For those of us who did not grow up with gills, swimming fast can be a difficult skill to acquire. A great aerobic engine is important, but without great technique in the water you’re not going to move forward quickly. To become a faster swimmer in time for the upcoming triathlon season, now is a great time to focus on both strength and stroke technique. There are many tools and drills that can be used, and paddles and fins can be very effective for triathletes who are short on time.
When you’re looking to make changes and improvements to your swimming stroke, focus on technique first and strength second. The goal is always to do it right, and then do it powerfully. As a result, the winter is a great time to work on your stroke because there’s less pressure to maintain specific yardage goals or split times when your competitions are still months away. But developing a technically sound and physically strong stroke now will translate into greater speed once your race-specific training begins in earnest.
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Start with Technique
“High elbows” has always been a mantra within swim training, but it’s something athletes need to feel before they fully grasp the benefit of keeping their elbows high throughout their swim stroke. Swimming with paddles accentuates this benefit, and exposes the weakness of entering the water with your hand at too shallow an angle. Similarly, paddles demonstrate—beyond all reasonable doubt—that you benefit from keeping your fingers together. When swimming with paddles, focus on the entire pull. Avoid crossing over the midline of your body at the start of your pull, as you will lose some of the power from your stroke. Think of your hand as an anchor point and your body moves over your hand throughout the stroke.
When it comes to fins, an important benefit comes from settling down a swimmer’s kick. This is especially true for athletes who are not expert swimmers already, because there’s a tendency for more novices to thrash at the water instead of kicking with purpose and in an effective rhythm with their stroke. Since fins increase the amount of water you push with each kick, you can focus on the synchronization of your arms and legs with less pressure to maintain a high turnover. Fins also helps athletes feel the difference between kicking from the hips compared to kicking from the knees.
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Here is a sequence you can incorporate into a swim warm-up to work on technique before completing an endurance-focused main set.
1. 4×25 kick with fins: Kick on your stomach with your arms out in front. Focus on your body position in the water (head down facing the bottom of the pool, hips at the surface of the water).
2. 4×25 Six kick switch with fins: Six kicks on your left arm, six kicks on your right arm.
3. 6×25 pull with paddle: Focus on high elbows throughout the pull.
Progress to Strength
Once you have the technique down, paddles can help develop the upper body strength needed to generate an effective pull for high-speed swimming. However, you should not get into the water and swim as you normally would when utilizing paddles. The increased surface area of the paddle means increased resistance, which places a greater workload on all the muscles used to power your swim stroke. Think of swimming with paddles as a strength-training workout: You do not strength train every day, and you should not swim with paddles everyday, either. And if you have elbow or shoulder problems, use caution and consult your physician or physical therapist before integrating paddles into your swim training.
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Fins serve a similar purpose for the legs. They can increase the strength and power of your kick by increasing swimming-specific workload on the legs, specifically, hip flexor, glute, hamstring and quadriceps strength. Fins can also improve ankle mobility and range of motion, which increases the effectiveness of your kick by helping your feet sweep a wider arc through the water. In addition, fins serve as a great tool for enabling triathletes to train at their goal race pace before they have the conditioning to go that fast. Why is that important? Because you want to learn what race pace feels like in the water, as well as what the timing of your stroke and breathing will be at that pace.
The workout below is great to include once a week during this time of year. Rather than just incorporating fins and paddles into drill work, this session utilizes these tools to produce the overload necessary to drive the adaptations you’re looking for. For each interval, aim for a rating of perceived exertion (RPE) of five or six out of 10. With the assistance of the paddles and/or fins, your pace is likely to be close to race pace at this level of exertion. During the sets without fins and paddles, try to mimic the long strokes and powerful arm pull achieved by swimming with these important training tools.
Warm-up: 500 swim
8×50 kick with fins (on your front, arms out in front of you, keep your head facing down toward the bottom of the pool)
6×100 swim with fins
6×50 swim without fins
6×100 pull with pull buoy and paddles
6×50 swim without pull buoy and paddles
Cool-down: 200 easy swimming
Rebecca Kurtz co-wrote this article. She is an expert coach with Carmichael Training Systems who finished third in her age group at the 2009 5430 Long-Course Triathlon. Chris Carmichael is the author of “The Time-Crunched Triathlete” and founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the official coaching and camps partner of Ironman. Visit Trainright.com.
This article was originally published in the February 2011 issue of Triathlete Magazine.