The beauty – and the beast – of Ironman swim training is that there are plenty of strokes to work with (and so plenty of opportunities for problems to be exacerbated). So what should you do to counter this?
Written By Dan Bullock
As a coach the nice thing about working with Ironman triathletes is that we do have a lot of distance to race. This means even the smallest imperfection in the stroke which will be repeated thousands of times will slow your average swim speed. Conversely small improvements to technique can yield huge gains. With so much distance to cover improving your average swim speed from 0.72 metres per second to 0.83 metres per second will mean a reduction from 88 minutes to 76 minutes. In pool terms this means improving from a 35 second average over 25 metres to 30 seconds per 25 metres. Most swimmers when they come to me can can easily swim this 30 second target for 25 metres, and often maintain it for 100 metres, but by the time 400 metres comes around the average speed falls purely because of their technique.
Five seconds over 25 metres is a big chunk of time to reduce but by no means impossible for most, the hard thing is maintaining this pace. A few simple adjustments to your front crawl technique can help bring this improvement in open water and have you maintain it. Improved technique will lead to a more relaxed swim requiring less energy and oxygen. As technique disintegrates you need more energy and oxygen to combat the extra effort needed to shunt a larger profile through the water. Three relatively simple adjustments to your open water front crawl could yield these results.
Sighting every seven or eight strokes will reduce the frequent interruptions to your natural swim velocity. Lifting the head every third stroke to simultaneously breathe and sight will really tire you for the following reasons:
a. A stronger push down of the swimming arm to lift the head means you’re not propelling yourself forwards as early as you might. The degree at which the forearm becomes vertical goes a long way to dictate at which point you start to move forwards. Pushing down to lift the head excessively will leave the forearm horizontal preventing forwards momentum.
b. A secondary effect of sighting will be a harder leg kick. This happens as the head returns to neutral and you try to return to normal cruising speed after looking up. The legs tend to sink – not even your wetsuit will not stop this – leaving more of the chest, stomach and legs exposed. This increases your frontal surface area which ultimately leads to more drag.
2. Leg Splay
It’s important to stop splaying your legs when you turn to breathe. If you lack balance and control within your technique people tend to splay their legs more with each breath. This usually happens to counteract the off-balance position caused by turning the head to breathe. This can be devastating to your streamlined profile. Try swimming a few strokes with your fins on. Point them to the bottom of the pool and feel the extra workload your arms perform. You’re effectively applying a braking effect each time you breathe, and if you breathe every third stroke that is a lot of braking. If you hold a steady 25 strokes per 25 metres that will be over 1,200 sets of brakes being applied over 3.8K.
3. Swim Straighter
Only swim the race course distance and no more because it’s a waste of time, effort and energy. This isn’t easy if you’re not well balanced in the water and making best use of your stroke to keep you straight. If your front crawl stroke does a nice job of keeping you straight then you will not need to rely on external factors, such as excessive sighting, to keep you straight.
I now teach from this view point and encourage swimming straight by making use of the body and limbs, and utilising their pathways to drive you forwards.
The main factors that will keep you swimming straight are:
a. Bilateral breathing in training, although not necessary on race day, will bring a natural symmetry to your stroke by stopping one side becoming over dominant. Be careful with this because you will take four breaths less per length bilateral breathing compared to average single sided breathing. As a result it can encourage many to rush a flatter stroke in order to breathe quicker. Don’t forget your rotation through the long axis. Better still try a central snorkel for best symmetry of stroke practice.
b. Channel water back towards the feet with an effective catch position avoiding excessively wide sweeps of the hands. Stay on the black line at the bottom of your lane at quiet times in the pool. Keep your hands on the black line. It is okay for the elbow to break wide of the black line to set up an effective catch position.
c. Keep breathing movement to a minimum. If the head lifts unnecessarily high rather then turns this usually drags the opposite recovering arm across the centre line on entry. This then upsets where you start your initial pull phase from. Get the head back to a neutral position after a surface inhalation. Don’t waste time exhaling and inhaling while above the surface. You can exhale under the water. If the head remains above the surface for a long period the recovering arm, while exiting, will then push the head back to neutral. As this gains momentum the recovering arm can be pulled across the centre line leading to more lateral body movement.
You could spend a lot of time attempting to save 30 minutes from your bike split. Improving open water swimming will allow you to swim straighter, require less sighting and expend less calories. Six good swimming lessons that improve your speed in open water seem cheap in comparison,e both in terms of time and money. Don’t give up on your swim it could change the whole way you race.
Dan Bullock is senior coach at swimfortri.com and a Speedo Openwater Advisory Coach.