Thursday, February 13, 2014

Swimming for Triathletes

As a former competitive swimmer from age 5 to 17, my strongest leg in the triathlon is by far the swim. I knew that most triathletes struggle with the swim the most but after doing a few triathlons I realized just how much. Swimming is something that comes natural to me but even after all these years I still have to work on my swim to keep it my strength. After a few questions about my swim workouts and advice I thought I would write a post about any and everything swimming. I am not a coach but between 12 years of competing, teaching swim lessons and volunteer coaching I think I know a few helpful swim tips.

One of my favorite pools & the site of Far Westerns

My first piece of advice is that if at all possible try to work with a swim coach or swimmer. The best way to get better at swimming is for someone to look at your stroke and assess your weaknesses. There are a lot of good drills you can do but, just like running, everyone has their own flaws. A coach will be able to address yours and make sure you are doing the right drills, and correctly. If you can't work with someone more experienced don't be too worried. There is still a lot you can do on your own.

The Swimming Hall of Fame pool

Swimming is the part of a triathlon where technique matters the most. You will only get so fast with poor technique. The biggest benefit of having good technique, you will be able to swim easier at the same speed because you will be significantly more efficient. Water is a lot harder to move your body through than air and pulling unnecessary water will only slow you down. No matter how hard you are working or how strong you are you are being inefficient.

Some of my favorite drills include

  • Tarzan, which is good for speed and getting comfortable with your head out of the water. [If I start to panic during an OW swim I do tarzan so that I can still keep moving forward]
  • Sculling, good for developing arm strength and a feel for the water. I do it with my head out of the water and with a pull buoy
  • Finger drag, good for maintaining a straight stroke and not entering your hand into the water too soon

Although I don't do many of these drills anymore, this video includes some really good drills for beginner swimmers or those who need more technique help.

If you're thinking "but Shannon, you've been swimming for 15 years. I'm never going to make enough progress" you're wrong. My swim team got a new coach during my freshman year of high school and he spent the first few months working on correcting our strokes. Twice a week for 75 minutes all I did was technique work, and once a week we would spend 30-60 minutes watching Olympic swimmers to learn what a good stroke looks like.

I know this post has been technique heavy so far but that just shows you how important technique is in the swim. Right now I'm just getting back into the pool after a two month hiatus so I'm spending more time on technique than I would during peak training. I always do technique work and drills during my warm up no matter where I am in my training, and right now I am dedicating an entire swim each week to only technique work.

What I recommend is setting aside a one to three week period where you can go heavy on the swimming. Get yourself in the pool as much as possible and really work on your stroke. It will do wonders, I promise. Don't worry about your yardage or your pace. Doing 50's or 25's is a really good place to start since your stroke starts to fall apart after longer reps. The point of working on technique is to learn what you should be doing and building muscle memory. 

That time I met Gary Hall Jr

For me personally, I can tell when I need to spend some time working on my technique. Sometimes I neglect it and it shows. Once my stroke feels strong then I start moving onto faster and/or longer sets. A lot of my technique work is also done with a pull buoy, as it allows me to focus on feeling every aspect of my stroke and it keeps my body in better alignment.

I find that using the pull buoy in the traditional way actually doesn't help very much. Instead I use the pull buoy between my ankles. This can be a tricky thing to master at first [my first few times trying this the buoy kept popping out] but it will be much more beneficial. This video shows the difference between the two.

As for paddles, I personally NEVER use them but it's up to you and your coach. Using paddles, especially with poor technique can put a lot of stress on your shoulders. Take it from someone who had rotator cuff surgery junior year of high school. Still to this day using paddles aggravates my shoulders. BUT, some of my former teammates and friends use them all the time with no issue whatsoever. Just be careful and use your judgement. If you advanced and know what you are doing paddles can be a great training asset.

Since this is getting long I'm going to end it here but I think there may need to be a part two so keep those questions coming! Please let me know if you need anything clarified :)


  1. I haven't been in the pool for 2 weeks which is rare as of late. Swimming is the best :) I love catch up drill!

  2. Thank you for this!!! I really needed this, and hope to be swimming more soon, lord knows I need the practice.

  3. This is super helpful… thank you! Bookmarking and referencing often :)