A strong swim will set you up well for the rest of your triathlon, giving you a psychological boost before you embark on the swim. But what can you do to get quicker?
Before you start thinking about how to get quicker in any activity, you need to identify what is slowing you down, as this will be the focus of any training sessions.
In the case of swimming faster, that’s likely to be more related to how you interact with the water than it is fitness or strength, so a focus on technique first is likely to have the greatest impact on your triathlon leg.
Breathing styles and positions will also play a significant role in swimming faster, especially in open water, when wave direction can limit your ability to breath on one side.
As the majority of swims are in open water, awareness of currents, depths and wave direction coupled with good navigation skills are key to swimming faster as well.
Training quality over quantity – swimming long will lead to swimming slow.
Triathlons are an endurance event, but they are also a race, so it’s vital to add both aerobic and anaerobic sets to your swim training. A proper swim program will mix three parts: speed, endurance and skills drills which will improve your form.
Ideally train with a coach or part of a Masters or triathlon club, as this will offer you a structured training approach, moral support and an experienced eye to what you need to focus on. It will also get you used to swimming in the same water as other people, which can make drafting easier.
Just focusing on one aspect won’t help you in a race. If you focus on distance, you will lose cadence and speed, but just focussing on speed drills will increase your chance of injury and reduce your aerobic efficiency. Swimming faster requires cadence, the energy to get you to the end and an efficient stroke.
Sighting and making sure you swim straight
No matter how fast and efficient your stroke is, going off course can have a major impact on your swim time, even in a short race, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for swimmers to cover 900m in a 750m swim as they zig-zag along the river or across the bay! This could add 3 minutes to your swim leg time if you’re targeting 2min/100m.
Swimming straight could, therefore, improve your swim time by over 15%, so proper navigation is key. Swimming faster in triathlon means covering the shortest distance from the start to finish.
We are all spoilt by training in pools where we have a line clearly visible through clean water, but that’s not going to happen in a race, where the water will be darker and murky, so you need to practice sighting.
Effective sighting has three key components:
Knowing what you are aiming for
This means having a clear marker on the shore to aim for at all times. In most swims the house will have several legs, so you’ll need to have a marker for each one. On most courses, there will be larger boys at each turning point to aim for, but this can often look small in the distance, so if there are larger shore markers, this can help
If you know the race location you will know the markers to look for, but if it’s a new races location, consider asking around in transition, people are usually happy to help new entrants.
Regularly looking up
Obviously, you’ll need to look up! As you lift your head from the water, you’ll see your marker, and can adjust your direction appropriately. You won’t need to do this too often, maybe once every 10 strokes or so, any more often and you’ll slow your self down and run the risk of over-correcting
Don’t disrupt your stroke
The more time you spend with your head out of the water the slower you will swim. In addition, you’ll disrupt your stroke, so you need to practice lifting your head as part of your normal breathing plan. This involves lifting after your breath, looking up and dropping your head back into the water on the opposite side. Minimising how high you lift will also minimise drag.
Practice in the pool by placing a marker at the end of the lane and sighting it every few strokes, you’ll develop the rhythm and be able to judge how to balance sighting with your stroke. Start with a large marker and make it smaller as you get more effective.
Get your head down
Just like cycling, the smaller you can make your frontal surface area, the easier you’ll find it to move through the water. Conversely, if you create a larger surface area, you’ll be slower, use more energy and oxygen and tire your self out too quickly.
Minimising the amount of time your head is out of the water will ensure your shoulders and chest maintain the right line and don’t fit out of the water, so practising proper breathing technique is essential.
New swimmers will often panic in the water, and find difficult to get their head down, especially in cold water, so training in open water will help, but even experienced triathletes can often struggle with breathing.
As we swim, we get out of breath and our chests tighten, leading to a sensor panic which forces our heads out of the water. This is totally natural and is an important survival mechanism. However, your body is not telling you it needs oxygen, it’s telling you it’s full of Carbon Dioxide!
This is significant because it means your body is not panicking because it needs to breathe in, it’s trying to breath out!
Learning bubbling techniques which let you expel air underwater, leaving your lungs empty and able to take on the maximum volume of oxygen at you’re next breath is very effective both in making sure you breathe in fully and helping you relax with your head in the water.
Once you’re happy breathing out underwater, the next consideration is head position. Look at footage of professional swimmers, they look like they don’t even lift their heads from the water, so how can they possibly swim!
In fact, they make use of the bow wave that is created by the head as it pushes water aside. This bow wave leaves a trough behind it where the water level is lower than the average surface, meaning the swimmer can breathe in and keep their head low. Often they will breathe out of the side of their mouth, which is called Popeye breathing.
Practice expelling all of the air from your lungs whilst your head is still underwater and breathing from the trough will keep your head position low and along the centreline, minimising drag and reducing disruption of your stroke, helping you swim faster.
There is a big debate in swimming about the kick. In normal racing, the kick is seen as an essential part of the stroke, because you are looking to maximise your propulsive power through eh water. In triathlon, however, the extra speed is less relevant, and the thinking is that you shouldn’t kick, instead of retaining the energy in your legs for the run and cycle.
In reality, the kick is important for other reasons, especially if you have heavy legs, as it keeps your lower body higher in the water, increasing your streamlining, and reducing your drag. A quick, light flutter kick will keep your legs high, helping you slice through the water easier, and it will keep some blood flowing to your legs which will help reduce the rubber legs feeling you get at the end of the swim!
Proper body position
Maintaining a straight line from the top of your head to the point between your feet has a massive impact on your swim efficiency. You starters it keeps you moving in a straight line, but it also ensures your force is only directed behind you, rather than down for example.
It will also keep you balanced and reduce the impact of a dominant side on your shoulder. Much of this is based on balance and technique and will come from experience and a relaxed approach to the swim. If you look at the best swimmers it almost looks like they are not putting any effort in, but are shooting through the water like a torpedo!
Bilateral breathing can help here. Single-sided breathing makes one side dominant, leading to an unbalanced stroke, whereas changing sides increases the strength on the non-dominant side, keep you straight and minimising shoulder injuries.
Practice the transitions – in, out and turns
Depending on the structure of your planned race, the entry, exit and turns will also affect your overall time, so need to be practised. Look at any open water swim, and you’ll see how long it takes people to get started, either because they need to run into the water, get used to cold and dark water or start off without a pool end to kick off from.
Turns will also have an impact, especially if you’re in a pack, so learning how to get close to the buoy and change direction can be key.
Getting out can also be an issue, as you transition from the horizontal to the vertical, and have to get used to running in shallow water.
Practising these transitions can shave seconds off your time, and help you feel more comfortable in the water.
Open water swimming means swimming in packs not separated into lanes, and whilst this can be a real problem for some people, if you’re brave, you can get a real boost from drafting close to other swimmers.
If you watch motorsport or cycle a lot, you’ll know how much speed you can get if you’re in someone’s slipstream, it almost sucks you in and the same is true in swimming. Swimming off the hip of another swimming lets you enter their slipstream and benefit from their hardworking, both through speed increases and the reduced effort needed to swim.
This is not for the fainthearted though, and don’t be surprised if you get the occasional kick, but it will definitely improve your speed!
Practice in your wetsuit
Swimming in a wetsuit is very different from swimming in a pool. Your buoyancy is different, your chest is likely to be constricted and there will be added resistance across your shoulders. Overall this will alter your stroke and use up more energy, so practising in your suit will both add strength and increase your comfort in the race.
You may find that you want to alter the fit to make swimming easier, and at the very least you’ll practice how to get the suit on in the most comfortable way possible, so practising with your wetsuit is essential prior to a race.
Practice in open water
Open water is different and knowing how to react to the conditions will make a massive difference to your relaxation and speed in the water. Just knowing where the currents are likely to be in a river for example and positioning yourself accordingly can greatly improve your pace. Just FYI the river will be slower at the bank and faster in the middle, so if you have an up and down course, swim upstream near the bank and move to the centre on the way downstream
Likewise, understanding the importance of wave direction on sea swim, and learning to breathe out of both sides can help in a race. There is nothing worse than having waves crash over you when you are trying to breathe in!
Getting used to the dark water will also help you relax in your swim, keeping your heart rate down and keeping you in the aerobic zone.
Commit to Improving your swimming
Many triathletes just want to get o the end of the swim, enduring rather than enjoying the first leg just to get to the bike but a great swim really sets you up for a good race. So it’s worth taking it seriously.
There are lots of great resources on the internet that can help, and I’d definitely recommend https://www.swimsmooth.com/, especially for their visualisations which will help with understanding the proper stroke, plus the discussion on how different body types and personalities swim, based on muscle structure and body type.
One word of caution though. Make sure any resources and advice you get are related to triathlon swimming. Pool swimming is not the same. Magazines like 220triathlon have some great plans.
Either way, learn to enjoy the swim!