Swim: Your Weakest Link?

Growing up most of us learned to swim by going to a YMCA or Boys and Girls club or community recreation pool. I know I did just that. Fast forward several years to the early 90’s and I am standing on the start line of another triathlon.

One amazing thing about triathlons is what you learn about yourself along the way. Given all those swim lessons of my youth I thought I knew how to swim, but discovered that I didn’t. After having near panic attacks and lots of frustrating laps, I decided to set myself on the path to learn just what the swim component was all about.

Studying the Total Immersion method, I learned proper swim mechanics and developed a better feel for the water. I enjoyed it so much that I became a Total Immersion Teaching Professional. I take others from that darkness of struggle to the joyful light of flow. Corny, but accurate. As both a triathlete and as a teaching professional, I’ll tell you that there is no reason to not swim well.

Many triathletes comment that their race starts after the swim. It is often their weakest link, just like it was with me. I say make your weakness a strength, so that your strengths don’t look like a weakness. If it is your swim, work on the basic mechanics so that you are efficient and not wasting valuable energy to get through it. They need a paradigm shift in thinking and a swim technique clinic to show them how. A good swim is all about mechanics. What you think you are doing in the water may not be what I see from the pool deck. Swimming lap after lap with poor swim technique will not boost your swim times. It only makes sense: if you are imprinting poor stroke mechanics lap after lap, how can you improve?

A small change in your technique could make a big difference in whether you come out of the water feeling fresh or feeling like you “survived” it. After all it is a triathlon: the idea is you are proficient in all three sports.

It can be intimidating to move from the quiet safety of the pool, where you have been practicing alone or with 3-5 other swimmers, to the open water. The lake or ocean can have a wind that creates a “chop” and no line on the bottom to guide you. In a triathlon, perhaps 20-80 other people are all trying to swim in the same space! Add to that a lack of confidence in your ability to swim well and you have the makings for an unpleasant experience or “survival” swim.

The most common problem I see and the first step to improving stroke mechanics is developing balance in the water. This is done with a few basic drills to develop a sense of floating or feeling “suspended” in the water creating a horizontal position, not vertical. Balance is important because without it in the water there is no way to stay afloat unless the arms and legs are constantly moving to keep us from sinking to the bottom. However, we want to use the arms and legs to assist in moving forward, not prevent us from becoming a bottom feeder. The swim instructors of our youth gave us some poor information by telling us to “kick harder” or “move the arms faster”.

Second and third steps once a swimmer is feeling more balanced is to begin the process of streamlining and lengthening the bodyline. By getting more on your side to streamline and extending the arm to lengthen the body, drag is reduced in the water. If you want to design a fast moving boat, engineers design a long, slick, narrow hull. The same is true for humans: create a long narrow hull or body position to reduce drag and you have a faster “vessel” to move through the water. A “vessel” that slices instead of “plows” the water. Very few people know how to do this instinctively, the rest of us can learn it.

The second most common problem I see when observing a swimmer is body position. Their head is high, creating the hips to sink, thus not streamlined and therefore creating drag. The arms are “digging” the water therefore shortening their “vessel”. To look at someone who is not streamlined, not long and not in balance from under the water, it would look literally like they were swimming up-hill.

Once the body is balanced, streamlined and long it is a matter of adding a stroke, then two, then three etc. while maintaining all three. This is a simplistic view, but it takes time and commitment to rehearse and imprint these new movements and sensations they create. With the body balanced, the arms are free to aid in moving the body forward in harmony with the legs all generated from the engine: the torso.

With the torso as the engine, a rapid kick can be less important in swimming long distance, especially in a triathlon. The kick helps more with balance and keeping the legs in the swimmer’s slip stream than it does for forward propulsion alone. The value of the kick is it helps with the rotation of the hips. One kick at the precise moment the recovering hand is slicing in will assist in moving the whole body forward in a corkscrew motion. When you get it right, you know it as the body then shoots forward gliding effortlessly, much like the glide in cross-country skiing.

Make the time to take a swim workshop that focuses on technique. Slow down and tune in, not out. What you can gain in a weekend workshop may save you thousands of frustrating and lonely laps in the pool. After you begin developing the fundamentals of good stroke technique and you can maintain this technique over a length of time and distance, it is then a matter of conditioning yourself to swim faster.

A typical workshop that I lead starts with basic balance drills, then progresses to more movement in a building block fashion to the point where the drills are feeling like swimming, but with a greater sense of ease, flow and harmony. Doesn’t that sound like the type of swimming you want to experience?

Celeste St.Pierre is a triathlete (sprint, Olympic, off-road, half and Ironman), Total Immersion Teaching Professional, USA Triathlon coach, USA Swimming Level 1 Coach, certified Pilates instructor and owner of TriathlonSkills.com.

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