A Triathlete's Checklist, Part 1: Swimming Technique

The winter off-season is time to get off the couch and start thinking about developing your annual training plan.

This is also a good time to reflect on your past training practices with the hopes of improving in each triathlon discipline.

If you are like me, you are not a gifted swimmer, former collegiate or competitive swimmer, or past Olympic champion. Over the past two years, I have been studying ways of improving my swim stroke and technique.

This is part 1 of a three-part series designed to give triathletes a checklist to improve efficiency and technique in swimming, biking, and running.

Part 1, a triathlete's swimming checklist, is not designed to be absolute or to take the place of a good swim coach.


Your head position is important because it helps dictate the position of the rest of your body. You should always lead with the top of your head looking down directly toward the bottom of the pool.

Think about looking with your nose instead of your eyes. By looking down with your nose, you help create a neutral neck position, allowing your upper back and neck muscles to stay relaxed for proper body alignment.


Think of "pressing" your torso toward the bottom of the pool, as if you were swimming downhill. Reach and extend your arm as far as possible toward the end of the pool -- this helps raise your hips and legs to create a sleek, balanced body position and eliminate excess drag.

Your shoulders should remain square as your body rolls about its horizontal axis to maintain a sleek body position.


A well-balanced body stays on its side and moves effortlessly by rotating about its longitudinal axis.

The legs and hips initiate your core body position, transferring energy toward the torso and upper extremities.

To make sure you achieve proper body roll with every stroke, think of your bellybutton as a third eye that looks from side to side as you move forward through the water.

A well-balanced swimmer maintains a straight line drawn from the head down to the toes.


The entry phase is the first point your hand enters the water. The thumb and fingers enter the water first, followed by the hand and arm. The hand typically enters the water near shoulder width, depending on shoulder flexibility.

With the hand extended fully, the catch phase begins with a high elbow as you point your fingers down toward the bottom of the pool.

As the pull phase begins, your elbow remains parallel to your wrist, never dropping below it. By maintaining this vertical position of the elbow and hand, you help increase the surface area of the forearm and hand, maximizing the amount of water you pull to propel yourself forward.

Avoid pulling too hard, which puts undue stress on your shoulders and throws off your rhythm.

The hand moves back toward your waist in a sweeping (sculling) manor toward your midline, helping to maintain power from your body rotation. You finish the stroke by extending your arm and releasing your hand at the point it reaches your waistline. The goal is to finish your stroke at the same time your body finishes rotating.

The recovery phase starts the stroke over again by maintaining a high elbow.


Your leg action (kick) originates in your hips. The legs should be kept as close together as possible (within the slipstream of your head and shoulders) with the knees slightly bent to help maintain a sleek body position.

The feet should remain relaxed and plantar-flexed (toes pointed, as if pressing the gas pedal in your car) as much as possible to help increase the surface area of your foot.

There are three benefits of the kick:

<<<<< QUESTION HERE (e-mailed Jeb)>>>>> There are three benefits of the kick: 1.) Maintains balance by keeping your hips and legs near the surface of the water, creates a lot of wasted energy. 2.) Propels your body through the water 3.) Initiates core body rotation, most efficient use of the kick. >>>>

A shallow, rapid two-beat flutter-kick (one kick each leg, for each stroke) is commonly used by triathletes to help initiate core body rotation conserving valuable energy for the bike and the run.


By rolling your body and head in one smooth motion to the surface, you maintain proper body position by preventing your body from being pushed down into the water.

When breathing, you should exhale underwater, either through the nose or through pursed lips, before initiating your breath. If you don't empty your lungs completely underwater before turning your head to the surface, you'll take additional time exhaling before initiating your next breath, which can throw off timing and balance.

Sip air through the corner of your mouth; try to avoid lifting your head.

When breathing to the right, remain on the left side of your body with your left arm fully extended in a "weightless" state. Your right arm should remain relaxed at your side; this creates an optimal balanced body position.

Practice bilateral breathing (breathing on both the left and right, instead of only to one side) -- it's the most effective breathing pattern, and will even out your stroke and improve balance and efficiency.

Brett Bastian is an age-group triathlete and multi-sport coach for Peaks Coaching Group. He enjoys working with all types of triathletes to help them reach their full potential. You can reach him via e-mail at brett@peakscoachinggroup.com

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