The title of this article probably caught your attention for one of two reasons. Either you recognize my name and you hope there is a super-special swimming secret in this article, or you have no idea who I am and you started reading to figure out why you should care.
Most likely you fall into the second category and therefore I should officially introduce myself. My name is Sara McLarty (duh) and I am a professional triathlete. In the world of triathlon, I am considered a fast swimmer. I claim the title "first out of the water" at every race. My biggest lead was 90 seconds at the 2006 World Cup in Ishigaki, Japan.
Most of my competitions are international-distance and draft-legal. I compete against the best in the world at World Cup and World Championship races. I also enjoy competing in the famous American races: Escape from Alcatraz, Lifetime Fitness and Chicago. You can usually watch quite a bit of coverage about me at the start of the race, especially when I'm battling men like Andy Potts and Hunter Kemper in the waters of San Francisco Bay.
Unfortunately, I haven't held my lead all the way to the finish line...yet. My most memorable finishes have been a third at Alcatraz, a second at the USAT Elite Nationals, and sixth in the Edmonton ITU World Cup. I am still training hard and having fun, and at 25 years old, I still have plenty of years remaining in this sport.
Now, enough about me. Are you ready for that super-special swimming secret? Are you ready to discover how to be "first out of the water"?
First, join the local swim team when you are 4 years old. Find a great coach who focuses on basic techniques and emphasizes the importance of developing a beautiful stroke. Swim year-round on a club team for 10 years and race your teammates in the pool every day. Then, if you are still healthy and enjoying the water, head off to a top swimming college (like the University of Florida) for four more years.
Train hard in the pool with two-hour, 8,000-yard-practices, 10 times a week. Finally, compete in swim meets against Olympians and world champions and then qualify for the Olympic Trials. After all that hard work, miss the Olympic swim team by two places and dive straight into the sport of triathlon. Without a doubt, you will be swimming like Sara McLarty!
That's it. That's my secret.
What? Not exactly what you were looking for in a triathlon-swim training column? If you missed the part where I gave a swimming secret that you can actually use, then you didn't pay close enough attention!
Develop Your Stroke
A novice triathlete should start in the pool just like novice swimmers: by learning proper technique and developing a pretty and efficient stroke. Too often I see new swimmers diving into Masters swimming groups or just swimming endless laps without any on-deck coaching. Every yard swum without good technique makes it harder to develop a pretty stroke in the future. It is very important to spend time doing stroke drills and getting feedback from a good coach, no matter which age group you race in.
Here are some common technique flaws, each paired with a drill/solution to create an efficient and pretty stroke:
- Problem: Straight-arm recovery; Solution: finger-tip-drag
- Problem: Weak kick; Solution: Point toes, shorten kick length, increase cadence
- Problem: Wiggling hips; Solution: 3-6-3 drill (six kicks on one side, three strokes, six kicks on the other side)
- Problem: Sinking hips; Solution: lower head position in water
Race in Practices and in Meets
It's also helpful to watch the people in the other lanes. These are your competitors—try and beat them to the wall. Choosing a challenging interval is next—time to build your swimming muscles with some intensity and hard work.
I encourage racing in practice for two reasons. Racing builds confidence in your abilities and it is an easy way to measure improvement. The bonus: it comes in handy on race morning when you are on the starting line with 99 other people, all eyeing the first turn buoy.
I coach a Masters group in Clermont, Florida, at the National Training Center. I have adult swimmers covering the whole spectrum of swimming abilities. My top swimmers are in and out of the water in 75 minutes. My novice athletes are out in 60. Leave the two-hour swims to the younger generations, the collegiate athletes and the professionals. The fitness obtained from cycling and running allows swim practices to be short and sweet...as long as you are making a conscious effort to look pretty and swim fast.
The average triathlete enters running races and maybe a cycling race or two in the offseason. Where are the swim meets? Five kilometer races and 10Ks are great opportunities to work on speed or practice maintaining race pace. Road races and time trials are fun ways to build bike-handling skills and stay fit.
Swim meets are no different. Enter the 100-yard freestyle and put your race-start pace to the test. You might discover that you are overdoing it in the first 50 meters and going into the red zone. Maybe you'll find another gear and suddenly you find yourself leading the pack to the first buoy and eventually first out of the water.
Sara McLarty is a professional triathlete living in Clermont, Florida. In her spare time she leads triathlon camps at the National Training Center.