. Based on our lifetime of swim experience (or lack of it!), we have set into our brains a motor pattern for swimming that we now need to change from a pool-efficient motor pattern to an open water-efficient motor pattern.

To change our motor patterns from old to new is very hard, especially in older swimmers who have a lifetime of set patterns to overcome (swimming or not swimming!). For this reason it is very important that when we train to change our stroke we ensure that the body is not too tired – for this reason, aim to swim in the morning, or if this is not possible then make the swim session the first training session of the day. We do this because if the body is tired the brain will easily fall back into known and automatic motor patterns, which only reinforces the old technique rather than developing your new, open water technique.

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Because fatigue is an important factor in your swim stroke training, your sessions should also be short and broken up into small and manageable chunks. This allows you to focus on your new technique with high concentration for short periods of time, with plenty of recovery between efforts to ensure that every effort you swim is developing good solid technique!

The total length of the session is also very important as there is only so much the brain can take at any time, so swimming 1000m (total) with good technique is better in the beginning than trying to fit in your normal 3000m set – the 3000m of effort will most likely have you swimming good technique only for the first 1000m of intervals, while in the last 2000m as you tire your technique will deteriorate and you are revert to reinforcing bad technique!

One last thing we need to consider is the frequency of your swim sessions. By getting in the pool as often as possible during this period of adjusting to your new stroke, even just for short sessions you will accelerate the learning process. Try to ensure that you are not out of the water for more than two consecutive days during the week.

• Train fresh! Swim when you are fresh – first thing in the morning or as the first training session of the day
• Less is more! Keep the interval length as short as necessary to hold good technique
• Swim often! Keep your sessions short and frequent – don’t go more than two days without swimming

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