Swimming is the one of the three sports that most people struggle with. I remember reading a funny quote about it years ago along the lines of if you stop pedalling you coast, you stop running you walk but with swimming if you stop moving you drown. Slightly more catastrophic.
Learning to swim as an adult is difficult and rarely if ever does an adult learner ever become as good as someone who grew up as a swimmer. It’s just not possible to put in the hours required with all of the distractions of adult life, work, family and if you throw Ironman or even just triathlon into the mix you now have two other sports to train for as well.
Despite the difficulty of being a poor swimmer I have managed to improve it to a level that it’s no longer an embarrassment. Although I will never be first out of the water. I’ve tried all the recommendations to improve what is a very difficult sport to master. Some worked well, others not so much. I’ve already written a post about starting this process and listing all of the possible things I could do to improve but this list is for me the best of the lot, the magic bullet, the secret sauce. These are where I got the big gains.
As coaches one of the questions we are asked a lot is which is more important as a beginner/improver, technique or volume? Some coaches say that as soon as fatigue causes your technique to go you should get out of the pool. I take a slightly different approach. I think that first you must be fit and strong enough to be able to hold good technique. As a result I work on both in tandem, incorporating some technique and drills into almost every swim. But I am a big believer in swimming long to improve, at least as long as your race distance and longer is better, much better.
Done is better than perfect. You can always improve something that is done, you can’t improve on something that isn’t.
These are my top 6 tips to improve your swim
1. Practice stroke mechanics on dry land
I found it very difficult to master what I was being told to do while actually in the water, the co-ordination needed to master what I needed to do with my hands, legs, body etc all while trying not to swallow half the pool and drown. One of the biggest revelations for me (and probably with hindsight the most obvious) was to practice and master the movement before I got into the water. Repeating a part of the stroke over and over away from the danger of drowning meant I could focus 100% on mastering the mechanics of any part of the stroke and incorporating it in while swimming was much easier.
2. Improve flexibility.
It became obvious when practicing on dry land that a severe lack of shoulder and side (lats) flexibility meant that I physically couldn’t get into the correct position needed to execute a proper stroke. Because of the distracting obsession with not drowning I hadn’t actually noticed this most critical fact. Again removing the danger of death meant I could actually learn what I was doing wrong and then work on improving it. It was no wonder I couldn’t do what I was being taught, I hadn’t got the basic flexibility. This meant that all the practicing, swimming etc was wasted. I first needed to improve my flexibility so I could get my arm into the correct position to start the catch part of the stroke.
Swimming longer is my favourite way to gain fast improvements. It’s also the easiest of the three sports to go long in with the least cost in terms of time and recovery. For me to do a 3.8k swim only takes 65-70 minutes. Whereas a 180k bike ride will take 5-7 hours depending on terrain and weather or a 42k run will take 3-4 hours. Never mind the massive recovery cost of long runs v’s long swims. At this stage when training for Ironman almost all of my swims are 4k plus and when training hard I will hit 5-6k. I saw massive time gains as a result of consistent big volume swims very quickly.
It also has massive fitness benefits and it occurred to me the other day that that a lot of people who grew up as real swimmers might miss out on this. I know several swimmers who with only 1 swim of 2-3k a week can still swim 10 minutes faster than me in an Ironman. But I think that despite the fact they are better technical swimmers they are missing out on the fitness gains that come from regular swimming and big volume in the pool. In the past I’ve spent a year just riding my bike and dropped both the swim and run in an attempt to race on the road at an elite level and I’m convinced that I was a stronger rider when I was racing Ironman. I firmly believe the massive aerobic benefits of combining all three sports is one of the main reasons why Ironman athletes are so fit overall.
4. One on one coaching
This may be seen as an expensive luxury but one on one coaching (with a good swim coach who understands the needs of triathlon) while learning to swim is often a better value option in the long run. If you can short circuit the process and need less instruction and become a good swimmer faster then coaching is invaluable. I incorporate it occasionally now to clean up bad habits but once you’ve learned there isn’t the same need to keep on with it indefinitely.
5. Masters swim
Swim with swimmers. This one hurts but the results can be as dramatic as those from a big increase in volume. Masters sessions can also have an element of coaching too so you might kill two birds with one stone here. But they are primarily a really good workout. My first time at a masters swim years ago I was looking at a really big, unfit looking, slightly overweight guy getting into the fast lane wondering what he was thinking. As I started to warm up in the lane next to him he came past in the opposite direction and was moving so fast he created a “bow wave” that almost threw me out of the pool. It turned out he was a top channel swimmer. They tend to be a bit heavy to deal with the cold open water for extremely long swims.
As an adult learner I think I need to reinforce technique regularly and as such incorporate a small amount of drills into the start and finish of almost all swims and find it really helps sharpen my technique. I typically do about 400 meters of drills at the start of a swim to “programme” and re-inforce in good technique and often add in another 200 meters at the end to “clean up” any slopiness that slipped in as a result of tiredness.
If you are interested in learning about my journey from smoker to Ironman and eventually qualifying for and racing in the Ironman World championships in Kona you can read about it here
I have also interviewed 6 of the most successful Ironman athletes Ireland has ever had and you can read about their training secrets and insights here