FITNESS: Swim strong with good technique

Jan. 17, 2011 at 11:01 p.m.
Updated Jan. 16, 2011 at 7:17 p.m.

Of the three disciplines of triathlon, swimming is generally the one that makes novice triathletes the most anxious. Sometimes even putting your face into the water and learning how to breathe properly can be a difficult technique to master. This coming week I'm holding an informal "swim clinic" for some of my athletes. I'm conducting it with the help of my friend and client Doug, a former college swimmer and also an Ironman triathlete. We will work on analyzing swim stroke and give instruction on performing swim drills that can help to develop an efficient and strong swim stroke. Many times it takes just a few sessions for athletes to gain a better grasp on swimming and perfect the drills that will lead them to a higher proficiency of swimming. However, as with anything, the more practice the better!

Any experienced swimmer or swim coach will agree that good swimming technique and body position are the most important factors in becoming a faster and stronger swimmer. Shear power and strength alone does not always equal a powerful swimmer. In a study that was done at the 1996 summer Olympiad in Atlanta, swimming specialists counted the number of strokes each of the finalists took to get down the length of the pool. They found that the swimmers who took the fewest number of strokes were the ones who finished with the fastest times. This proves that an efficient stroke leads to fewer strokes and better times.


Getting started is usually the toughest part. If you are new to swimming it can be intimidating at first. I usually tell people it takes 4-6 weeks of consistent swimming (two to three times per week) to start feeling comfortable in the water. If you are new to swimming, seek out the help of a friend you think may be a good swimmer and who can give you some pointers. Some of our local gyms also offer swim lessons that you can sign up for.

To figure out how to breathe appropriately, you can stand in the shallow end for a bit to get your stroke and breathing down correctly. Another way to develop your breathing pattern is by using a kick board. Start with both hands on the board and holding the board out in front of you. With your face in the water and legs kicking, alternate letting go with one arm, stroking and breathing on that side and then continue with the opposite arm.

Body Position in the Water

Many swimmers hold their head too high in the water. This can create resistance when you swim. The most efficient position to have while swimming is to practice "pushing" your head down into the water and lifting up your hips. Focus on looking directly down at the line at the bottom of the pool lane. Also, imagine your body as the letter "T" while swimming. Imagine a line going from the base of your neck to base of your coccyx. The horizontal line of the "T" goes across the top of your line, connecting your shoulders.


Your pull, or arm stroke, is probably the most important part of your swim stroke. You also want to mostly utilize your arm pull as a triathlete so that your legs aren't taxed so much during the swim and are fresh to carry you through the bike and run portions of the triathlon.

The entry is where your front arm enters the water and starts the pull portion. The hand is turned slightly outward as it enters to "slice" the water. Make sure to extend the arm stroke to help create momentum. As the pull begins under the water, your hand should make an "S"- shaped motion as it pulls from the top of the stroke through to your hip area. Also, by maintaining a slight bend in the arm as you pull it under underneath you, the stronger your pull will be. As the arm begins to exit the water, the elbow bends at about a 90-degree bend. As the hand exits the water, you "flick" the water which further helps to propel you through the water. Also, keep a high elbow as each arm exits the water, while extending the reach as far out as possible - while keeping the hand in alignment with the shoulder as it reaches and not whipping the arms out to the sides. This will help you in moving more water and moving you through it at a stronger pace.


From the novice swimmer to the most advanced swimmers, drills during a swim session will help you perfect good technique. Drills should be incorporated into one or two of your swim sessions each week. Vary the drills that you do, with some that are focused on targeting problem swim areas you may have.

The amount of drag or resistance you create increases in direct proportion to how fast you go. If you can become more efficient, creating less drag, you will save energy during the swim. During your swim sessions, constantly think about how big a "tube" you are cutting through the water and try to make the tube narrow as you swim.

Practice counting your strokes as you swim a length of the pool. With each successive length, try to take fewer strokes to make it across the pool. This will help you focus more on the full pull of the stroke, making for a stronger arm pull.

Swimming with a fisted hand instead of open hand during a swim drill will help you focus on a strong pull as well. By creating more resistance with the fisted hand, you naturally use your entire arm during the pull. Using one-armed drills will also help you concentrate on your pulling action. Swim alternate lengths of the pool using one arm only, while the other arm is straight out in front of you.

Using a kick board and doing four to six lengths of just kicking each swim session will help you to strengthen this component of swimming. Focus on keeping ankles and feet relaxed and maintaining short, fast kicking motion. Using a pull buoy (positioned between your thighs) will help you get stronger with your pull. By doing several sets of just pulling, the arms will strengthen and the focus is on creating a strong, complete pull with each arm.


The triathlon season is fast approaching, with many events slated start in the month of March. Now is the perfect time to work on technique so that you can be a stronger swimmer by the time your race rolls around. If you are just starting out, sign up for a race that takes place in April or May to give yourself ample time to feel comfortable in the water and to have the endurance to cover the distance of the swim. By swimming consistently, and using drills to develop your technique, you will be "swimming as one with the water" in no time!

Missy Janzow owns Fit4U, a personalized training and nutrition service. You can e-mail her at, or visit her on line at



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