Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Top 20 Rules for Faster Triathlon Swimming


The previously* most popular post on this blog was a 2007 post on swimming, which is mainly a link to another blog post from The Triathlon Book. Over on ST there has been a lot of chatter about swimming for triathletes. And RappstarPaulo and Coach Daz amongst others have weighed in on the topic.

Without further ado here is an update to my brief 2007 post:

The Top 20 Rules for Faster Triathlon Swimming

1. Conditioning trumps drills. Technique matters, but the way most athletes try to improve technique doesn't work. Get fitter, and your ability to hold good technique improves. It takes a lot of work to develop aerobic conditioning in your upper body. If you think you are already swimming a lot but are not improving, swim more and keep at it. There are no shortcuts.

2. Traditional drills don't work. The type of drills and the way that most triathletes do them don't actually have any material effect on swimming technique.

3. Swim more often. Frequency is the best way to improve your swimming. Also see rule #4

4. Do longer main sets. You can't expect to swim fast and be fresh on the bike if you rarely do main sets with the same or higher volume and pace than you expect in the race. For short course these should be at least 2km, for IM 4km, or more. And that looks like 20-50x100, not many short broken sets adding up to 2-5km.

5. Don't over think it. Don't under think it. Be engaged with what you are doing in the water, and use tools to help get a better feel for the water. But don't over think every stroke, and suffer from paralysis by analysis. Swimming fast is about rhythm and flow, when good technique becomes automatic.

6. Increased swim fitness translates to the bike and run. Being able to swim harder, starting the bike both fresher and with faster riders is how that works.

7. Deep swim fitness allows you to swim on the rivet. See rule #6. Most triathletes don't know how to really swim hard for the duration.

8. Include some quality in every swim. If you are swimming less than 5x per week, having easy swims is a waste of time. Always include quality, from band, to paddles, to sprints, in every swim.

9. Don't count strokes. See rule #2. The objective is to get faster, not take fewer strokes.

10. Learn now to use your kick but don't spend a lot of time with kick sets. Kicking is about stroke control and body position, not propulsion for triathlon. Kick fitness doesn't matter.

11. Use a band frequently. The best swimming drill there is. Do short reps with lots of rest at first. Both propulsion and body position will improve.

12. Use paddles with awareness of engaging lats. Paddles are primarily a technical tool to take more strokes with better mechanics, the result of which is learning how to use your prime swimming movers: your lats.

13. Keep head low on breathing and in open water. Head down, feet up. It's a common body position error.

14. Do many short repetitions for stroke quality. It takes fitness to swim with good technique for long durations. Start shorter, and swim faster. 50x50 works wonders. Don't have time to do a 2500m main set? Drop the warm up and warm down.

15. Learn to swim with a higher stroke rate. This takes conditioning. It will pay off on race day, and particularly anytime swimming in a group and in rough conditions.

16. If you need to write your swim session down on the white board or paper, it's too complicated. Keep it simple.

17. Find a good masters programme. Long main sets is a good sign. Swim with others to challenge yourself. Good programmes are the exception rather than the norm, unfortunately.

18. Don't use swim tools as a crutch. Paddles and bull buoys are tools with specific uses. Don't reach for them out of simple laziness, because the set is hard.

19. Do use swim tools when you are very fatigued, and will otherwise swim with poor quality. See Rule #18.

20. Dry land and gym can help swimming for some via improved neuromuscular recruitment. Use body weight and tubing not machines.

Bonus:  Love swimming if you want to get faster. Embrace the process of getting faster in the water. Chlorine sweat is a good thing.

Follow the rules above to swim faster, and ultimately to be a faster triathlete. Enjoy.

EDIT:

#21 Repetition is your friend. Variety is for the weak minded, and interferes with the learning process. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.

*Before this posting which now has surpassed the previous most popular post by a wide margin.

50 comments:

  1. An ankle band, i.e. an old inner tube tied around your ankles.

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  2. Special for JF. Shawn - see the attached pic of a band next to ruler for scale. I carry a few in my bag, to loan out to lucky swimmers. :D

    http://twitter.com/#!/rappstar/status/155004817390047232/photo/1/large

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  3. Enlightening. Thanks Joel.

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  4. Incredible! This is much needed for every triathletes out there! Thx Joel!

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  5. Does the band differ in purpose from a pull buoy, or are then essentially trying to achieve the same purpose (prevent use of legs)?

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  6. Hey, can I share these tips on my belgian forum http://belgiantri.forumgratuit.be/ the goal is to share the maximum info and knowledge to people and athlete so they can try to improve and become better! this is in french but anyway, people will try to read this and improve their swim!? thx !

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  7. Try the band. You won't mistake it for a pull bouy. ;-)

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  8. Useful article. You mention dryland training. Have you heard about or used the erg machine with power meter mentioned in the Triathlon Canada article? Have been considering one and would like your thoughts.
    http://triathlonmagazine.ca/2010/07/sections/training/swim/supplemental-swim-training-shoemakers-secret-weapon/

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  9. Awesome post got some good tips and reasured things I already do

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  10. @WillyB I used to have a slightly less high tech version of one of those machines. I wouldn't get another one. They are no substitute for getting wet.

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  11. @Anonymous1 see anonymous2 - band is about propulsion with the added bonus of awareness of body position. As you get faster with a band your body position improves.

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  12. @Anonymous share with attribution and link back, thx.

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  13. Great tips as I am a beginner swimmer. Explain the band. Is the band meant to be limit the kick so should the band stretch to a foot or meant to keep the legs together restricting the kick to nothing?

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  14. @Todd C - "meant to keep the legs together restricting the kick to nothing" - that one.

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  15. A tri-coach that knows the swimming business. How refreshing. Well done sir.

    Charles

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  16. Hi Joel. Do you have 20 Rules for TRI with 10K swims? cheers @AlterNir

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  17. @AlterNir longer main sets, and double swim days for ultra swims. Good luck.

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  18. Kelly Carter - CF Triathlon Team MemberJanuary 7, 2012 at 5:49 PM

    Thanks Joel! Great tips and reminders for all of us.

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  19. I find tip #13 a little confusing: should the head be kept down or is keeping it down a common error?

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  20. Keep your head down - lifting on breathing is a common error.

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  21. Kicking without fins seems very beneficial to swim fitness. If you want to be fast you must have a strong kick so disagree that kicking is not beneficial. 10% to 15% of each session should be kick focused.

    Although wetsuit swims is a different matter, kicking and kicking fitness is not much of a factor when the rubber is on.

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  22. @ Anonymous I disagree with your comment on kicking, hence why I wrote rule #10.

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  23. YOU WROTE: Do longer main sets. For short course these should be at least 2km, for IM 4km, or more. And that looks like 20-50x100, not many short broken sets adding up to 2-5km.

    QUESTIONS:
    What's a "broken set?" Also, you suggest 30 x 100 reps -- is swimming long reps (e.g. 6 x 500) less beneficial? Interested in why since there are no breaks in triathlon.

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  24. @Anonymous Shorter reps are better for less skilled swimmers to start with, as they allow more volume with better quality strokes, due to more recovery. Start shorter and build to longer reps, but go back to shorter when tired. A broken set/workout is one with many short sets within a workout and no long consistent main set.

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  25. Can you explain exactly how you do the drill in #11. Thanks.

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  26. @Robert put an inner tube tied into a loop around your ankles and swim 25s or 50s with it on. Notice how you have to really figure out how to pull the water in order to get to the end of the pool. Take enough rest, 10-20 secs min, depending on fitness level. Repeat, and progress how much you can do in one session. Eventually you'll figure out how to pull more water. Sore lats is a good sign.

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  27. #16 is the best tip there is and not just for swimming. People love to over-complicate things in general. Thanks for sharing.

    Thomas Gerlach
    Professional Triathlete
    www.thomasgerlach.com

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  28. Instead of tying myself up with a band could I just not cross my ankles to restrict my leg movement?

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  29. I tried using a band and my feet sink pulling me down. Am I just not pulling hard enough?

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  30. @EdB yes that's what happens, keep at it, as your ability to pull more water improves, your body position will improve.

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  31. @Richard crossing your ankles doesn't work quite as well. A band is cheap to make so no reason not to use one.

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  32. I could almost write a complete other blog post with 21 steps of why you are wrong. Wrong on every count. Poor triathletes that abide by these rules...poor poor triathletes.

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  33. @Paul Jewkes Wrong on all 21! Feel free to write that blog with your views.

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    Replies
    1. I'm late to the party but a nice strong list, Joel. Anyone who knows the first thing about the first leg of our sport won't be able to disagree with you here. I've spent a little time standing on a deck and you're speaking the truth. I'm keen to read Paul Jewkes rebuttal to all 21 points. Should make for some chuckle worthy moments.
      Good luck with your group down under!

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    2. Woah! I just saw this response almost a year later!

      Challenge accepted! I will post the link to my rebuttal shortly.

      Delete
  34. What would you consider "traditional drills" to be?

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  35. Hi Joel, great post, thanks for sharing these tips. I followed your link to Coach Paulo's 2007 post, and I wanted to ask your opinion on pullups for swimming. My feeling is that they have always helped my swimming, but maybe this is due to the strengthening effect on the lats rather than reinforcing a proper elbow position for swimming. Just curious to hear your thoughts, whether they could be worthwhile or not. I do know I will be doing some band work tomorrow morning - thanks!

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  36. @Patrick traditional drills are those where one attempts to isolate one part of the stroke, with minimal repetitions.

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  37. @Jeremy I've never used pull ups to any great degree personally in my coaching. Perspective is important with dry land work however, it's no replacement for being in the water.

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  38. hi joel. i want to add repetitions (10-20 x 100m) at my swim training. do you think is better every rep with band and alternate one with/one without paddles? i train for IM
    thanks
    matt

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  39. @speedoman do more reps of the same, vs alternating. Patterning happens with consistent repetition, no constant variation.

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  40. Joel, as a new swimmer, only swam from March - July of 2011 to survive a Sprint Distance and just now getting back into my 5th week. Is it too soon to add paddles or a band into the routine? I am currently working on smaller sets in order to build volume because I can tell by my last 75 of a 8x75 main set, my form has gone out the window.

    Also for curiosity purposes, I tried just keeping my ankles next to each other, like a band situation, and realized that I had to really increase my stroke count and swim like I was drowning in order to keep afloat. Is that what band training is supposed to do or do I just not have the volume and time in the pool yet?

    Thanks,
    ~trevor

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    Replies
    1. It's tot too soon to add band and paddles, go even shorter durations, 25s repeated. And yes with a band you'll want to increase your stroke rate, it's a natural adaptation and part of how band works, you're body will figure it out with time and repetition.

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  41. I organise triathlon training camps in Almeria, Southern-Spain and just had the Hungarian National Triathlon Team here, followed by Mathias Hecht. Both the Hungarians, as well as Mathias swim with paddles, pull buoy and rubber band around the ankles and they really know something about swimming... Great post, Joel! Proves every point right.

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  42. For my first triathlon, I never did drills and I just worked on my swimming fitness, but lately, I've been intrigued by drills, warm up/cool down workouts and stroke counts. Your post brings up some great points and I think while drills make the workout a bit more interesting, workouts that focus on swimming faster and increasing endurance work best. Thanks for the tips!

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  43. Hello,

    I would like to know what the resting time is when you do a set of 50x50m.

    Thanks a lot

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  44. Damn you Joel...you're making me want to swim more!

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