I’ll tell you a secret: I used to be scared of the water. Even when I started triathlon, I was still really freaking scared. What was I scared of? Monsters and sharks. I kid you not. Even in pools. It’s ridiculous but true. And don’t get me started on lakes where you can’t see the bottom.
And it turns out, I’m not alone. One of the most common things I hear from people who’ve never done a triathlon is, “Oh, I could never do that because of the swimming.” (Even my wife, aka “No Triathlon Kim”, lists the potential for drowning as her number one reason for not ever wanting to give it a try.)
Fortunately for all of us timid swimmers, working on some simple techniques can improve your swim by leaps and bounds and… believe it or not… make swimming enjoyable. To the point that, in the summer of 2015, I voluntarily did a 27 kilometer, nine hour open water swim with my buddy Coach Pat, and I enjoyed it.
Today, I bring you three mistakes many beginner swimmers and triathletes make, and what you can do to correct or avoid them.
1. CROSSING OVER WITH YOUR HAND
In a swim stroke, you want to have your arms stay outside of the centre line of your body. But a lot of people have a tendency to overreach beyond the middle, crossing over that centre line.
When you do that, you prevent yourself from getting a proper “catch”, which is the part of your stroke where your elbow bends and catches the water to help pull you forward. It slows you down by creating drag, and it also puts unnecessary strain on your shoulders.
TRIATHLON TAREN’S ADVICE: You want to get your arm a fair bit outside of your body to allow your shoulders the room to rotate, to get a good catch. To do this, when you’re in the pool, imagine your left arm reaching for the 10 o’clock position and your right arm reaching towards the 2 o’clock position.
If it’s hard to do this without some assistance, you might find it easier to use a set of Finis freestyle paddles to develop new muscle memory. The paddles are small, they attach to your hands and they use a keele underneath that encourages you to enter the water on a nice, straight line. (To see the paddles in action, check out my YouTube video.) They’re good to give you the feel of where your arms need to be going.
2) LIFTING YOUR HEAD TOO FAR OUT OF THE WATER
Lifting your head out of the water is one of those natural things we all do because we obviously need to breathe when we’re swimming. The problem comes when you lift your hair too far out of the water. When you lift your head too high, your back end sinks too far down, causing drag. This slows you down in the water and makes swimming harder because you’re swimming on an angle. You ultimately want your body to be in a straight line. That way you can glide through the water… smooth, like butter.
TAREN’S ADVICE: To make sure you’re not lifting your head too far out of the water, always keep one half of your goggles below the water line. Half of your face will then be out of the water, and you will take your breaths out of the side of your mouth. Interestingly, by doing this, the water will move around your head and create a pocket of air right in front of your face. It might take some practice to get used to breathing this way but once you get it, it’s the best way to keep your body straight.
If you want some additional support, you can use a snorkel. That way, you can keep your head in the water while you focus on training your body to naturally keep your arms off the midline. I will just warn you, it’s not quite as easy as it sounds! And you do need a proper freestyle swimming snorkel to do this. (Link to the one I use.)
3) PUSHING TOO HARD IN THE POOL
With running, cycling, lifting weights, the harder we train, the faster we get and the better we perform. But it’s not like that in the pool. With swimming, especially at the start, technique trumps everything. That can be frustrating, but I promise it will pay off with faster times and easier swims down the road. Getting good at the swim is all about playing the long game.
TAREN’S ADVICE: If you’re thrashing around, trying to push harder and go faster, you can’t fine tune your technique. Like I said above, teaching yourself how to be slow and steady in the pool is going to make you faster in the long run. Also, in a race, conserving energy during the swim is a good bet to make sure you’ve got enough gas in the tank to have a strong bike and run. In other words, don’t waste it all during the swim when you have a lot of race ahead of you.
To see the Triathlon Taren video on this topic, click here!