Unlike cycling and running, where pure mileage can bring with it power and speed (to a certain degree), swimming is largely a technique-based sport. “Triathletes tend to equate progress with workload,” says Brett Rose, a former pro triathlete and managing partner of SwimLabs Swim School in Orange County, Calif. I’ve seen more triathletes than I can count swimming 3,000-yards in the pool or the ocean five times a week and expecting that’s going to make them fast. They couldn’t be more wrong. They might get slightly better at swimming, but without proper technique and skill, most of that mileage is just pure junk that’s more likely to blow out their shoulder than get them to T2 any faster.
Even those of us with swim team backgrounds can fall into some pretty bad habits with regular Masters swim workouts. Coached workouts are always going to be aerobically challenging, but I venture to guess that most Masters coaches aren’t going to stop a practice mid-set to make everyone scull for a few hundreds so they can better understand the feel of the water. That’s just not how most of the workouts are set up. They are set up to give you a hard workout, and for most triathletes that means a purely freestyle workout as well. Putting in the time either in a workshop, a one-on-one stroke analysis or even on your own to practice proper form is hard. It’s hard because you have to slow down and pay attention to every little detail (and many of them simultaneously) in a way you don’t have to in cycling and running. The payoffs can be substantial though.
Now that we’re heading into the off-season in North America, it’s a perfect time to work on your swimming technique. If you’ve got some cash or are looking for a good holiday present to give or receive, a video swim analysis or one-on-one swim technique session with a Masters coach are great options. Many Masters coaches will, often for a reasonable price, set aside an hour with you to go over some of your stroke deficiencies, as well as give you some useful drills for you to perform on your own. Sometimes a simple Smartphone video of your stroke (while often hard to watch), can give you valuable insight into what you need to improve upon.
I recently had a one-on-one video swim analysis at SwimLabs Swim School in Encinitas, Calif., and found the entire experience incredibly useful. SwimLabs Swim School also has facilities in Denver, Orange County and Virginia. I’m a moderately serious Masters swimmer with a competitive swim background, when in reality just means I thought I knew what I was doing in the water despite having developed a multitude of bad habits. I’ve been working on correcting them (crossover entry on the left side, slightly steep entry on the right side coupled with late breathing on either side) for the past couple of months. However, despite some quick drills given to me by my Masters coach, I really didn’t understand what needed to be done differently because I couldn’t see myself doing the drill. It was frustrating to say the least. And, worst than that, my left shoulder was beginning to talk to me as well.
One of the benefits with video swim analysis is that you can change your stroke and see what you’re doing wrong in real time. The SwimLabs facility in Encinitas has four Endless Pools, equipped with multiple cameras under and outside of the water, as well as a mirror on the side and underneath you. First, SwimLabs manager and instructor Mason Bailey had me do an easy warm up in the water, which he filmed to get an initial assessment of my freestyle stroke. Then, he broke it down for me piece by piece. We worked through a series of drills to help correct my left arm, as well as worked on my overall high-elbow catch.
It’s hard to see yourself swimming at first, but it’s also unbelievably helpful. Before each drill, Bailey would show me a video of a professional swimmer doing the drill or the stroke correctly, so I could see exactly what I needed to strive for. If you’re a visual learner, having the mirror underneath you is fantastic. I could judge precisely where each arm should be landing in the water, which I’ve since been able to emulate on my own in the water.
At the end of the session, Bailey made a CD of my swim analysis that contained detailed notes and examples of drills I should be doing to get my muscle memory working in the correct way. Bailey said roughly 20 percent of his current clientele in Encinitas are triathletes, however Rose’s percentage up in Orange County was much higher. The most common form issue they see with triathletes is the “sinking butt” in the water. “That’s mostly because a lot of triathletes depend too much on their wetsuits to keep them buoyant,” says Rose. “It’s hard to learn how to keep your balance in the water and learn how to use your hips and core instead of just muscling through the stroke, but that’s what will make you a faster swimmer,” says Bailey.
The biggest takeaway I got from my analysis is Rose’s favorite adage: “You’ve got to slow down to swim fast.” It’s very true, and I think that’s also why it’s difficult to get any beneficial stroke work in Masters. Let’s be honest, we’re triathletes and we’re competitive. It’s impossible to convince yourself it’s time to slow down and do some drills or go on a slower interval when you’re trying to keep up with your lane mates.
While one hour-and-a-half long session was very beneficial for me, that was still barely enough time to go over freestyle, and only the front quadrant of my stroke needed changing. Bailey and Rose said they recommend purchasing a four-pack of sessions about two months out from a race, and then coming once every two weeks. “Any more than that and it’s really overkill, since you’re going to be given a lot to work on, and you have to allow time for your muscle memory to start working,” says Bailey. However, Bailey is currently working with some clients who are cramming in time with him before long races like Ironman Arizona, and they are still seeing results.
The keys to improving your swim stroke are patience and the willingness to slow down and learn technique, and a video analysis or one-on-one swim workshop is a great jump start to any swim program, regardless of your current swimming ability.