Category Archives: swim technique

Master the freestyle

For anyone who has spent any time leaning and perfecting freestyle, you realize that the more you practice it, the more your understand it is a technique sport. There are so many movements that have to be executed correctly for it to work well, that it can overwhelm you. So pick one or two drills or areas of focus per training session and just focus on that. It WILL pay off for you in the long run!

Here’s an excerpt from Swimming Anatomy with permission of the publisher, Human Kinetics.

“As the hand enters into the water, the wrist and elbow follow and the arm is extended to the starting position of the propulsive phase. Upward rotation of the shoulder blade allows the swimmer to reach an elongated position in the water. From this elongated position, the first part of the propulsive phase begins with the catch. The initial movements are first generated by the clavicular portion of the pectoralis major. The latissimus dorsi quickly joins in to assist the pectoralis major. These two muscles generate a majority of the force during the underwater pull, mostly during the second half of the pull. The wrist flexors act to hold the wrist in a position of slight flexion for the entire duration of the propulsive phase. At the elbow, the elbow flexors (biceps brachii and brachialis) begin to contract at the start of the catch phase, gradually taking the elbow from full extension into approximately 30 degrees of flexion. During the final portion of the propulsive phase the triceps brachii acts to extend the elbow, which brings the hand backward and upward toward the surface of the water, thus ending the propulsive phase. The total amount of extension taking place depends on your specific stroke mechanics and the point at which you initiate your recovery. The deltoid and rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) are the primary muscles active during the recovery phase, functioning to bring the arm and hand out of the water near the hips and return them to an overhead position for reentry into the water. The arm movements during freestyle are reciprocal in nature, meaning that while one arm is engaged in propulsion, the other is in the recovery process.

Several muscle groups function as stabilizers during both the propulsive phase and the recovery phase. One of the key groups is the shoulder blade stabilizers (pectoralis minor, rhomboid, levator scapula, middle and lower trapezius, and the serratus anterior), which as the name implies serve to anchor or stabilize the shoulder blade. Proper functioning of this muscle group is important because all the propulsive forces generated by the arm and hand rely on the scapula’s having a firm base of support. Additionally, the shoulder blade stabilizers work with the deltoid and rotator cuff to reposition the arm during the recovery phase. The core stabilizers (transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique, external oblique, and erector spinae) are also integral to efficient stroke mechanics because they serve as a link between the movements of the upper and lower extremities. This link is central to coordination of the body roll that takes place during freestyle swimming.

Like the arm movements, the kicking movements can be categorized as a propulsive phase and a recovery phase; these are also referred to as the downbeat and the upbeat. The propulsive phase (downbeat) begins at the hips by activation of the iliopsoas and rectus femoris muscles. The rectus femoris also initiates extension of the knee, which follows shortly after hip flexion begins. The quadriceps (vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis) join the rectus femoris to help generate more forceful extension of the knee. Like the propulsive phase, the recovery phase starts at the hips with contraction of the gluteal muscles (primarily gluteus maximus and medius) and is quickly followed by contraction of the hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus). Both muscle groups function as hip extensors. Throughout the entire kicking motion the foot is maintained in a plantarflexed position secondary to activation of the gastrocnemius and soleus and pressure exerted by the water during the downbeat portion of the kick.”

Reduce water resistance and increase propulsive

I am getting back in the pool these days and see beginners making the same mistakes I made, thinking, “If I just increase my strength, then I’ll be so much better.”  I’ve since read that swimming is 70% technique and 30% endurance/muscle.  Much of the technique is learning how to move through the water-space with as little drag as possible.  Drag slows you down.  Drag makes you work harder for the same speed or distance.  The take-away from this excerpt is to reduce your drag!

In this excerpt, we learn about reducing drag and increasing propulsion from the book “Swim Fastest“, reprinted with permission of Human Kinetics.

Fundamentals for Reducing Resistive Drag

  • Maintain lateral alignment in the front crawl and backstroke by
    rotating the body around its longitudinal axis in synchronization with
    the downward and upward movements of the arms.
    The entire body
    must rotate, from head to toes, as an entire unit. Never try to
    maintain one part—the hips or legs, for example—in a flat position
    while the arms and shoulders

    I am getting back in the pool these days and see beginners making the same mistakes I made, thinking, “If I just increase my strength, then I’ll be so much better.”  I’ve since read that swimming is 70% technique and 30% endurance/muscle.  Much of the technique is learning how to move through the water-space with as little drag as possible.  Drag slows you down.  Drag makes you work harder for the same speed or distance.  The take-away from this excerpt is to reduce your drag!

    In this excerpt, we learn about reducing drag and increasing propulsion from the book “Swim Fastest“, reprinted with permission of Human Kinetics.

    Fundamentals for Reducing Resistive Drag

    • Maintain lateral alignment in the front crawl and backstroke by
      rotating the body around its longitudinal axis in synchronization with
      the downward and upward movements of the arms.
      The entire body
      must rotate, from head to toes, as an entire unit. Never try to
      maintain one part—the hips or legs, for example—in a flat position
      while the arms and shoulders are moving up and down.
    • To reduce form drag, keep the head in line with the trunk whenever possible.
      The only time the head should be out of alignment is when it is lifted
      out of the water for a breath in the butterfly and breaststroke. The
      head should remain aligned with the trunk when it is rotated toward the
      side to breathe in the front crawl stroke.
    • Maintain horizontal alignment by swimming through the water, not over it.
      Any efforts to elevate the head and shoulders above the water will only
      increase form and wave drag. The exceptions are the butterfly and
      breaststroke, in which swimmers should raise the head and shoulders out
      of the water to breathe. Even swimmers in these strokes should maintain
      a horizontal body position during the propulsive phases of the
      armstroke and kick, however, at least when it is possible to do so.
    • Body undulation is essential to propulsion in the butterfly
      and, to a lesser extent, in the breaststroke, but it should not be
      Swimmers should raise the head and shoulders out of the
      water sufficiently to reduce resistive drag during breathing and, in
      the case of butterfly, to allow arm recovery without forward dragging.
      Undulation should take place at or just below the surface to a position
      above the surface where the breath is taken. Swimmers should not push
      the body underwater simply to increase range of undulation. Excessively
      pushing the body downward will only increase form drag.
    • All entry and recovery movements of the arms and legs should be “soft” and smooth to reduce pushing drag.
      Where possible, keep the limbs within the cross sectional area of the
      body as they enter the water, and slide them forward through the water
      with the smallest and most tapered surfaces, the fingertips, facing
    • The first portions of all underwater armstrokes, the downsweep and outsweep, are not propulsive.
      Therefore, they should be executed softly and smoothly to keep pushing
      drag to a minimum. Lead with the smallest and most tapered surfaces of
      the hands and arms, the fingertips, when sliding them down and out
      during the downsweeps and outsweeps of all four competitive strokes.
    • Don’t kick any deeper, higher, or wider than necessary to produce an optimum amount of propulsive force.
      Kicks that are excessively wide and deep will increase pushing drag and
      may disrupt horizontal and lateral alignment. Kicking upward
      excessively will push the body downward. Where possible, maintain an
      optimum leg spread that keeps the legs within the cross sectional area
      of the torso in both lateral and vertical directions.
    • Don’t pull the legs into a flexed position in the flutter and dolphin kicks.
      The legs should only travel upward to body level during the upbeat of
      the flutter and dolphin kicks (downbeat in the backstroke). The
      remainder of their upward motion should take place during the
      subsequent downbeat (upbeat in the backstroke). Leg flexion at this
      time may make it appear that the upbeat is still underway, but that
      flexion should occur as the thighs are actually pushing downward. At
      that time, the water underneath the relaxed lower legs will push the
      body upward into a flexed position until the legs start to extend at
      the knees. Use the minimum amount of muscular effort needed to flex the
      legs forward during leg recovery in the breaststroke.

    Guidelines for Increasing Propulsive Force

    • Always wait until a high elbow catch position has been achieved before applying backward force against the water.
      Inexperienced swimmers try to apply force when the arms are facing
      downward or against the water. They must learn to wait until they have
      positioned the undersides of the arms and the palms of the hands to
      push back against the water before applying force. The arms and hands
      should travel through approximately one-third of their underwater
      armstrokes before swimmers begin to push backward against the water.
    • The arms should be flexed approximately 90° when the catch is
      made, and they should not be extended or flexed further by any
      significant amount during the propulsive phases of the strokes that
      In other words, swimmers should form a boomerang-shaped
      paddle with the undersides of the arms and hands when they make the
      catch, and they should press backward against the water throughout the
      stroke without changing the shape of the arms appreciably. In this way,
      the work of forward propulsion is done by the large adducting and
      extending muscle groups of the shoulders and torso instead of the small
      muscle groups that tend to rotate the forearms and hands. The only
      exception to this rule occurs in the backstroke, in which the arms
      extend backward and below the thighs during the propulsive phase of
      their strokes.
    • Keep the palm of the hand and the underside of the forearm
      aligned as though they were one jointless unit during the propulsive
      phases of the various armstrokes.
      The tendency to rotate the hand
      in and out in advance of the arm in the same direction and the tendency
      to overflex or hyperextend the hand at the wrist during the propulsive
      armstroke phase are two of the most common errors swimmers make. The
      hands do rotate during the various underwater armstrokes, but this is
      only because they are facing in the direction the arms are moving. This
      rotation is not initiated by rotating the palm and allowing the arm to
      follow. Swimmers should keep the palms of the hands aligned with the
      undersides of the forearms and allow the direction the arms are moving
      to dictate the pitch of the hands.
    • Always stroke in diagonally backward patterns during the propulsive phases of the underwater armstrokes.
      Even though drag is probably the dominant propulsive force in swimming,
      pulling and pushing the arms straight back through the water will not
      provide the greatest distance per stroke, nor will it provide the
      fastest forward velocity. Effective swimming requires deviations from
      the straight backward application of force for all of the reasons
      described in this chapter and in chapter 1.
    • Hand speeds should accelerate in pulses with each major change
      in their direction, from the time they make the catch to the end of
      each underwater armstroke.
      The hands accelerate in pulses during
      underwater armstrokes, slowing as they make the transition from one
      sweep to the next and then accelerating to the next point of
      transition. Nevertheless, hand velocity does accelerate from the start
      to the finish of their propulsive phases. Although they accelerate and
      decelerate in pulses, the hands should never reach maximum velocity
      until they are near the end of the propulsive phase of a particular
      underwater armstroke.
    • Propulsive efforts should cease as the hands approach the legs on their way to the surface.
      Many swimmers make the mistake of pushing against the water until the
      hands reach the surface. Because the arms will be facing too far upward
      after they pass the legs, applying force at that time will not create
      any additional propulsion. Instead, it will push the body downward,
      decelerating forward speed in the process.”

Developing the catch and power phase in swimming freestyle

Anyone who has spent any time developing their freestyle knows that technique is everything.  Yes, eventually you will have endurance but technique, reducing drag, and drills make for an excellent swim.  One popular swim author claims to teach effortless swimming.  Although it is a good book, I have yet to find that effortless swim.  But with proper technique and its practice, you can have a faster time and expend less energy.

The following except comes from Mastering Swimming, reprinted here by permission of Human Kenetics.

Developing the catch and power phase

The power in swimming comes from the core group of muscles, which this book defines as the area from the neck to the knees, including all of the upper-back and shoulder muscles, the abdominal muscles, and the trunk and upper-leg muscles. The best way to access this power is with a great setup at the beginning of the freestyle underwater pull, or what is commonly called the catch. This term, which first became popular with the development of the crawl or freestyle stroke in the 19th century, refers to the point in the stroke when a swimmer’s hand connects with the water and starts to pull.

The catch itself is not the main propulsive part of the stroke, but when properly executed, it sets your stroke up to be more effective through the propulsive power phase that follows. The freestyle catch occurs in the first 9 to 12 inches (23-30 cm) of the stroke, where you begin your pull by pressing the fingertips down while keeping your elbow up. Imagine yourself reaching over a waterfall and anchoring your palm and forearm on the rocks so that you can pull your body over. The late Doc Counsilman, former head coach of Indiana University and coach to 48 Olympians, including Jim Montgomery, was well known for his analogy of pulling over a barrel. Great freestyle swimmers anchor their hands in the water and use their core muscles to rotate their bodies past their hands. To properly achieve this catch position, internally, or medially, rotate your shoulder and open your armpit. Imagine driving your elbow toward the pool wall in front of you.

Consider the effect of body rotation on the depth of your hand catch. The forward reach and downward press of your arm at the entry and catch causes your body to rotate to the side. Keep your hand planed directly back (toward the wall behind you), with your fingertips toward the bottom of the pool, until your arm has reached midstroke. This is a key point for maintaining a powerful application of propulsive force. Finding the right amount of body rotation will automatically help you find the ideal depth in the pull. Once you set the high-elbow position in the underwater pull, maintain it throughout the stroke cycle. By keeping your hand and elbow anchored in the water at the catch spot, you will be able to recruit core muscles to rotate your body past that spot on the longitudinal axis. At midstroke, the bend of the elbow is approximately 90 degrees and then opens up again as your hand finishes the stroke. Your hand moves slowest at the catch phase of the stroke, but gradually picks up momentum until it is moving fast under your hips at the end of the stroke. Keep your wrist flexed to hold your hand perpendicular to the water’s surface at the finish of the pull. The acceleration of the hand through the underwater pull synchronized with the rotation of the body’s core creates the power phase of the freestyle stroke.

With a well-executed hand entry and extension followed by an effective catch and follow-through, your hand will actually come out of the water in front of the point where it entered! The hands of world-class swimmers exit the water several feet (about 1 m) in front of their entry points. These swimmers have an incredible amount of shoulder and back flexibility, allowing them to position their hands, forearms, and elbows in the catch position much earlier in the stroke. This creates a longer and more propulsive power phase. The following series of photos depicts the freestyle stroke from catch to power phase (figure 4.3, a-d).

Many adult novice and intermediate swimmers lack the body rotation, strength, and flexibility to hold their shoulders and elbows above their pulling hands throughout the freestyle pull. A well-designed dry-land program that includes stretching and strengthening helps swimmers learn and perfect the underwater stroke. Use the following teaching progression of both on-deck and in-water skills to learn the mechanics of the catch position and the correct muscle recruitment for transitioning into an efficient underwater pull.

  1. Begin by standing on the pool deck in a streamlined position. Have a partner hold a hand against yours, applying slight pressure against your palm as you proceed to simulate the freestyle pull pattern. Start by pressing your fingers and elevating your elbow. Feel the different use of muscles during a high-elbow, a straight-arm, and a dropped-elbow pull. When you do a high-elbow pull, you should feel your core muscles come into play, including the upper-back, chest, and shoulder muscles.
  2. Use stretch cords to manipulate your hand and forearm into the desired movement of the stroke cycle. Start with your arms fully extended at shoulder-width and your wrists slightly flexed. Pop up your elbows and move your arms back in a curved path, first diagonally outward and then inward. Once your hands have moved across and under your body, extend your elbows and straighten your arms. Notice that your hands travel farther than the elbow.
  3.  Another great teaching tool is the in-water press-up. Position yourself at the deep end of the pool, facing the wall. Place your palms flat on the deck or gutter of the pool. Start with your head and body submerged, and then press up, using the buoyancy of the water to lift your body out. Maintain a high-elbow position and lift your body as high as you can.
  4. Sensitizing your hands and forearms can dramatically enhance your feel for the water. This allows you to make subtle adjustments in the pitch of your hand so you can hold the water more effectively, whether anchoring in the catch position or finishing the propulsive power phase. You will learn to recognize water pressure against your hand and forearm during every phase of the stroke. Here are three simple ways to sensitize your hands: press the fingertips of one hand hard against the fingertips of the other, press your fingertips against the pool deck while resting, or rub your hands together or on the pool deck.
  5. Swimming with hand paddles generates more water pressure against the palms of your hands, which activates the muscle groups that propel your elbows up. Novice masters swimmers should use smaller paddles, preferably with holes in them. Try eliminating the wrist strap of the paddle and use a single strap or tubing around your middle finger. Focus on keeping water pressure on the paddle. If you drop your elbow, the paddle tends to slide off your hand.
  6. Whether you are from the American South or not, the A-OK and the Hook ’em Horns drills can effectively teach you to recognize flow and to angle your hands efficiently for good stroke patterns. To begin, swim freestyle with your fingers in the A-OK position, pressing together the tips of your thumb and forefinger to form a tunnel to channel the water flow as your hand changes direction in the stroke. If you drop your elbow during the pull, the water will not flow through the tunnel. To form the Hook ’em Horns hand position, hold your middle and ring fingers against your palm at the base of your thumb and point your forefinger and pinky finger up to signify horns. Begin the freestyle with this hand position, pointing the horn fingers toward the bottom of the pool during the pull.”

Triathlon Training Plan

Here’s what a lot of you are looking for, a basis from which you can build your own triathlon training plan. You probably have questions like; How long do I base train?, At what point do I start to taper before a race?, When should I add speed work? You’ll find many answers in Triathlon 101-2nd Edition, reprinted here by permission of Human Kenetics.

“Setting up your triathlon training calendar and log can be the two most important actions you take, perhaps more important than any swim intervals, long rides, or morning runs you do.

Your Triathlon Training Calendar
Your training calendar can be a preprinted calendar, a poster board, an appointment book, or a calendar software program that prints out customized monthly grids. Just make sure that you have enough room to write down your daily workouts. Your training calendar should also be on paper, as opposed to just on a computer screen. Although a software program is great for creating customized calendars, make sure it can print out monthly grids. You want your training calendar to be within plain sight, not hidden away somewhere on a computer hard drive. Dedicate a space for your calendar—someplace that you know you’ll see every day. Once you’ve chosen your calendar and picked a place to put it, it’s time to make the commitment and put pen to calendar (scary, huh?).

Work Your Way Back From Race Day
First, write your race goal on your training calendar. How much time does that give you to train properly? Again, take into account your current fitness level and skills. If you need to reassess your race goal and set your target on something more realistic, now is the time to do it.

Divide Your Calendar Into Phases
Although part II covers training in much more detail, you’ll need to know a little bit about what experts consider to be the optimal way to train. Training in phases or cycles has long been considered the best way to condition the body to the rigors of endurance exercise. Each phase has a specific objective, and the workouts fulfill that objective.

Coaches and fitness experts don’t always agree on the exact number of phases and objectives (largely because training differs among sports and elite athletes require more complex training plans). However, if you are a multisport novice or future triathlete looking for your first finish-line crossing, you should integrate some basic phases into your training calendar. Following is a brief description of each of these phases.

If you think you have a good handle on how much time you need to devote to each phase after reading this section, plan your training calendar accordingly. If you’re super organized, you might even want to use color highlighters to block off phases, using a different color for each one. Don’t worry about writing down specific workouts; that comes later. For now, just get familiar with the phases, objectives, and estimated time frames.

Initiation Phase (Beginners Only)
Objective: Learn a new activity never or rarely performed before.
Estimated time: Depends on level of inexperience. If you are learning to swim the front crawl, this phase can take three months or more.

Base Phase
Objective: Create a foundation of training with gradual, safe adaptation to a physical activity.
Estimated time: Three to six months, depending on current conditioning, skills, and the distance for which you are training.

Speed and Technique Phase
Objective: Increase both the pace you can maintain and the efficiency of your exercise.
Estimated time: Three weeks to several months, depending on current conditioning and performance goals.

Race Simulation Phase
Objective: Boost race day confidence by completing workouts similar to what you will be doing in the event.
Estimated time: One to two months, depending on current conditioning and race goals.

Tapering Phase
Objective: Feel mentally and physically fresh for a race.
Estimated time: One to four weeks before your event, depending on the distance. Sprint-distance races usually only require a week of tapering.

Your Training Log
When you think of a journal or log, the first thought that might occur is sentimentality about the past. Part of the value of keeping such records is to remind you of your accomplishments, but keeping a record of your triathlon training and racing has more practical applications as well.

Training logs can help you avoid injuries and improve your performance. Maintaining an accurate log of your daily and weekly workouts is one of the best ways to keep on track. A log that chronicles the variables that affect your energy level and performance can help you achieve your triathlon goal.

You can purchase preprinted training logs. Some have motivating quotes and pictures and space for many variables. If you’re a computer geek, several workout log programs are available.

There’s no one way to keep a training log. Whatever you think are the most applicable variables are fine. Consider these variables for your own log:

• Hours slept. Current research suggests moderate sleep deprivation has little effect on performance during the adrenaline high of competition. Still, that ragged feeling during a three mile training jog might be the result of too little snooze time.

• Waking pulse. Record your beats per minute when you awake, preferably while you’re still in bed. An increase of more than three or four beats can signal overtraining.

• Distances and times. Tracking correct distances and workout times can keep you honest. It is also your most reliable measuring stick to check your progress.

• Time of day. Studies show that our energy levels fluctuate during the day. As long as all other variables remain the same, you can pinpoint your peak time of day for a workout.

• Intensity. Use descriptive terms or a scale of 1 to 10 (1 is very easy and 10 is extremely difficult). Monitoring intensity levels is a key in avoiding too many back-to-back killer workouts (or in avoiding that crippling disease couchus potatoeus).

• Feelings. Though many things can affect your mood, a change in mood is sometimes a precursor to sickness and an indication of overtraining. For example, irritability can be an early sign that you’re pushing yourself too hard.

• Injury flags. Pay close attention to any unusual pain, especially around the joints where most injuries occur. Note any such aches and pains in your log.

• Weight. Get on the scale in the morning, after you’ve relieved yourself. A 3 percent or more loss of body weight might mean you’ve lost too much fluid. Take an easy day or, better yet, a day off.

• Weather. If you are easily affected by heat, cold, humidity, or other weather variables, keep track of these conditions.

• Notes. Perhaps the best part about keeping a training log is flipping back to read about that special swim, ride, run, or race.”

Five training phases for triathlon success

It’s not often I can do this but the following is an excerpt from an upcoming book (currently only available as a pre-order), Triathlon 101 (Human Kinetics, due out March, 2009). In this updated edition reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics, Triathlon 101, you’ll learn the five training phases for triathlon success.

“Training in phases, or cycles, has long been considered the best way to condition the body to the rigors of endurance exercise safely and effectively,” says Mora. “Each phase has a very specific High-Tech Cycling book coverobjective, and the workouts are thoughtfully designed to fulfill that objective.” Mora suggests beginners approach training in five phases:

Initiation phase.
Specifically for beginners, the initiation phase allows the body to learn a new activity never or rarely performed before. Depending on the level of experience, this phase could take up to three months. “This phase may try your patience because you’ll be learning at least one activity that you’ve never attempted before,” Mora notes. “It is a time for your body to adapt gradually to new activity and to overcome the inevitable discomforts that go with triathlon training.”

Base phase.
This phase creates a foundation of training with gradual, safe adaptation to a physical activity and consists mainly of long workouts done at a slow pace. According to Mora, the focus of this phase should be on gradual increases of the length of workouts of no more than 10 percent per week, a rule that is especially crucial for running and helps in avoiding common overtraining injuries. This phase can last from three to six months, depending on current conditioning, skills, and the distance being trained for.

Speed and technique phase.
This phase increases the pace you can maintain and the efficiency of your exercise. According to Mora, the speed and technique phase is for those who have already run a few races and would like to hone their skills. However, for those running a triathlon for the first time, Mora recommends dismissing any expectations of finishing in a certain time and instead focusing on simply finishing the race.

Race simulation phase.
This phase helps boost race-day confidence through completing workouts similar to those done on the day of the event. According to Mora, many first-time triathletes have questions about transitioning from one sport to the other and the transition’s effects on the body. Race training improves performance on race day and provides the confidence needed for race day. “Workouts known as bricks combine two sports in a single session and are instrumental to any racing success,” Mora explains. “If you complete workouts that simulate what you will be experiencing during a race, the shroud of mystery surrounding your upcoming first triathlon will soon begin to evaporate.”

Tapering phase.
Tapering involves a period of decreased activity in the days or weeks before an athletic event. According to Mora, tapering allows the body ample time to recover from the previous months of training and refresh the muscles in order to be primed for racing. “Although there is much debate about the ‘perfect’ tapering schedule, it really depends on how fast your body recovers from training, how long you’ve been training, and what you are training for,” Mora says. “And although there may be some disagreement about how to taper, experts do concur that you need to taper in order to perform your best.”

“Hailed as a must-read for triathlon rookies, Triathlon 101 covers all the steps necessary for triathlon training. The updated edition also offers new chapters on what to expect on race day, information on off-road triathlons, and information on recovering to compete again

Swim-Golf is a great way to focus on stroke technique

When you are drilling, and you should add some drills to most every swim workout, swim-golf is a great way to track your progress. Essentially what you do is combine your stroke count per 25 or 50 y/m with the time it took to complete. It is a proxy measurement for technique efficiency and you should try to bring that number down over time.

Here’s a great excerpt from excerpt from Swimming Fastest by Ernest Maglischo reprinted with permission.

Swimming Fastest by Ernest Maglischo“One of the most common drills for increasing stroke lengths is to count strokes for one pool length and repeat the drill while attempting to cover the distance with fewer strokes. All of this is done at a slow speed. This is a good drill for young and inexperienced age-group swimmers. The efficiency of their strokes and their performances will improve when they attempt to cover each pool length with fewer strokes, regardless of the speed of their swims.

Although a drill like the one just described is excellent for inexperienced swimmers, it has limited value once athletes can swim with good coordination and reasonable efficiency. At that point, swimming speeds and stroke rates must be included in drills designed to increase stroke length. Because the relationship between the combination of stroke rate and stroke length that will produce the most efficient swimming velocity will be different for each race distance and for each swimmer, all three elements should be included in drills to improve stroke lengths. Following are some drills that include all three elements.

This drill is so named because it involves swimming and is scored like golf. The value of the drill is that it allows each swimmer to discover the best way to improve the relationship between stroke length and stroke rate to achieve a particular swimming velocity, whether through increasing stroke length, increasing stroke rate, or using some combination of the two. The drill is performed in the following manner. The athletes swim a particular repeat distance, 25 or 50 yd or m, while counting their strokes. Their times are noted, and the two measures, number of strokes and their time for the swim, are combined for a score. For example, a time of 30.00 for 50 m with a stroke count of 40 would produce a score of 70.

Once they have established a base score, swimmers can use any one of several variations of the game to improve the relationship between their stroke rates and stroke lengths. The goal is to reduce the score by (1) swimming faster with fewer strokes, (2) swimming faster with little or no increase in the number of strokes taken, or (3) swimming the same time or nearly so with fewer strokes. If the swimmer in the previous example were to swim 29.00 with the same stroke count, the score would be an improved 69. This swimmer’s stroke rate has undoubtedly increased with little or no loss of stroke length, which accounts for the improved time. Similarly, the same time of 30.00 coupled with a reduced stroke count of 38 would produce an improved score of 68. In that case, the swimmer’s stroke length will have improved and the stroke rate will have decreased with no detrimental effect on swimming speed.

The results will be more difficult to evaluate when lower scores result from faster times that are coupled with a greater number of strokes. This is generally a desirable effect because the lower score results from time reductions that are proportionally greater than the amount by which stroke lengths have declined. This effect can certainly be considered beneficial for improving sprint speed. Increases of stroke rates and the reduction of stroke lengths may not be advantageous for longer sprints, middle distance races, and distance events if the perceived effort that produced lower scores is beyond that which swimmers feel they could sustain over their race distance.

The kick-in drill works best for increasing stroke length. To perform it, athletes swim a series of 50 or 100 repeats while counting the number of stroke cycles required to complete each repeat. Before starting, each swimmer should be assigned the maximum number of cycles they are permitted to use for the repeat distance in the allotted time. That number should be one or two cycles fewer than they generally need to complete that distance. The goal, then, is to complete the repeats with fewer strokes. If they do not finish the repeat when they have completed their assigned number of stroke cycles, they must kick the remaining distance to the finish. The send-off time for the repeats should be set so it is challenging but manageable if the swimmers can complete the repeats without kicking in. The time goal will motivate swimmers to try to reduce their strokes without sacrificing swimming speed. This drill puts a premium on increasing stroke length and doing so without increasing the energy cost of the swim.

This drill can help sprinters increase their stroke lengths while swimming at race speed. The drill can be done in a number of ways. With one method, swimmers sprint 25 yd or m at maximum speed while trying to reduce their stroke count. This method puts a premium on swimming fast with a longer stroke length. Another method is to try to swim each repeat faster without increasing the stroke count. This encourages them to increase their stroke rates without shortening their stroke lengths. The distance that swimmers cover with a push-off can become a confounding variable with both drills. Therefore, swimmers should try to keep that distance similar from swim to swim. The influence of the push-off for different distances can be eliminated from this drill by counting only the number of strokes required to get from one set of flags to the next.

Still another method for increasing stroke length at sprint speed is for the athletes to swim only a specified number of stroke cycles while trying to cover more distance with each swim. For example, the coach can measure the distance a swimmer can cover with two or three stroke cycles, and then the swimmer can try to increase that distance. This distance should be measured in the middle of the pool to remove the influence of the push-off.”

Dave Scott stretching video

Dave Scott, who is a six time IronMan World Champion, and show some of his favorite stretches in this video. They include stretches for your glutes, hip flexor, piriformis, hamstring, quad and shoulder girdle.

Enjoy and remember to check out the resources page with other great videos. Our online store offer terrific videos as well.

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

Core training for triathlon: Part 1

In the last 3 years in particular, I have been working on my core strength and stretching. It helped my back problems, rehab after back surgery, swimming and stability. The core is the connector between your upper and lower body and should be thought of as a vital link for triathlon.

When you run, you swing your arms to counter to your leg movement. In the middle is the core. If you get out of your saddle while cycling, your hands grasp the handlebars while feet are in the pedals. The middle link is the core. The link between your stroke and your kick while swimming is your core.

As I increased my core strength, I noticed simple functional things in daily life also got easier like bending over, getting up and good posture. These make so much more of a difference now than when I was 18 years old.

Hopefully, you can see that core strength can be important to daily life as well as triathlon.

I used little else besides a physio ball,my body weight and the occasional medicine ball. There are a number of books available but from the ones I have read, I recommend these two:

1: Complete Book of Core Training
2: The Core Performance

“The Core Performance” has many exercises I do and it has training regimens for several different levels of athletes. I view the “Complete Book of Core Training” as successfully trying to be just that. It has many many pages of different core exercises with different variations to try.

Don’t forget to check out the short videos on Resources/Core page as well.