10 tips: How to swim better

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It has been said that swimming is the worst part of triathlon. “If you stop cycling you coast, if you stop running you walk, but if you stop swimming you might drown.”

Doing a sport where you need to learn to breathe while underwater may seem daunting, but swimming can be better mastered with the right technique.

Whether you are just learning to swim, have hit a plateau or are fighting to shave off those stubborn few seconds, these tips should help.

Top 10 swimming tips

1) Relax

The more tense you are the less you’ll enjoy swimming and the harder it will be. Being stiff and unrelaxed while swimming will also cause you to tire more quickly.

So take a deep breath, let it out and as you exhale, relax. Remember to stay as relaxed as you can while swimming and focus on being relaxed throughout the session, even if it becomes tough.

2) Learn the basics

As triathletes we mostly use front crawl (freestyle) so, of course, we learn the basics of that technique, but it is beneficial to learn the basics of every stroke.

Swimming sessions are more interesting when you swim different strokes. A range of strokes will also give you options should things go pear-shaped in a race (particularly in open water).

In addition, every stroke style will benefit your front crawl. For example, breaststroke and backstroke increase your feel for the water and can help you to improve your catch.

Butterfly kick is used in pool swimming when you do front crawl turns and also helps to improve your front crawl kick from the hips.

Backstroke helps to loosen your shoulder muscles and opens up your chest, which in turn improves your ability to breathe when swimming front crawl.

3) Breathe out

One of the biggest issues people have when swimming is breathing. People feel that they can’t get enough breath in and then they start to panic. But if you haven’t breathed out, then there’s no space to breathe in and it will feel like you didn’t get enough air.

It’s important to become comfortable breathing out under water. “Sink downs” are a good way to do this. You can practice in the bath by just blowing out a strong stream of air under water until you run out. Then surface and breathe in.

When swimming, ensure that you exhale under water and inhale above it. You can experiment by trying “trickle” breathing (a constant stream of blowing out) or “volcanic/explosive” breathing (short, sharp blow out like a whale spouting) to find what works best for you.

Breathing is reflexive so if you’re exhaled enough, the inhale will happen by itself but you need to make sure your mouth is above water by then.

Even if you’ve been swimming for years it’s worth practising your breathing because if you’re not exhaling enough it can mean you’re working too hard because you’re oxygen deficit.

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4) Get the right kit

Swimming in baggy shorts or a saggy swimsuit will create drag and that makes swimming harder. You don’t need the latest skinsuit, but it does help to have well-fitting swimwear. (Most people only wear their tri suits for racing but you can train in it too if you want.)

If you feel a bit self-conscious in swimwear don’t worry because there are very few people who like to be seen wearing a swim suit.

It’s also important to have swimwear that isn’t see-through! Chlorine can be pretty harsh on swimwear so it’s worth checking that your cossie hasn’t decayed, especially around the bum area and, for women, in the chest area.

While you’re in shopping mode, buy a decent pair of goggles (make sure they fit, feel comfortable and do not leak). If you are short-sighted, prescription goggles are a great buy. A swim cap is also useful, especially if you have long hair.

A pull buoy and kick board are useful training aids.

5) Stay hydrated

You will be working hard while you swim and this means you need to sip on water just as you would when running or cycling. Take a water bottle to the pool.

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6) But don’t eat…

The advice is the same as for running and cycling. If you eat too close to exercise you will feel sick and end up with cramps. It is the same for swimming, except it’s harder to find to somewhere you can politely throw up when in a pool.

7) Get coached

Good technique, drills, training sessions and the advice of coaches will help you to improve far faster than simply heading to the pool and bashing out 50 lengths. Ask other people in the club to find out how much the GTC coached swimming sessions have helped them.

8) Improve strength and flexibility

Having a strong core is important in swimming so it’s is a good idea to do yoga, Pilates or other activities that work on abdominal muscles. A weekly session with light upper body weights can help to strengthen the muscles for swimming, including the lats.

Swimming also requires a degree of flexibility, particularly in your shoulders and ankles, and again yoga and Pilates can help.

Kickboard

9) Learn to kick

“But I’m a triathlete, I need to save my legs for the cycle and the run.”

To an extent, this is true, but a poor kick is actually more tiring and is akin to swimming with two anchors attached to your body. So, while swimming for triathlon isn’t powered by kick in the same way that competitive swimming is, your kick is still important.

Kick is used to balance up your stroke, to keep you streamlined and to make it easier to breathe. Swimmers are generally taught what is called a six-beat kick, that is six kicks every arm cycle, even if you intend to progress to using a two or four beat kick, it’s easier for your whole stroke to learn a six-beat kick first.

Kick should also be driven from your core and not your legs, so it shouldn’t be tiring and it shouldn’t waste your legs for the rest of triathlon. If you find kick tiring, get your coach to review it because it’s likely that your technique needs to be worked on.

10) Get filmed

It can be quite difficult to understand what’s happening with your body when you can’t see it so a filming session is usually very enlightening.

Analysis of your filming with a coach is beneficial because they can highlight the key issues and points that you should focus on to improve your stroke and provide feedback on how to do this. One of the membership benefits of GTC is access to swim filming and analysis.

… And apart from all these tips, it’s important that you practise swimming. Heading along to coached sessions will help you to make the incremental improvements in both technique and fitness that will then lead to you being a better and faster swimmer. Find out about GTC swimming sessions.