Becoming a Better Swimmer

I'm frequently asked how one would get better at swimming. For many triathletes, swimming is the most daunting of the three sports: Even GGTC ambassadors, usually an athletic inspiration to those around them, worry about not only their ability to swim but also their ability to get better at swimming. Seeing former professional or college-level swimmers in the pool only increases the fear that you're an inadequate swimmer – and that you might never figure out just how exactly to move in the water. This page is dedicated to you: The triathlete afraid of the open ocean or afraid of not making the swim cut-off time in an upcoming race. It is also dedicated for those triathletes who'd like to up-level their swim game and aren't quite sure how to do it.

Technique

Swimming is a technical sport, especially as part of Ironman or Ironman 70.3 races. In other words, pure physical prowess doesn't get you very far. Fast swimmers are fast because they swim efficiently, maximizing their forward motion in the water while minimizing drag. The majority of triathletes can improve their swimming time by improving their technique. Categorically speaking, virtually all of the slowest swimmers should focus entirely on technique. The good news is that you don't need suffer countless hours of pain to become one of the faster swimmers.

Step 1: Understand where you are

Attempt to truly assess what your current abilities are, which is best done in a pool and without a wetsuit. Most pools in San Francisco are 25 yards long, but do ask a staff member if you're unsure. What 100 yard pace can you comfortably hold for the entire duration of the swim distance of your target race? Knowing your pace will allow you to assess your improvement over time.

Race   Distance Cutoff Time Pace Needed To finish
 Ironman  2.4 miles (~4250yd)  2h 20m  3:19/100yd
 Ironman 70.3  1.2 miles (~2125yd)  1h 10m  3:19/100yd
 Olympic Triathlon  1500 meters (~1650yd)  Varies, usually 1h  3:38/100yd
 Sprint Triathlon  750 meters (~825yd)  Varies, usually 30m  3:38/100yd
 Escape from Alcatraz  ~2 miles (~3525yd)  1h (you can keep on racing though)  1:42/100yd

Once you know your current pace, take a moment to attempt to understand where you feel like your biggest problem lies. Is it breathing - the ability to naturally breathe without interrupting your stroke, flow, and speed in the water? Is it your body position, with hips or feet lying too deep in the water, creating drag? Is it your arm stroke, which doesn't turn enough of your body's power into forward motion? 

You don't necessarily need a personal coach to detect problems in your technique. Even if you're not quite sure how to fix it, you might feel body parts creating drag or being in the way. If you're having trouble breathing, your breathing technique obviously needs work. 

To get a better idea, have a friend or fellow GGTC athlete record your swim. Being able to see your swim technique from outside the pool together and making a concerted effort to "feel for" issues in the water should provide sufficient information to pick something to work on. If you're not quite sure where to start or are looking for some inspiration, simply read on.

Step 2: Determine a goal and focus

Don't attempt to fix your entire swim technique wholesale. Even professional swimmers can really only hone one aspect of their technique at a time, trying to improve a specific aspect until the improved technique has become natural. Whatever you're trying to improve, you should become comfortable enough to not have to actively think about the "fixed" technique. Move on to a different aspect only when your thoughts can freely drift – and the correct motion has become engrained into muscle memory. 

What follows is a list of the most common issues I fix with GGTC athletes, both beginners and veterans. It's sorted by typical impact on a swimmer's performance.

  • Hand & Arm - Entry, catch, and recovery
  • Breathing
  • Body Position & Rotation
  • Kicking (or not having your feet in the way)
  • Improved feel for the water

You do not always need a coach to find a thing to improve -- many swimmers of all levels have a good hunch about what they need fixed the most. If you're unsure, you can always ask our Swim Director or one of our Swim Ambassadors. This is especially easy if you're comfortable with sharing the video you recorded in the first step.

Once you have a particular thing you would like to improve about your stroke, you should assemble a list of "swim drills" that will help you with your particular goal.

As an example, if you see on your video that the initial entry of your hand into the water looks a little wonky and isn't providing you with enough forward energy, you might decide to work on your catch. For that, you'd dedicate some time to "catch drills". If you are on your own, know that YouTube has countless videos of excellent drills (like this one for freestyle catch). If you're with us, feel free to ask a Swim Ambassador, our Coach, or the Swim Director - we'll find you one!

Once you know (1) what you want to work on and (2) which drills will help you to get there, you'll need to put in the hard work - embedding the drill into all of your swim workouts (usually after the warmup) and monitoring your progress.

Step 3: Settle & Repeat

Once you're satisfied with your progress in a particular area, give your body two to three weeks to get truly comfortable with the change. Chances are that swimming with a changed technique will initially feel harder – even if it's the key to eventually unlocking a more relaxed and faster swim. In the meantime, ensure that you don't regress by incorporating focused drills into your workouts. Above all, make sure to frequently visit a pool – ideally three times a week. Truly committing the change to muscle memory will be difficult if you do not swim regularly. 

Waves and limited visibility at Aquatic Park or somewhere else in the open ocean will make it difficult for your improved technique to settle and commit, which is why I recommend that you focus on pool swimming to work on your technique.


With much love by Felix Rieseberg

Golden Gate Triathlon Club is a 501(c)7 non-profit organization.

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