Sunday, July 14, 2013

My recipe to swim faster

Swimming never really came naturally to me. I grew up running around the soccer field, not cranking out laps at the local pool. Since the age of four all the way through my sophomore year of college, my goals were always around building soccer-specific skill, strength, and fitness.

That's not to say I didn't know how to swim growing up. I took swim lessons when I was young. I could hold my breath underwater for a pretty long time. I even spent a summer life-guarding at my neighborhood pool, which of course required me to pass a swim test.

My first few years of running were a natural extension of my years of soccer. It was what I knew best - running, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that transitioning to triathlon from running has taken a lot of work, particularly on the technical side. And of the three disciplines, none is more technical than swimming.

What I’ve found over the past few years after getting back into swimming is that, above all, technique matters! You can be the strongest guy or gal lining up at the swim start (or on the start blocks), but if you produce a ton of drag, you don’t stand a chance at swimming fast or economically.

Since taking up triathlon a few years ago, I've managed to cut my 100 meter time in the pool by about 45 seconds. Compared to last year, I improved my swim time at the Philly triathlon by 8 minutes - that's a little more than 30 seconds every 100 meters.

Here's my 3-F recipe that made it happen:

1. Frequency - I've talked about this before in previous posts, but for a novice swimmer it's all about developing a feel for the water. The solution isn't really rocket science - swim more often. I shortened my swim workouts, but increased their frequency to about five times per week. This approach is all about quality over quantity. It doesn't make much sense to develop endurance in the pool and do these massive sets if your stroke is inefficient. You're simply perpetuating bad habits. That leads me to my next point.

2. Form - This means drills, drills, and more drills. Improving technique helps efficiency, particularly to reduce drag (so you're expending less energy). This is a big part of swimming faster! For me, at least one workout per week is exclusively for drills, and I often incorporate drills into as many as three or four workouts each week. During the past winter I basically did a six week block where I more or less did nothing but drills in the pool. One of my favorites (which I continue to incorporate regularly into my sessions) is a drill called Unco - short for uncoordinated. The drill helps improve rhythm and timing of your stroke.

Here's a quick breakdown, but check out the fantastic site Swim Smooth for more detail. While using fins (unless you have a really good kick) perform a full stroke with one arm, breathe to the opposite side, and keep the opposite arm at your side -- essentially a one arm stroke. For example if you start with your right arm, you'd breathe to the left side. Do the drill for 25 meters or yards and then switch sides.

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3.  Flexibility -Strong ankles help stabilize during your foot strike while running. Unfortunately, this doesn't really help you in the pool. Strong ankles are often inflexible ankles; and inflexible ankles produce a lot of drag. Take a look at the picture (again from Swim Smooth). With inflexible ankles, your toes essentially point straight down towards the bottom of the pool, resulting in water being pushed in the wrong direction. This obviously slows you down.

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Two easy things I've done to increase flexibility in my ankles: 1) use fins, especially during kicking drills; and 2) ankle stretches. Stretching out the ankles is pretty easy. Here's a quick stretch I've tried to do on almost a daily basis.

My final point is about consistency. These are things I've incorporated over months and improvement will take some time. But invest the time and you'll be a better, more efficient swimmer.

Happy training.

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