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The Swim: Technique and Training for Triathletes

It feels like I am starting over, having been out of the water so long due to injuries.  I used to swim with the local US Masters group for a while and improved quite a bit during that time – thanks Coach Dan&Coach Dave.  Our total yardage varied depending on the season and in which lane you swam.  Mine varied from 2700 to 4200 yards each practice, three times per week.  I thought I was really churning up the water until I talked with a friend whose 12 year old daughter on a rec. league swim team was averaging 3500 yards three to four time per week.  I had also heard D1 collegiate swimmers swam between 8000 and 12000 yards a day.  But for me, it was enough because I had just started swimming a year before that.

Now that I am just coming back to the water after a long absence, it’s almost like starting over.  I remember the mechanics and drills but I am nowhere near where I left off because I have not used those muscles in that way in a long time.  Because of this, I thought it would be a great time to focus on technique.

There are some good books on swimming and drills.  I came across a seven-DVD set triathlon training series that included one for swimming.  It contains two DVDs.

The first disc is geared toward beginner/novice swimmers and was created by Trip Hedrick, former Iowa State University Head Men’s Swimming Coach.  He starts with the premise of you knowing little or nothing about swimming.  He thoroughly explains each drill, it’s purpose, and place moving you toward the full freestyle swim.  He explains what the extremities, arms and legs, should be doing while swimming and drills for that.  Remember, swimming is a technique sport so drilling is important to implant the technique into your muscle memory.

Clark Campbell, former Professional Triathlete and University of Kansas Head Women’s Swimming Coach, takes over and discusses the more detailed points.  These include body position and alignment, the function of the core in swimming, swimming musculature, and much more.

On the second disc, Coach Campbell “takes you through a classroom segment discussing training methods for swimming.”  He discusses what a training plan looks like and how to get to your goal – training periodization.

I popped disc one in and started watching.  Oh, how my Masters practices would have been easier if I’d watched this while learning swimming.  I really like that Trip was in the water, the way he explained the drills, had two triathletes demonstrate them and tell you what part they play in the overall freestyle stroke plan.

Since I am rehabbing from shoulder and elbow issues, I thought I would work on the recovery drill.  My next practice was transformative.  The recovery drills and subsequent swimming with my new recovery felt completely natural.  I was elated.  My wife’s eyes glazed over with excitement when I was telling her all about it, as they often do wen I “talk triathlon”.  The physical therapist liked the new recovery movement compared to the old way.  I told every swimmer I knew the effect of just this one change had made.  Every subsequent swim will have to build on it and imprint it in my muscle memory but, wow, what a difference.

The next goal is to tackle breathing technique.  When swimming a year ago, I could go fast enough where breathing technique was not an issue.  You know your breathing technique is good when you can do catch-up drills slowly while breathing in air instead of water.  That’s what I am working on.  Racing is out for me this year so I have plenty of time to work on technique and base training.

Here’s the DVD I’ve been discussing:
The Swim: Technique and Training for Triathletes – An “Outside-In” Approach to Freestyle

If you enjoy that one, you’ll probably enjoy the whole triathlon training series Champion Productions offer as well.

“H2O:  two parts Heart and one part Obsession.  ~Author Unknown”

Triathlon basic swim technique

Three years ago I started swimming after back surgery for a low impact aerobic activity. When I was young, I swam around lakes and pools but never on a swim team and was never coached.

After several months of swimming on my own, I joined a US Masters swim team. The US Masters Swimming is a terrific way to learn swimming or get back into it. It is a coached practice for all levels of ability. They divide you into lanes based on your ability. As you progress, you move “up a lane.” I started in lane one and watched in amazement at some of the swimmers in the “fast lane.” They were former college swimmers, a former professional triathlete, and people who had worked their way up and were just plain fast.

Swimming is probably the most technique-oriented sport in triathlon. Thus, it is one where coaching can help you the most. A friend of mine, a former Auburn swimmer, advised me to take private lessons for a month then go on my own. I should have followed his advice – I would have saved myself many months of learning the hard way. US Masters is a coached practice but there are 20+ other swimmers they have to pay attention to so be patient and learn proper technique before putting in a lot of yardage. Trust me, you will be SO much better off in the long run.

Swimming well means two things to me. First, having good technique and balance – this is absolutely a technique sport. Second, reducing the drag of the water on your body. We’ll get into technique in a minute but let me address drag.

Water is about 1000 times more dense than air. Imagine you are pushing your hand through the water. Is it harder to push your hand parallel to the water line or perpendicular? Perpendicular. The basic lesson of this is to reduce your resistance signature in the water. This will come with practicing good technique but it is worth mentioning on it’s own because it is so important. The more drag you carry and push through the water, the harder you have to work to maintain a certain speed. Thus, the less drag, the faster you will go at any given level of energy.

The image my terrific Masters coach gave me was to imagine your are trying to swim through a long tube. The smaller your make that imaginary tube, the less drag you have.

There are entire books written on technique so I will briefly outline it here and have some terrific resource recommendations at the end of this post.

Before getting into technique specifics, you must learn to balance yourself in the water. By this I mean, be able to kick almost effortlessly on your side where your hips and shoulders are at about the same level. Your hips and legs are not lower making you plow through the water creating drag – remember the tube imagery. The next time you are swimming, take a moment to watch some of the other swimmers, from underwater if you can do so safely. You will know who has balance right away because they appear relatively level compared to the water line. Others will appear to swimming uphill the entire time, and I can tell you from my earlier days that it feels like it also. Balance is imperative and should be drilled until it is second nature.

I’m not a coach but I offer what I have learned – take it for what its worth. The freestyle stroke can be broken into several phases:

  • Entry
  • Catch
  • Pull
  • Push
  • Recovery

The entry is how your hand comes in front of and enters the water. It should be at a 45 degree angle when entering the water and go through the water like your putting your hand through a mail slot. As you move your hand forward, your body should roll partially to it’s side.

The catch is how your hand and forearm “catch” or grab the water ready to pull and push the water back, and you forward.

The pull is where, with a high elbow, your hand and forearm start to pull the water back. I went to a swim clinic taught by Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines. He used the imagery of putting your hand over a barrel and pulling – that’s the curved type of shape it should be. But make sure you have a high elbow. It will likely feel awkward at first.

The push is taking all the water mass you have gathered in the pull and pushing it back propelling you forward. There is some debate about whether you push all the way back and flip your hand out at the end of the pull OR pull out earlier since the last few inches don’t add that much propulsion.

The recovery is how your arm gets from the end of the pull back to entry. Some teach it to be almost a huge circle while most still teach a high elbow and relaxed forearm back to entry. I’ll leave this to your research and trail and error. This is typically when your shoulders are rotated almost perpendicular to the water line. This rotation is generated through your core and hips.

Please take my advice – get some help with your technique in the beginning. It’s worth it. With proper technique you are more likely to avoid injury and progress faster.

One last thing to remember about triathlon swims is that you don’t want to spend all of your energy kicking in the swim portion leaving nothing for the remaining one to fourteen hours of your event that require much from your legs. Some advise to use them as a stabilizer instead of a propellant, thus saving energy. Experiment with it and see what works for you. Whether you use your legs much in your triathlon swim or not, having a good swim means having a proficient kick and that takes time to acquire but is worth the effort.


  • Get a coach in the beginning if you can
  • If you can’t, get some videos or books to learn technique (see below)
  • Have someone video tape you swimming so you can see and correct yourself
  • Technique drills should incorporated through all phases of your swim development
  • Learn drills and practice them regularly no matter how fast you progress
  • Balance is the key to less drag and less effort

Swim technique videos
Total Immersion Swimming DVD
Total Immersion (book)
The Swimming Drill Book