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 Rappstar, Paulo 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.
#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.