Why you’re not a Faster Swimmer
Of the four legs of triathlon (yes, transitions count too), swimming is arguably the most technical. And, not surprisingly, it’s the leg that many athletes struggle with the most. I believe there’d be general agreement that the “easiest” way to become a great swimmer is to start when you’re young, have great coaches who help you hone excellent technique, and then put in lots of yards under watchful eyes through high school and eventually college. I’ll bet that any triathlete who followed this simple plan is one who leads the pack into T1 today.
That’s nice for the few, but what’s the right path for everyone else? I am absolutely certain that the right path is not what most people take. I see so many triathletes, in their quest to become faster swimmers, make every mistake they can make, all the while, believing that they’re doing what’s required to become faster. They are on a long, inevitable march toward disappointment (and slow swim splits).
If you have been frustrated by your improvement in the water, the key to getting on the right track is multifaceted. It is probably obvious that making technical corrections to your position and stroke is key, something that’s difficult to do on your own. Nothing beats having an experienced coach providing individualized and immediate feedback and using tools such as video to provide detailed analysis. That’s not a realistic plan for most folks on a daily basis, but having these resources is the absolute key to improvement so work them into your training, even if only occasionally.
Many of us use to-do lists in our daily lives, but how many have a stop-doing list? Stop-doing lists are just as critical as to-do lists for success (in life and in swimming). Here are my recommendations for your swimming stop-doing list.
1. Stop doing what you’ve been doing! If you’re happy with the way you swim now, you should ignore this advice. But if you want to get faster and haven’t been able to do so up to this point, what makes you think that doing more of what you’ve been doing will work? Before you read the next item, pause for a moment and think about this. Really think about your commitment to improvement. If you aren’t willing to adhere to this piece of advice, there’s no need to read further.
2. Stop caring what other people think! Here’s some important feedback for you as you slip into the pool for training on your own: none of those strangers at the pool is watching you, nor do they care about how fast or slow you are. What if you swim in a masters or group workout environment? Your lane-mates are working on their own strokes and if they’re paying attention to anyone, it’s the fast folks over in lane 1. Give up your silly pride. Drop a lane so that you can focus on your stroke and not just on keeping up. Ask your coach “dumb” questions. Ask for specific help. Give yourself permission to go slowly as you learn to go faster.
3. Stop swimming 3-4 times a week and striving for big yardage! The single most frustrating question I hear from athletes when coaching group swim workouts is, “how many yards was that?” I always reply (sometimes even out loud), “Why is this important?” It’s not. As you learn the correct technique, it takes a lot of effort and energy to make changes, especially at first. It can be physically and mentally exhausting. You might only be able to hold the correct technique for a relatively short period of time. So you may be able to train correctly for 1,000 yards but then your stroke breaks down and reverts to the old way. Why would you keep swimming at that point? In a 3,000 yard workout, you just swam a 2:1 ratio of incorrect to correct, you just heavily reinforced the wrong technique and the ratio gets worse, the more yards you rack up. Are you really expecting improvement? Instead, swim shorter workouts with more frequency, 5 to 6 times a week. Some workouts might only be 20 minutes if that’s as long as you can go without fatiguing when you swim the right way. Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to get to the pool for a 20 minute swim. But you’re committed to getting faster, right?
4. Stop “shopping” coaches for swimming advice! This is one of the most common inhibitors to getting faster in the water that I come across. As soon as an athlete tells me they tried to improve under this one coach and then they switched to another coach because they weren’t improving under the first coach (and so on and so on), I know that I won’t be able to help them either. What is the one thing that’s common to all of the coaches you’ve failed to improve under? It’s you. Improving takes patience. Imagine someone who wanted to become a concert violinist. They work with one teacher for six months (and practice for an hour, three to four times a week, not always focusing on the precise technique they’ve been taught). Then they switch teachers and work with someone new, who probably has a slightly different approach for the next six months. After three or five or ten years of this, do you think they’ll have achieved their goal of becoming a concert violinist? Me either. Pick a coach you trust and stick with him or her, form a partnership. And, p.s., there are plenty of fine coaches out there, some even have celebrity-like status on social media, but picking out tips or workouts from a cafeteria of coaches online or in person to build your improvement “plan” isn’t going to make you faster.
5. Stop expecting immediate results! If your coach could give you a pill that would make you a faster swimmer, you can be assured that he or she would. (It would be pretty expensive, but we’d be more than happy to sell it to you.) There is no overnight fix, improvement takes time, sometimes measured in years. If you don’t see improvement from week to week or even month to month, that doesn’t mean you’re not improving. In fact, it’s very likely that you’ll get slower before you get faster. (See item 2 for how to deal with this.) When I made a major change in my stroke a few years ago, going from the outward-sweep catch and s-curve pull that I’d been taught in my youth to today’s high-elbow catch and straight pull stroke, I got slower, a lot slower. I could barely swim anything other than catchup stroke and I lost about 15-20 seconds per 100. I went from leading my lane to barely being able to hang onto the back of the next lane down. But I stuck with it and now I swim faster on less energy and with reduced injury risk. That’s a big win, but it took months and months (and I was already a pretty skilled swimmer). Be patient!
6. Stop thinking toys are the key to improvement! There are better and better tools available for swimmers these days, but most swimmers (and triathletes in particular) don’t understand how to use them effectively. If you have poor body position that’s improved (even marginally) by a pull buoy, you’re generally training yourself to have poor body position by using the buoy. If you have poor pull pattern and you swim with paddles to get stronger, you’re training yourself to be strong along the wrong pattern (and, likely putting yourself at increased risk of a shoulder injury). Skip the toys and tools altogether unless you’re specifically instructed by your coach to use them. And when you do use them, make sure you understand the “why”, not just the “how.”
Now (the offseason) is the right time to be working on your stroke. Remember that it may take months (or even years) to dial in your new, faster, more-efficient, safer stroke. The pressure of going fast on race day is generally antithetical to improvement, give yourself as much runway as you can. Put the right effort in once and avoid a lifetime of frustration. It starts with your stop-doing list. Get started today.
Coach Dave Sheanin approaches coaching from a holistic perspective. Adult age-group triathletes typically have substantial demands in their lives outside of training and racing. Looking at any individual component of an athlete’s training (or life) is a data point, but it rarely tells the full story. He makes it a priority to understand what’s going on in an athlete’s life beyond triathlon in order to build a plan that is smart, fits their lifestyle, and builds toward appropriate goals.