I often relate swimming to the sport of tennis. To be truly great at tennis, it requires an elegant combination of incredible fitness and superior technique. However, one of these elements has much more value than the other. Guess which one?
I’ll describe a tennis analogy to help explain why technique takes precedence. Say I had a one-on-one match with John McEnroe later today. If the match were to be decided by the more physically fit competitor, I would win hands down. I could run up and down the court all over bad boy McEnroe. He’s 57 years old, retired, and out of shape. I, on the other hand, am in my prime. But who do you think is going to win?
In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t win a single point against Mr. McEnroe. The man would barely need to move across the court and he would slaughter me easily. This is because his ability to swing the racket in such masterful fashion allows him to command the ball in ways I could only dream of. It’s his technique in the sport that gives him the advantage over a younger, stronger, more athletic opponent with less racket experience.
Swimming and triathlon swimming follow the same logic. You can be the fittest human being on the planet but without some semblance of how to swim, you’ll be passed up by those more intuitive in the water despite their fitness. So let’s discuss a few key points about swim technique in triathlon.
1. Keep the Balance
In many ways, swimming is like walking a balance beam—on your hands. The sport takes an incredible amount of stability and finesse. You’re essentially attempting to suspend your body in the most horizontal position possible while still paddling, kicking, and trying to breathe all at the same time. It gets worse in the open water of a triathlon. Now you have currents, waves, and other frantic triathletes to deal with. Keeping those hips high in the water is not an easy task, even with a wetsuit.
Balance drills in the pool are important. But what might be just as valuable is a seasoned swimmer checking out your position. If you have the luxury, have someone with experience watch you swim. Or video yourself and send the feed to your coach. Compare your head and hip position to that of a superior swimmer. Is your head higher? Are your hips lower? Perhaps you never realized just how out of balance you’ve been swimming.
Once the problem is identified, now we can work to improve body position and balance in the water. Consult your coach as to what drills will best improve your balance in the water based on your problem areas.
2. High Elbows
Better balance is the first step to improved technique. The next most common mistake swimmers and triathletes make (usually by extension from weak balance) is dropping their elbows.
Now, when we’re talking about high elbows we don’t mean where your elbows are out of the water. We’re referring to the position of your arms below the water, during the catch phase of the stroke.
Just search any professional swimmer on YouTube and you’ll see how during the catch phase their arm bends at a 90-degree angle before beginning the pull. Now watch some footage of an inexperienced swimmer. Notice the weaker swimmers don’t bend their elbows until the second half of the pull phase and, as a result, first push the water down rather than back. Not only does this hurt balance, but you also lose out on grabbing a lot of precious water for propulsion.
Think of your entire forearm as a paddle. With a bent elbow you can utilize its surface area to pull the water back and push yourself forward. With a dropped elbow your paddle disappears and you’re forced to rely on only the final stage of your pull for any small amount water left over for propulsion.
A great way to implement a high elbow at the start of the catch phase is to rotate your shoulder internally, as seen in this video "How to Pull With a High Elbow" . Not only will this allow for a high elbow, but you’ll also be giving your body that much needed rotation, thus using your hips for propulsion as well.
3. Sight as Needed
“Sighting” is an effective technique unique to triathlon swimming. Let me explain how it works: In the open water there are no lane lines. You’ll need to lift your head above the surface of the water to see where you’re going. This is challenging because you’re forced to sacrifice ideal position and balance.
The strongest open water swimmers will sight in a way that is very similar to how they breathe. It’s just a matter of exaggerating your pull and hip rotation in order to lift your body up. Practice and experience is the only way to become competent here.
Regardless of how good you are at sighting, though, the smartest technique for open water swimmers is to know when to sight. The reasoning behind this is simple. If you’re not sighting enough you’ll stray off the path, creating more distance for yourself to cover. If you’re sighting too often then you’re expending unneeded energy for no reason.
Be sure to practice how often you need to sight in the open water before triathlon race day. Pick a landmark and swim toward it. Count how many strokes you take before your path begins to stray. This will be a trial and error process. Eventually, though, you’ll have a good idea of how many strokes you typically take before needing to sight and realign your trajectory.
Learn these simple swimming techniques and you’ll be well on your way to mastering this leg of your triathlon. Too many triathletes disregard them to their extreme disadvantage.
The three key points to remember about swim technique in triathlon is maintaining proper balance, keeping a high elbow at the start of the catch phase, and knowing when to sight and how often in the open water.
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JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.