When I tell people that I am going to be competing in a sprint triathlon, most people say that the part that would scare them the most is the swim. It is commonly mentioned that the swim leg is the most difficult for most triathletes, mostly because it is so entirely different than biking and running and also because many people don’t even know proper freestyle form. The majority of the population’s swim experience involves playing Marco Polo in your neighbor’s pool or working up the courage to do a back dive off the community center’s diving board. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the American Red Cross, two in ten people that plan to swim, boat or fish this summer don’t even know how to swim!
Lucky for me, I swam on the swim team in high school, so I have been fairly confident in my ability to complete the 1/4 mile (about 400 meters) swim that is required in the Solana Beach Triathlon. This past Sunday I decided to get back in the water at my local gym and do some laps. After a couple laps, I was surprised at how winded I was. However, I was able to stay in the pool for about 40 minutes, swimming back and forth, mostly freestyle.
Refreshing My Technique with the TriClub
In order to ensure that I’m as prepared as possible for the race, I signed up for the San Diego Tri Club, which puts on various events each week that support swimmers, bikers and runners (literally there are 15 events a week it seems ranging from open water swims, a pool swim, group rides, beginner riding clinics, track workouts, etc). Each Monday and Wednesday, the group meets at the local JCC pool for a group swim. I put together a weekly routine for myself to ensure that I can get all my P90X workouts in as well as at least one long run, one short run, one bike and one swim per week. I decided to make Wednesday nights my group swim night.
This Wednesday I arrived a little early and was glad that my friends Asia and Jeremy were also going to be participating (they are doing the triathlon as well). The swim is split into two groups: Masters and Technique. The Masters lanes, which take up the majority of the Olympic distance pool (50 meters long – my high school pool was 25 meters), is for swimmers that want a drill-oriented workout. They pretty much swam the entire time. Our group, the technique group, was about 60% instruction, 40% swimming. The instructor, who was very frank and not very sweet, walked us through different elements of swim form, from the way you should kick your feet to the way you should breathe. It was definitely informative and useful, but I was absolutely freezing! Being in the water at 7:30 p.m. on a cold June night (ok it was in the low 60s but that’s cold to me), isn’t my idea of a fun way to spend the night. Although I was thankful to have learned proper technique, I was ready to get moving! We started with a 200 meter warm-up but the most we swam at one time after that was 100 meters. Many times we would just swim the 50 meters to the one end and listen to another technique talk and then swim 50 meters back.
Overall, I feel that I picked right back up with my form, just like how you can still ride a bike even if you haven’t taken a spin around the block in years. I am going to have Mike take a look at my form while I swim, but I think that everything she was telling us to do I was already doing. The most useful part was that it got me to think about my form and really concentrate on pushing my arms out as far as possible so that I could move as much water as possible. I also felt that it was useful to go over hip rotation and breathing.
Beginner Swim Technique Pointers
All of this technique talk got me to researching on proper form. Here are some tips that I picked up in my online research:
- Focus your eyes on the bottom of the pool while swimming – don’t look up toward the wall or buoy or down toward the ground.
- When reaching forward to perform a stroke, your body should pivot in the direction of the arm that is reaching forward.
- When making a stroke with your arms, your fingers should be together so they can displace more water. Your hands should make an ‘S’ motion underneath your body, first coming in towards your abdomen, then quickly changing direction and pushing the water out and behind you.
- The main goal of the flutter kick is to keep the legs elevated so that they are inline with the rest of the body. Kick ffom your glutes, not from your calves/lower leg.
- Exhale while your face is underwater. When you turn your head to breathe, you’ll only have a second to inhale. You do not have time to exhale completely and inhale while your mouth is clear of the water.
- Rotate your head until your mouth just clears the water, and inhale sharply. Do not lift your head. The passage of your head and body through the water forms a bow wave as you swim. A pocket, or trough, then forms behind the bow wave, so the water level beside your head is lower than the surrounding water. If you keep your head properly positioned, your mouth will be in the trough, making it easy to breathe.
Benefits of Swimming
Although swimming may be the most daunting aspect of a triathlon, there are several benefits to swimming over other arobic exercises. First and foremost, it is a great way to get your heart rate up without the high impact pounding of running. Swimming is gentle on your body while working your heart and lungs. Also, it’s a great calorie burner. According to my favorite calorie calculator (here), a 150 pound woman would burn 414 calories swimming at a moderate pace for an hour and 666 calories swimming at a vigorous pace. Swimming is also a more relaxing sport and has been shown to relieve stress.
Although I thought I left my swimming career behind 10 years ago in high school, I’m excited to have swimming back in my life. I am looking forward to improving my technique, endurance and pace over the next several months. Stay tuned for plenty more swim adventures (including a beginner’s practice triathlon with a 300 meter swim in the bay and a open water swimming lesson from the TriClub).