The five keys to triathlon swimming

Before you begin to work on your swimming technique, you need to able to control your breathing and maintain a relaxed rhythm.  Credit: Getty Images/Phil Walter
Triathlon swimming is different from competitive swimming. Although the goals are the same--complete the distance as fast as possible--triathlon requires you to be as efficient as you can in order save energy for the bike and run later on. In fact, many triathletes feel that the race does not really start until they get on the bike, and they think of the swim as a warm-up for the hard parts still to come.

Most of your triathlon swim training should focus on perfecting your technique and getting used to the distance you need to swim in the race. As your technique improves and you gain experience in open water, you can begin to focus on increasing your speed. Your greatest improvements in speed will occur as your technique improves. The more efficient your swimming is, the less energy you need to complete the distance in a faster time. But the biggest challenge you need to overcome is learning to use the resistance created by the water to your advantage, rather than letting it slow you down.

Before you begin to work on your swimming technique, you need to able to control your breathing and maintain a relaxed rhythm. Next time you swim, think about starting to exhale as soon as your face re-enters the water, and then exhale completely before you take another breath. One of the "secrets" to swim-breathing is to only inhale when your face is out of the water. If you're taking the time to exhale and then inhale, your breath and rhythm will be out of whack, and you'll feel out of breath.

The best way to improve your technique may be to take a class or get some instruction to drive home these key elements to effective swimming. These will reduce your drag and you'll find you're using less energy to move through the water. Remember, learning new swim techniques is often about breaking bad habits and teaching your body to move in new ways. It takes time and practice, so try swimming the drills suggested in each key. They will help you to think about what you're doing in the water, and how your body moves.

Front Quadrant Swimming

Our natural tendency is to swim with our arms in opposition--one arm forward and the other arm backward. This is a very unbalanced position and creates a lot of drag. Front Quadrant swimming means one arm or hand is always in front of your body. Extend your arm as it enters the water -- as if you are reaching for the end of the pool, and keep that arm extended just below the surface of the water until your other arm begins to enter the water. This is not a natural movement, but it will pull you through the water more effectively.
Drills: Alphabet Drills, One Arm Drill, Catch-Up Drill.

Streamline Body Position

This means getting your body long and thin to reduce drag. You should look like a torpedo in the water. When you extend your arm forward, try to press your shoulder against your head and against your ear while you keep your head down, facing the bottom of the pool--don't look forward! As you reach your hand forward, shrug your shoulder to further extend your arm. The key to being streamlined is to keep your arm next to your ear as you reach forward and glide. Remember to keep the arm straight.
Drills: One Arm Drill, Catch-Up Drill.

Horizontal Body Position

Remaining in a horizontal position is critical in efficient swimming. When you kick, your heels should just break the surface of the water. Do not allow your knees or feet to move outside your frontal profile. A slight, slow kick is usually all that's necessary to keep your feet at the surface. Kicking will not help you move faster, it uses an incredible amount of energy for very little propulsion. Also, you runners need to work on pointing your toes straight back, instead of at the pool bottom.
Drills: One Arm Drill and Catch-Up Drill (with a kick board and fins.)

Torso Rotation

Rotating your torso will improve your position as you breathe, and help you remain streamline and horizontal. Your arm will extend naturally as you roll and complete the opposite arm pull. A key element of open water technique is your body roll. You should be rolling onto your side with each stroke. This reduces drag, makes your stroke efficient and helps reduce the energy needed to recover after each stroke. Torso rotation starts at your hip, just like when you swing a baseball bat or a golf club.
Drills: S&M Drill, Dial Soap Drill, No-Arm Drill.

Pull / Power Phase and Recovery

Although many people focus on the Pull / Power Phase of the stroke in order to improve swimming, your swimming will be faster and easier if you master the first four keys. The Pull / Power Phase is about "grabbing" the water. Most people attempt to move their hand from in front of their body to along side their hip. To be efficient and fast, you must grab the water and pull your body past your hand. Think about it this way: your hand shouldn't move very much from the point you grab the water until you lift your hand out of the water. Your body moves, your hands stay still pushing against the water.
Drills: Paddles drill, Flex-flex-pull

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