Updated: Oct 19, 2021
With an unlimited amount of swim approaches out there and each one telling you something different, it makes it a true jungle for us to recognize what is useful to us as triathletes and what is not. I grew up as an active kid with handball, martial arts, gym work and running. I swam in school lessons and was not horrible at it, but never had a real stroke correction early on. I am a perfectionist by nature, so when I found triathlon, I found the ideal puzzle to solve. I love the fact that no matter how hard I chase the carrot, I will probably never reach the point where I sit down after a race and say, “Wow, this is all I can do and not a second faster.” I like that fact, since it guarantees a long journey in the sport.
Therefore, starting out in triathlon, swimming was obviously my weakest link. There are many who just accept that they are bad swimmers and use the excuse of, 'not coming from a swim background' for swimming poorly. I want to be the best swimmer I can possibly be. Back in the day when I started triathlon, I got myself the book, Swim Smooth by Paul Newsome. This gave me a good foundation and idea of what type of a swimmer I was. I watched videos from good swimmers, which helped me to see what it is supposed to look like. The most helpful visualization out there for me, is still: Jono Van Hazel.
Another long period passed without any stroke correction, but nonetheless I improved in terms of swim times and feel for the water. I had my full focus of what happens from hand entry to the push off phase. I felt that my stroke was not too bad, but times were not coming down as much as I hoped. The obvious reason was that I dragged my hips and legs behind me like a loose anchor. Swim coaches talk all day about how great your catch should be and not much about actual body alignment in the water – aka being as straight as possible while swimming, without causing drag from your hips or legs that stop propulsion.
In 2017, I decided that I wanted to take the next step forward in swimming. My perception was that if I do not have the foundation of stroke mechanics, including proper backstroke, butterfly and kicking, I will never become a decent swimmer.
Off I went, getting my head bashed in for 90 minutes, three times a week at 6am, for 8 months. I certainly made improvements in terms of cardiovascular fitness, due to half drowning each time I was there! After each session, I struggled to get up the hills on my bike, to get to work. I was fine with that, since I thought that it was the right step forward. I did improve with my other strokes, feel for the water, as well as my stroke mechanics in terms of pull and so on. The main reason I stopped it, was that I had to accept that this type of swimming with non-triathletes and too much not- freestyle swimming, made me too fatigued, next to work and training. The other reason, was that I was not having the 'clicking moment' in swimming I was hoping for.
Held my poker face at work but this was how I felt :)
The reason: my legs and hips were still dragging behind me like an anchor. I approached a swim coach, with what appeared to me, a logical approach and he took a look at my stroke. He told me to check my alignment first, before worrying about my stroke. I worked for three weeks, on simple technique-focused body alignment drills and crushed every single interval after that. Faster than ever, with less effort than ever. This was the 'clicking moment' I had been waiting for, for so long.
Most swim coaches come from a swimming background and have no idea how it feels to kick your legs off, in terms of effort and not getting anywhere regardless. I got all kinds of tips on how to improve my kicking over the years, “Tighten your abs as much as possible,” they said. “Kick from your hips,” they said. Coming from a quads dominant background, that did not help me. I did all the work from my already tired quads, even if I tried to straighten my knees. My legs burned and almost fell off after 50m kicking, without getting me anywhere. Basically, I did that for months without improving.
My number one tip for anyone that wants to swim fast (thank you Rory Buck):
Get your body alignment right, then worry about the rest.
In order to kick efficiently as someone who comes from a swimming background, you need to get your glutes working. You can do as much core as you want, but if your glutes are not firing, you will keep burning your quads and get nowhere with your kickboard. If you are looking for a free, tri-specific core plan, which will build you the foundation for a strong kick, send me an email to email@example.com and I will send it to you right away.
The best advice I got was from Paul Newsome, "Imagine that you want to hold a coin tight with your butt cheeks." Think of that, together with keeping the kick size REALLY small, touch your pointed toes while doing so. Once you have tightened your glutes, a tight kick size and a quick cadence, you will improve greatly with your kicking. We do not need to kick our legs off in a triathlon, but it needs to be efficient and keep us afloat. Once you have mastered the kick, you can connect it with the whole stroke and be surprised at what your split times will be with less effort.
Embrace the suck.
Have a good week everyone.
Best wishes from Switzerland,