Find a few training partners and work on your form this offseason.
When I was a graduate student at NYU, there were more than a few occasions when my swim workouts ran a little long and I ended up rushing into class with frozen hair. Walking outside into the bitter cold with wet hair might not be the most enjoyable part of triathlon training, but the winter is a very important time for making improvements to your swimming performance.
It's difficult to consistently focus on improving your stroke while you're also working on building endurance during the racing season. Now, however, you can bring the intensity of your swim training down a notch and focus on technique.
The more efficient you are in the water, the less energy you'll expend, leaving more energy for the bike and the run. Developing your feel for the water, or learning how to optimally position your body, is a process of teaching your muscles and nerves to adapt by repeating specific actions over and over. The winter is the perfect time to work on these adaptations because they'll be fully engrained when spring rolls around and it's time to once again focus on developing speed.
Think about babies just learning how to walk; they expend a lot of energy, flexing every muscle in their bodies to remain in an upright position on two wobbly legs. Now picture that in the pool. When we first learn to swim, we muscle our way through the water, flexing everything, fighting against the liquid just to make it to the other wall.
Now think about how easy it is for us to walk around as adults—you've come a long way, baby. The same principle applies in swimming. The more we practice the fundamentals of the movements, the more refined they become and the less we have to concentrate to perform them perfectly.
Take the time now to re-learn the task of swimming, to improve your technique, so you don't even have to think about it when you are working on building your stamina and speed later in the season. The drills listed below will help, but first we have to address motivation—because drills won't do you any good if you don't go to the pool in the first place.
Top Winter Drills
Count your strokes: Work on increasing the distance covered per stroke to improve your feel for the water and your strength and stroke efficiency. Take as few strokes as possible from wall to wall and try to elongate each one. If you are at 30 strokes or above for 25 meters, try decreasing your stroke count by one or two per 25 each week. Decreased stroke count means increased efficiency, so a stroke count of 12 to 15 is far more efficient than a stroke count of 35.
Golf drill: This is a fun drill to do with stroke count and speed. Count the number of strokes you take over 50 meters and add that number to your 50-meter split time. Now, as in golf, try to decrease your score by either swimming faster or taking fewer strokes.
Rotate to breathe: Place a tennis ball under your chin. Swim freestyle, but as you turn to breathe, keep your head down and try not to let the tennis ball pop up. This drill is difficult, but is very helpful for emphasizing proper rotation and breathing technique. Keeping your head down in order to keep the tennis ball in place emphasizes proper head positioning, particularly in the breathing phase of the stroke.
Proper head alignment is key as our legs drop to counter-balance a lifted head, ultimately creating more drag and a slower swim split. By keeping the tennis ball tucked securely under your chin you will ensure proper head positioning and minimize any leg drag associated with lifting your head to breathe.
More Ways to Keep Your Motivation up This Winter
1) Join a Masters club. Masters programs have swim meets as well. Develop a few personal time goals to focus your workouts and keep yourself motivated during the offseason.
2) Find a swim camp. Having someone watch your form from deck is very helpful, and you'll walk away with new skills and drills to keep your progress from stalling.
3) Get a third training partner. Having two training partners instead of just one increases the chances that you'll have someone to swim with. Even if one person can't make it, there's still another buddy waiting for you.