Swim Lessons From the World's Best Swimmers: Part I

In the bottom frame of Photo Set 1 (2004) her head is almost an extension of her spine line, her neck is not craned upward, her spine is straighter and her hips are fully rotated to engage the anchor position of her right hand. This allows her to glide through the water creating the least amount of resistance drag.

The distance that Kayln lifted her head up in the 2002 photo is minimal compared to the distance triathletes lift their heads to sight buoys during a race. Imagine how far your hips will sink when you use your direction-finder head lift in conjunction with a breath at the same time.

Jonty suggested that instead of trying to breathe at the same time you're catching a glimpse of the next buoy, breathe first and then try to sight by only sneaking your eyes out of the water—your nose and mouth remain underwater. I tried this in the pool and was amazed at how much less my hips sank.

Additionally, the stress on my upper body muscles was much less than when I was trying to breathe and sight on a target—getting my mouth out of the water. If you've been sighting and breathing at the same time, it will take practice to change the timing. Breathe first, take a stroke and then sight with only your eyes out of the water. Give it a try and see what you think.

It's hard enough for most swimmers to get breathing on a single side correct; bilateral breathing, or breathing on both sides of your stroke, is even more difficult for most swimmers. I'm often asked if triathletes should always aim to bilateral breathe. I think it's good to practice bilateral breathing in workouts so that you can sight to either side during a race. I think practicing bilateral breathing helps make the freestyle stroke more even and balanced. But, if you're faster and can swim with less energy expenditure by breathing to just one side during a race, do it.

Jonty agreed, and his data on elite swimmers shows that some of them are slower in competition when breathing bilaterally. Even though there's the temptation to want to watch a competitor for every length of the race, by breathing on their non-preferential side there have been a number of cases in which these athletes have actually lost ground to their competitors.

Photo Set 2

Front-Quadrant Loading

Some triathlon coaches instruct triathletes to "finish your stroke" with a strong push past the hip while the opposite arm is just entering the water. There are two issues with this instruction. First, the windmill-type approach to swimming in which your arms are always opposite of each other isn't efficient, puts stress on small shoulder muscles and doesn't produce fast swimming. Second, from watching elite swimmers, we know that the longer the race distance, the less finish force is included in the stroke.

Look at Photo Set 2. The top photo was taken in 2002, the bottom photo in 2004. Both photographs were synchronized so the right hand is in the same spot. Notice in the 2004 photo how Kayln's left hand is entering the water while her right arm is in the catch, anchor phase. This is front-quadrant swimming.

Click here for Part II, where I cover body position, underwater arm position, tempo vs. distance per cycle, what pace to swim in your workouts and summarize with tips to improve.


Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She currently serves as one of the World Cup coaches for the International Triathlon Union's Sport Development Team. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow cycling and triathlon training plans. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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