Welcome to, well, just about … the winter months, a tough time of year to stay motivated, but a great time of year to work on the things that may have hampered performance last season. As you look into the off-season, take each of disciplines from your racing and write out strengths and weaknesses. We’ll look over the next couple months at tips to improve weaknesses in all three areas by addressing some common mistakes and suggesting drills to help correct mechanics. We’ll start with swimming since this is so often where people feel most challenged or intimidated with the triathlon adventure …
1. Stay in the water. Simple right. Here’s the deal, if you’re not in the water consistently you will lose the “feel” of good mechanics. Because so much of swimming is about rhythm and timing, losing that feel can be hugely detrimental, especially if you’re not a life-long swimmer. Even if it’s short swim sessions of 800-1000 yards (or meters) try to stay consistent with 2-3 swims a week all year long.
2. Body position. Lots of people swim “uphill”. They are lean and tend to have sinking legs. They lift their heads too much which adds to the problem. To help correct these issues, use the off-season to work on proper kick mechanics (short sets without a board, long sets with fins) and head position in the water. Have someone video tape you from above the water and look to see how much of your head comes up when you breathe. Easy to do on your smart phone and 2 breathing cycles can tell the whole story. Work on keeping your head, hips, and heals on a nice line when you swim and you’ll move through the water much more efficiently.
3. Bilateral breathing. For life-long swimmers, this is easy. For those that didn’t grow up on swim team this may be the toughest thing you have to learn. And you really should learn it. Bilateral breathing will help you balance out your stroke, and can come in really handy during open water swims. Lifting your head and breathing slows down your stroke and rhythm. The more you breath, the more that streamline gets broken and the greater the chances are that your stroke gets slowed down. Breathing every stroke cycle is great for getting oxygen but makes it more difficult to keep both sides of the stroke balanced. By switching to bilateral breathing, you can equal out the rotation on both sides which pays big dividends on both balance and reducing the risk of repetitive injury to the non-breathing side (you typically don’t rotate as well here). In open water, bilateral breathing can be a big help if there is a lot of glare from the sun, sighting buoys to one side or the other, or breathing away from the swell in ocean swimming. Even if at the end of the day you revert back to single side breathing in races, it’s a great idea to develop the ability to bilateral breath in practice. If you practice every session for 300-500 yards of swimming you should have the hang of bilateral breathing within a couple weeks.
4. Stroke tempo. Many swimmers turn their arms over too fast or too slow when swimming. Turning over too slow prohibits you from gaining any good speed in the water and will tire the arms out faster by trying to pull much harder to make up for the slow tempo. Too fast and the tendency is to slip through the water, losing feel and having to work extra hard to keep the body moving at the desired pace. So what is the right pace? Well, everyone is going to differ a little bit, but it is pretty easy to test yourself in the water by swimming repeat 100’s with 60-90 seconds of full recovery and measuring both the time to complete distance and the perceived effort to get it done. After a series of experiments with different stroke rates, you should have a good idea of what your ideal tempo is. There are also swim metronomes available that give you an auditory cue to follow similar to running.
5. Stroke mechanics. This is the most obvious category, and can have the most elements for correction. I will lump all elements of stroke mechanics not listed in the above examples, which could include cross-over, poor catch position, straight arm recovery or pull, scissor kicks, poor rotation, finger / hand position, and likely many more. The key point here is that you want to identify the elements in your stroke that need to be addressed. A good coach and/or video session can help you to figure out what needs the most work. Once you have a list of elements to correct, try to address them individually and give yourself ample time to build new habits. Use 300-500 yards each session to address skills and drills and focus on one element to correct. Within a couple weeks, you’ll have started to build new muscle memory and movement patterns and should be ready to move on to new elements of your stroke to address