Improving Your Swim Technique

150 150 Coach P

I’ve got news for you. The former swimmers in the triathlon community are sandbagging. We have formed a conspiracy to keep swim splits ridiculously slow, compared to what we could do “back in the day.” We can do this because we have a stroke and you don’t. If you guys spent as much money improving your swimming technique as you do on a set of wheels, then we might have to get wet more than once a week. But you keep playing wall-tag with other former swimmers at the local Masters workout, instead of doing drills and working on your technique. So you keep letting us sleep in. Thanks!

By the way, those Masters folks are in on it too. They make you think that the secret to swimming fast is swimming lots of yardage. But our other little secret is that we have been doing this stuff our whole lives, so of course yardage helps us. I had your stroke when I was seven, but guess what? I had a pretty good stroke by the time I was 13, and then I had 9 years of 30k-100k a week. Yes, 100k, back in the training dark ages of the 1980′s. Ask Sue why I can’t put my arm over her shoulder at the movie theatre.

So until you can beat 13 year-old Rich Strauss, braces, coke bottle glasses, sailor suit and all, your time in the pool is much better spent learning how to freakin’ swim. The bench mark I’ll give you is about 24:00 for a 1500. That is about what a below average USS 13 year-old boy with a decent stroke can do. Until you beat that skinny little kid, a large portion of your pool time should be spent in stroke improvement. This speed is probably 80% technique and 20% fitness.

I think of this focus as something of a philosophy. A philosophy that is focused on swimming ONLY quality yards for much of the training season, often at the expense of training volume. The problem that most triathletes have is that this de-emphasis on training volume is counter-intuitive to how we train for the bike and run. It requires focused mental attention to every lap, instead of mindless wall tag. In short, itÍs hard. You have to think.

Start by getting qualified help with your stroke technique.

  1. Find a coach, whether Masters, USS, or high school and work with them to improve your stroke, not on writing workouts to get you more yardage. Money always greases the wheels.
  2. Purchase a swim instruction video, such as Swim Power by Tarpinian, or Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin. These are is excellent tools to either augment the instruction of a physical coach, or to give you ideas, if a coach is not available to you.

Next, establish your starting baselines for swimming velocity and swimming efficiency:

  1. Swimming Velocity: perform a 1000m, maximum effort time trial. This should be performed as if it were a race, pacing your effort so that you do not blow up in the middle somewhere. This test should be repeated once per month.
  2. Swimming Efficiency: The tool that I use is called Swim Golf. Swim 50 meters or yards at a decent pace, concentrating on your technique, as it is right now. Count your strokes (each time a hand goes in the water counts as a stroke), and record your time. Add your stroke count to your time for 50m/yds in seconds. For example, you swim 50m in 40 seconds and take 40 strokes. Your Swim Golf is 80. Do 4 x 50m Swim Golfs with plenty of recovery between each. Take the average score. This is your Swim Golf, a measure of your efficiency as determined by velocity and distance per stroke.

Swim Golf

So what is a good Swim Golf score?

  1. Think of it as golf: low score is good, high score is bad. I like to give folks a goal of sub 80 for a 25yd pool, sub 85 or so for a 50m pool.
  2. Focus first on reducing the stroke count component, then the speed component. As for stroke count, a good goal would be less than 20 strokes per 25yd or less than 42 strokes per 50m. This is based on my personal experience with stroke counts. Once you get under 20, then 19 is good, 18 is better, 17 is very good, 16 is excellent. Now for fun, bust out those videos of Ian Thorpe at Sidney and check out his Swim Golf in the 200m or 400m. Gives me goosebumps. Freakish.

Of these two baselines above, the Golf Score is the most important for the triathlete. I use this particular baseline in two ways:

1. To establish your baseline before a set of drills or session of concentrated stroke work. This is how I typically structure a workout during early base training periods:

  •   Short warm-up, 300-500, followed by 4 x 25 sprint.
  • 4 x 50yd Swim Golf. 1 and 2 are at 1500m race pace, 3 and 4 are sprint. I am trying to get the athlete to pay attention to what happens to their stroke when they go from a comfortable pace to hard effort. My rule is that stroke count should not vary more than 10% when going from race pace to sprint. A higher variation is an indication that endurance, force or muscular endurance are limiters.
  • Sets of 50s or 100s of a particular drill. We then apply this drill to a swim, then perform 2 more Swim GolfÍs: 4 x 50 drill, 1 x 50 swim, 2 x 50 Swim Golf. Practice a drill, apply it to a full stroke, then use the Swim Golf to measure any changes in efficiency. Repeat this sequence, either with the same drill or different drills.
  • Repeat the set of Swim Golfs from B above.
  • Short sprints followed by a cool down.


2.  To establish a limiter for how quickly we begin to integrate ñfitness swimmingî into swim workouts. I use a combination of Swim Golf and stroke count. In short, swimming more yards with a bad stroke only reinforces a bad stroke. An athlete should increase the length or number of repetitions only after he has demonstrated the ability to maintain a consistent stroke count. Get in the habit of counting your strokes at the start, middle and finish of every interval, trying to keep your stroke count the same throughout. If your stroke count goes up more than 10% in the course of an interval, slow down and take more rest. An increase in your stroke count is an indication of a slip in concentration, fatigue, or that you are just pushing yourself too much. Do not sacrifice technique in an effort to go longer, harder or faster. Again, you will only be reinforcing a bad stroke. A progression of interval workouts using this tool might look like this:

    •  5 x 100 w/20 rest. Increase number of reps after athlete has demonstrated the ability to maintain a consistent stroke count. After 2-3 weeks, we might end up at 10 x 100. Then:
    • 10 x 100, make each 100 a little faster (descend) 1-5, then 6-10. If stroke count is consistent, then move to descend 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9. Still good? Then:
    •  6 x 200, descend 1-6. Consistent stroke count? Then do 6 x 200, descend 1-3, and 4-6. Still good? Then move to 300s, 400s, etc.
    • It might be good to push the “endurance envelope” a bit with a weekly long swim, building toward race distance. While a consistent stroke count on these swims is desirable, it is also necessary to do the best you can and bump up your endurance.

As a side note, an often overlooked benefit of counting your strokes is in open water swimming. I have found that the act of simply counting my strokes takes me out of the washing machine/WWF cage match and puts me back into the little 8 x 3 foot box that I can control. It focuses me on the task at hand and brings me back into my stroke.

In summary, resist the temptation to pile on yardage. Chances are that you will only reinforce a poor stroke. Rather, try to swim every lap as well as you can, and only swim quality laps. Always remember that for the triathlete, faster swimming is far more about swimming technique than about swimming fitness. As you improve your technique over time, you will naturally increase your total yardage and create the muscle memory of good, efficient swimming. Use the tools of Swim Golf and stroke count to decide when you are ready to incorporate more ñfitness swimmingî into your pool sessions.


Coach P

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