“How do I get faster in the water?” As a triathlon coach, I am asked about how to make improvements in swimming more than any of the three disciplines that make up triathlon. I imagine this is the case because so many triathletes come to the sport having had little or no swimming experience prior to their quest to be triathletes. Adding to this is the fact that swimming is considered by some to be a finesse-type sport, where everything about the movement of one’s body through the water effects the result. Swimming is a culmination of many precise movements that if done correctly, will assist with increasing speed through the water. Some of us think about this and become overwhelmed by the complexity of it.
In one hand, swimming is a series of complex and coordinated movements that take place in water. Body position plays a huge roll in how much effort is needed to create forward velocity. Each stroke of the arms, each kick of the legs, each rotation of the body is meant to work towards propulsion in the water. It goes to say that timing these movements precisely will result in an efficient increase in speed. Sometimes this sort of coordination of movement is not so coordinated, and we sink. This is why so many athletes believe that by focusing on “drills,” also known as breaking down the complexity of movement into smaller, seemingly more manageable movements, is the best way to “get faster in the water.” I won’t argue with the point that increasing efficiency of one’s swim stroke will result in an increase in speed. I will argue here though that merely improving efficiency is not what it takes to swim fast.
In the other hand, we have simple, hard work. Get to the pool, get in the water, swim hard and swim often. Just go for it! Build swim specific fitness by swimming, a lot. This approach to getting faster in the water takes the “finesse” out of swimming. It’s not about mastering side kicking or the zipper drill or any number of drills that some coaches will prescribe for the athletes they coach. I’m not saying that these drills are bad or not worthy of your time. But the hard work approach is about building muscle and endurance and being super fit in the water. Swim hard. Swim often. Those are the rules.
I used to prescribe drills as general practice for getting faster, sometimes for up to 50% of one complete workout, and some swimmers got a little faster, while others got good at the drills, but never really got faster while actually swimming. That’s when I began experimenting with simply swimming a lot. I didn’t care how bad the swimmers’ technique was, I made them swim, sometimes every day of the week. Even if they could only swim 25 yards before having to stop, we swam. We swam 10x25, then 20x25, then 50x25. As the athletes’ fitness grew, we swam more. And pretty soon, 10x50 was possible; then 10x100, and so on.
It’s difficult for some triathletes to accept this: you have to work hard in the pool - a lot - to swim faster. For some reason we accept that we have to work hard to run faster and bike faster, but when it comes to swimming, we seem to prefer focusing on drills and technique instead of throwing caution to the wind (or the water in this case), and swimming so hard we nearly vomit. Floating along, practicing drills will help a little. Again, I’m not saying that drills don’t work. There is definitely a place within our swim development for perfecting the biomechanics of swimming and becoming a more efficient swimmer. But the idea that you will become a faster swimmer by spending hours practicing drills alone is simply not true. Drills are not the magic bullet that we’d like to believe they are. We won’t wake up one morning, jump in the pool, and swim a sub-1 minute 100m (or 20 of them!) by practicing drills all the time. We get fast by swimming hard, and swimming often. There is no other substitute.
This approach to swim training is hardly new, but when I discuss it with a triathlete, they typically quip, “Swimming is such a small part of a triathlon. I don’t see the need to work so hard only to gain 5 or 10 minutes of time. I can spend the same amount of time biking or running and gain 30 or even 60 minutes on my overall time.” Fair enough. Stop swimming and see how well you do in your next race.
Here’s the thing: triathlon is made up of three disciplines which we triathletes combined years ago, and called it a sport. One of those disciplines is swimming. If you don’t want to get better at swimming or you don’t enjoy swimming, find another sport. Seriously, find something you can get totally passionate about - that doesn’t include swimming - and do it! You’ll be happier, and I won’t have to listen to you complain about having to swim. Leave triathlons to those of us who jump out of bed every morning at 4:30 AM, and say, "Awesome! I’m swimming today!”
And for the record, increasing your swim fitness will help your biking and running. Here’s an example: if you are racing a half-ironman distance triathlon you have to swim 1800m in open water. If you build your swim fitness to the point that you can swim 2-3000m hard and do it often in practice, swimming 1800m hard should be pretty easy for you. Your body will be fit enough to handle much more, because you worked hard and often, and built solid swim fitness into your body. You’ll get out of the water at your race feeling great, certainly not maxed out, and likely a few minutes faster. Additionally (and possibly more important), you’ll now be riding with faster athletes. The key though, is that you are fit, and swimming 1800m was a piece of cake. Now you can start the bike segment feeling really good, and more importantly, feeling fresh! On the contrary, if you don’t work on swimming, you’ll exit the water at this race already tired, and likely 5 or 10 minutes behind. This is not the way you want to race, is it?
So what exactly is my approach to “getting faster in the water?” If it’s not already obvious, it’s about working hard. Here is a set of guidelines to go by.
1. Your number one priority is building your swim fitness. Fitness and conditioning are the same. You want to focus on swimming hard as often as you can. Swimming hard is demanding, so if you have to start with short intervals and long rest periods, this is okay. Train smart, chart your progress and your fitness will build.
2. Build your fitness around what you need to do in a race. This means that you should be swimming main sets that are at or greater than the distance you intend to race. If you race Olympic distance, this means a main set of 1500m or more. If you race Ironman, you’re looking at a main set of 3800m or more. A main set is your quality work: hard, fast, as little rest as possible. You may have to build up to this sort of yardage. That’s fine. The approach is the same.
3. If you are time crunched, cut back on the warm-up and cool down, and back-load the main set. Start with cutting back your cool down. If that still doesn’t leave you enough time to finish your main set, start finding ways to cut back on your warm up. Back-load the main set means that you should do the hardest work towards the end of the main set. For example, a 1500m main set might look like this:
10x100 at T-pace on 10s RI
10x50 at MAX EFFORT on 15s RI
In this example, the hardest swimming is at the end of the main set. This will be hard to do, but the payoff is huge for building fitness. Back loading also creates an effect of fatigue resistance. A set like the one above might be the equivalent of a 2000m main set.
4. Swim often. Two swim workouts per week does not cut it. Three times per week barely does it. To see real improvement in your swim fitness, you need to swim five or more times per week, every week.
5. Swim “toys” that are useful:
a. Paddles: are a great tool for helping to smooth out your stroke and build strength. When using them, be conscious of using your latissimus dorsi muscles (lats), complete the entire pull through phase, and don’t force the pace.
b. Foot Band: is a great tool that will force you to pull with greater velocity. It’s very difficult at first, so start easy and work your way up to longer and longer distances.
c. Pull buoy: is a great tool for focusing on engagement of your hips and core on your body rotation. Be careful not to use this tool as a crutch when you get tired.
6. Embrace working hard in the pool: This is probably the biggest key. If you can except that you need to do hard work in the pool in order to get fast, and truly embrace it the same way you embrace smashing it on the bike or running, reaching your potential as a swimmer is only a matter of time.
Following these guidelines, you will no doubt see your swimming improve, and ultimately improve your overall performance in triathlon.
On a final note, I have not disregarded drills as a practice for improving an athlete’s swimming. I use specific drills to address specific problems in an individual's swim mechanics, sometimes traditional drills, sometimes drills I just make up on the spot. Drills are supplemental to swimming only, and never are they the main point of a swim workout. When I coach an athlete, I work with them to build swim-specific fitness to the point that they are able to make it through a main set of swimming that is both hard in effort and meets the requirements of the distance they intend to race. We do work on perfecting their technique and efficiency in the water, but this is rarely done through long sets of drills. It’s accomplished by swimming hard and focused, day after day until at last, it’s time to test the hard work with a race.