Speed work not only conditions and develops fast twitch muscle fibers (used for explosive bursts of speed during a race), but it forces a swimmer to elevate their heart rate to very high levels for brief periods of time: this is anaerobic training. In any sport, athletes and coaches strive for a delicate balance of aerobic and anaerobic drills for maximum performance come race day.
Kicking is often neglected by open water swimmers and triathletes, either because of a general disinterest in the bottom half of the stroke or out of the belief that saving their legs will result in a better bike or run. But short bursts of light, fast kicking can leave a pack of drafters in the dust, and can be the difference between first and second place in an open-water swim.
When kicking in a workout, see how long you can maintain an aggressive six-beat kick (six leg-kicks per one full arm stroke using both arms). It may only take 10 strokes before you feel your quads burning, but see if you can't develop a little more endurance throughout your season by choosing the last 50 meters of every set you swim to try a six-beat kick.
If you can turn it on at the end of a race (even for 20 strokes or so), you will find it's a great secret weapon to rely on should the need arise to ditch a few followers and drop your finish time.
4. Gain Strength
This Fitness Makeover column I wrote offers a six-week, basic weight-training plan for swimmers looking to gain swimming strength without losing flexibility or putting on bulk.
It is a simple but effective routine, and when combined with speed work (see tip No. 2 above), can result in the ability to swim with explosive bursts of speed without the accompanying fatigue that often plagues weaker swimmers.
By having a hidden resource of extra strength to fall back on when racing, you can challenge a competitor mid-race and come out ahead. This not only puts them behind you and tires them out, but it mentally shuts them down and puts them out of the race for good while you get a confidence boost and keep on going!
5. Improve Race Starts
The race start is a very important part of your swim (be it in a triathlon or open water race, or pool competition), yet is often neglected because it is such a small part of the overall distance of your event. This is a poor excuse.
The start of the race can set the tone for the remainder, by either positioning you in the front of the pack, or by giving you a chance to assert yourself in a crowd of slower folks (who mistakenly and obnoxiously think they should be in front of you). Again, lost time is lost time, and a few milliseconds gained early on can be the difference at the finish line.
Take the time to practice your starts with a coach or trained professional. If you don't know how to dive off the blocks without losing your goggles, then learn. If you don't have the confidence to begin a triathlon with a running start (braving the shorebreak and avoiding hidden sandbars, for instance), take a trip to an open body of water and acclimate yourself to the sprint down the beach and into the water.
6. Perfect Your Finish
Masters swimmers who train with a group tend to get sloppy during sets in crowded lanes, gliding in toward the wall without even finishing the lap. Over time, this habit persists in races, where the last stroke they take is one long glide under the flags when a swimmer with tighter finishes can touch them out.
Force yourself to sprint into the wall every time you swim under the flags and have a few strokes left in the lap. If you're an open water swimmer or triathlete, focus on your transition from swimming to running up the beach.