Of the three disciplines in triathlon, swimming is the most difficult and critical to master. Swimming has many degrees of freedom, as compared to running and cycling, because of a lack of sturdy connections to firm ground. As an activity's degrees of freedom increase, so too does the difficulty to master its mechanics.
While running, you usually have one foot in contact with the ground, providing one less degree of freedom than swimming. Cycling, on the other hand, allows constant contact with the saddle, both hands and both feet, accounting for five fewer degrees of freedom than swimming. In swimming, there are really no solid contact points and plenty of opportunities to create your own problems.
Pool swimmers can be very graceful and fast, but may have difficulty translating this in-pool speed to the open water.
It is the front-end focused swimmers, with a long glide, strong catch and low turnover/cadence, who are most efficient in calm, smooth, non-crowded waters. However, this group is often out swum in the open water by the high turnover crowd as they thrash through the waves with a strong back end to their stroke.
One of the most frustrating challenges for swimmers with poor mechanics is that they may spend countless hours in the pool, swimming hard, but fail to make any significant progress in their open water swim speed. This equates to a misappropriation of the athlete's "stress budget", because a good deal of stress is utilized with little or no return on the investment.
Problems and Solutions
Swimmers have a variety of common problems with their mechanics, including poor balance, missed catch and low cadence. Here are some swim drills to identify stroke mechanics
that may be handy when underwater video analysis is not readily available.
Use this as a metric to measure streamlining and body balance. The golf test is performed by swimming 50-yards and recording your time, in seconds, and the total number of strokes it takes. Take the sum of these two numbers and that is your score.
Like the sport of golf, the lower the score, the better. A score that is above 65, for taller athletes, and 75, for shorter athletes, is typically indicative of the need for work with balance drill sets to improve streamlining.
100 No Kick, 50 Kick
This test helps identify propulsive needs. Swim a 100-yard time trial (TT) without kicking at all, followed by a 50-yard TT using a kick board. Then divide your time for the 100 yards by your time for the 50 yards.
If this score is outside of the 1.50 to 1.70 range, then you should either be working more on your kick propulsion or your upper body propulsion (i.e. arm position, catch, pull, follow-through). A ratio that is greater than 1.7 is indicative of relatively weak upper body propulsion. A ratio that is lower than 1.5 may point towards a weaker kick.