I didn't go in with the mindset of making that much of a difference from my 2015 season to 2016, but it happened and I want to share with you how I made that jump. In 2015 I was consistently swimming 31-32 minutes for a 70.3 and at my last race of 2016, Ironman Canada 70.3, I swam a 27:38. First, before I go into detail about what I did, remember this is just what worked for me and everyone is different. Swimming is such a unique sport in that it can be hugely technique driven and big improvements can be made without even improving fitness.
My swim background
In short, there is none. I had literally never swam a lap in my life until I decided to try triathlon a few years ago. That is why I feel I offer a relatable perspective to a lot of other triathletes that didn't start as a kid and don't understand why they can't get faster in the water. Trying to talk with someone who grew up swimming is demoralizing and can make you feel like you have no chance to become a fast swimmer. They honestly just have no idea what it is like to start the sport as an adult. But don't worry, you can learn to swim fast as an adult too!
Before we get into the specifics, here is the swim gear I use in my training to improve my technique, strength, and speed...
I find swimming to be a lot like learning a language. There's a lot of thought that kids are better at learning languages than adults, but it actually isn't true. Adults have much more capacity and brainpower to learn a language, the issue is that they go about it in the wrong way. When you were a kid, you didn't open textbooks and start memorizing words and grammar structure to start speaking, you just listened and jumped right in to trying it without caring about anyone else's judgement. Adults get bogged down in the details instead of just jumping in and going for it. I have learned more Spanish in a couple months by speaking with native speakers and just going for it than I did with 3 years of classes in school studying it out of textbooks.
So how does this relate to swimming?
Instead of obsessively getting into every detail of the perfect swim stroke, analyzing it to death, and doing drills you're not even sure what the purpose is, just get in the pool with good swimmers and mimic them. This is my biggest piece of advice: Constantly swim with fast people and stay on their feet day after day. It will feel like death at first, but eventually your body will figure out a way to make the pace work. This is what I did, day after day, week after week, month after month. I showed up to swim groups where I was the slowest one there and just tried to hang onto feet. I didn't even work on my technique very much to cut my time down, I just swam with swimmers. This is just my personal experience, but I truly don't think I could have become much better at swimming by doing it on my own. Having other people around you that are good swimmers makes all the difference.
Technique is still hugely important
I don't want anyone to think by reading above, that I don't think technique is important, because it is. We just get too bogged down in it. I basically did 3 things to improve my technique a lot in just a couple months and I will pass them along to you here.
This book was a game changer for me. I never really knew how to think about swimming until I read this. If you haven't been around swimming your whole life, or even if you have, this book will teach you a ton about how to be effective in the water. I can't recommend it enough. What helped me so much is being able to have specific things to think about when I was in the water. When I can actually think of the three phases of the pull section of the stroke and how my hand should be when it enters the water while I'm swimming, it gives me a focus for the whole practice on making an aspect of my stroke better. Read this book, you won't regret it!
2) Film yourself
This is something I plan on doing a lot more this year. The awesome thing about filming yourself in the pool is that you can visually see something going weird in your stroke. For me, it always felt like I put my both hands in the water in about the same spot relative to my head, but after filming myself, I could see that by breathing to the left, my right hand was going way out wide to balance myself because I was moving my head too much. This made my stroke look terrible and you don't need to be a swim expert to look at that and know that if I fixed my hand position and head position, it would make my stroke way more efficient.
There are a couple methods I have found best to film yourself in the pool. It's definitely helpful to have someone there with you but I did it on my own plenty of times so it can be done.
Then I would just leave it filming and swim my warmup or part of my set, put it back in my bag, upload it to the computer and cut out all of the fill in time, and then you have a bunch of footage of your stroke. Doesn't take a lot of effort and makes a big difference!
Another method that also happens to be a lot more affordable if you don't already own a GoPro is to use a LifeProof case on your phone or iPad and have someone film you. I've never done this method on my own, but I'm sure you could set your phone or iPad up at the bottom of the pool and get some good filming. If you go this route, I strongly recommend downloading the app, Coach's Eye, which is a $5 app on the apple app store that allows you to completely analyze the footage taken and easily scroll back and forth in slow motion to see every detail of your stroke.
3) Have people watch you
If you follow my advice from earlier then you'll be swimming with other people. Have them watch you swim! Most people will not mind a couple minutes of looking at you swim and offering some pointers. If you go to a masters class, have the coach look at your stroke during the warmup or cool down and ask for some pointers. Even just the smallest things like, your head is too high or you are dropping your elbow can create mental notes to bring to focus while you are swimming. Most people are happy to help and their advice can go a long way!
Set a minimum distance
This piece of advice helped me a lot when I was first starting to really swim. To get good at swimming, just like anything, you need to swim a lot! When I was first trying to get better, I thought a 2k swim was a ton and most of my swims would be roughly 1500-2k. Some of my swimmer friends told me to set a minimum distance that I was going to swim when I got in the water no matter what. I started with 3k and made every single swim at least that. Now, the majority of my swims are anywhere from 3.5k-5k. It's just like anything in that you build a tolerance to the load and the new distances you push will start to feel like the norm. Once again, swimming with a group alleviates this issue of not getting the distance in as long as the group is swimming long and hard enough.
So there you have it...
This is what worked for me in making big jumps in my swimming and as I said earlier, everyone is different, but a lot of this advice can be applicable to people at all different levels. I am still learning a ton about this sport as I'm still relatively new to it and have a long way to progress if I want to hit my goals in triathlon. As I continue to learn more I will continue to share more on here. If you enjoyed the post, check out some of my others!
Jake is a triathlete and coach with a passion for travel and everything triathlon. He loves sharing his knowledge and experiences with others.
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