Want to know the secret to a great swim? I hate to tell you, but there is no real golden ticket to the first leg of a triathlon. You get wet, and then you adhere to fundamentals. That said, if you understand the basic fundamentals of tri swimming, you can swim smarter and faster, which greatly improves your odds of having a solid overall race performance.
Tri swimming is something you do with the lowest possible heart rate and the lowest possible lactate production, using the lowest amount of glycogen. Winning the swim is getting out of the water with a heart rate of 130, dropping your wetsuit to your waist, looking up, and smiling as you think about how well you're going to do on the bike. If you're not smiling, you're in trouble.
I stand at the swim finish and talk to each of our West Point tri team swimmers as they come out of the water. If they're stumbling and can't talk to me, they've gone out too hard. I would rather see a swimmer come out of the water two or three minutes behind the leaders, but with a low heart rate and the mental ability to understand that now—on the bike—the race really begins, than to see them first out of the water with nothing left for the rest of the race. This is why you've been saving your energy—by swimming efficiently, effortlessly and most of all, intelligently.
The greatest lesson to learn here is this: if you can learn to swim efficiently, you swim fast. Efficient swimming is fast swimming and fast swimming is all about constantly working to eliminate drag.
What a Drag it is Going Slow
Drag is the killer. You can't muscle through drag and expect to be fresh for the bike and the run. Think about how streamlined you get on your bike to avoid unwanted air drag. Now think about how much more damaging water drag is. If your hips aren't at the top of the water, if your head is not in line with your body—eyes looking directly down—if your feet are not pointed and at the top of the water, you are allowing drag to waste your time and energy.
Ultimately, drag is caused when you're not balanced in the water. Here's a great drill that identifies imbalance and allows you to know when it's gone:
1) Kick on your back. The water should form a circle around your face leaving your eyes, mouth and nose exposed to the air. Your head will be in line with your body. Knees do not break the surface of the water and your feet boil the water as you kick from your hips. Arms are at your sides. (Find a marker somewhere so you don't smack your head into the wall. It's not pleasant.). When you can cruise along effortlessly, you're 50 percent of the way to reduced-drag swimming.
2) Now get balanced on your side. While you're on your back kicking gently, rotate your body 45-degrees, but keep looking at straight up. Your hips and feet should be able to stay at the top of the water. Now rotate to your original position on your back. Get balanced and then rotate to the other side. Check for hip and feet position. If you can do this, you're 75 percent of the way to reduced drag swimming.
3) Now rotate to one side by about 45-degrees and follow by rolling your head into the water so you are looking at the bottom of the pool. Relax, and bring the arm that's under the water in front of you so it becomes anchored at a 45-degree angle compared with the water surface. Sneak your arm forward causing as little resistance as possible to reach this anchor point. Keep kicking gently, and check your hip and feet position. If your hips have dropped you've found an unbalanced position. Roll onto your back, get balanced, and do it again more slowly.
When you reach a balanced position on one side, do this on the other side. Many people are more balanced on one side than the other, so this means you want to spend time enjoying the side that is naturally more balanced and then transfer that feeling to the other side that isn't as balanced. It just takes thought and concentration.
Eliminating drag is critical. I say it in my book and I tell our swimmers that if they get into a situation in a race where they're feeling anxious, panicky, or exhausted, it's time to focus on be as fluid in the water as possible. If you can keep your focus, eliminate drag and swim efficiently, you can "win" the swim and be ready for the rest of your race.