Tips for Deliberate Swim Practice
Swim Technique, September 15, 2022
Coach Chris discusses swimming skill and how it can be developed effectively, and how to avoid the typical pitfalls of technique practice that most newer atheltes fall into.
Swimming for a triathlon can be quite a daunting experience for those new to the sport, especially if their knowledge of swimming is limited to the half-hour-a-week session they took part in during high school. If this sounds like you, then this article is for you!
Over the past 10-15 years, swimming techniques and methodologies have become more commercialised and branded. Some are sold as making you faster or allowing you to improve your fitness more quickly than ever before through several different models. Some of these promise instant fixes or a faster way to improve, and with today’s instant rewarding lifestyles, it is pretty clear why they do this. If you want a movie, flick on Netflix, and it’s there straight away; If you need some clothes or groceries, no worries, Amazon will get that to you the same day. If you need answers to a question, Alexa has it all with just a shout to the box in the corner of the room. We live in a world of instantaneous expectations.
It is therefore unsurprising that newer swimmers start to expect that an instant fix is there for the taking, that their stroke can be fixed quickly, and they can be swimming much faster in a matter of a few sessions. Well, in most cases, this is just not feasible. Swimming is a skill sport first, and with that in mind, improvements in your stroke take hours of practice to embed; additionally, making sure that the techniques or drills you are practising are accurate is vital to making you a better swimmer.
As a coach, one of the most frustrating things I see is those swimmers who, when attending a skill session, will take on board the drill or area of focus we are working on and start to make progress in the session, yet when left to their own devices during the other swims in the week will just revert to swimming how they have always done with no thought to embedding the work we have just done! The following week, we have to go back to square one and get them to make those changes again.
Two things spring to mind when thinking about these issues; firstly, practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent, and if you are only practising good technique in one of the four sessions you are doing per week, you are embedding poor technique 75% of the time. To combat this, you need to make a conscious effort to focus on technique in every session! I know that your ability to swim faster is at the forefront of your mind, but if your technique is not great, the most significant improvement in your training will come from being a better swimmer; speed is a by-product of good technique in the early stages and technique becomes more critical the newer you are to swimming.
The second thing is, although disputed in some circles, it serves as a good tool to discuss training time. The 10,000 hour (or, as coined initially, the ten-year rule) suggests that it takes a considerable amount of deliberate and purposful practice to master a skill. If you have 4 x 60-minute training sessions weekly, it will take roughly 2,500 weeks (about 48 years!) to get close to that number. Imagine how long it would take with a 1x60-minute session per week, and that is only if you focused on the technique for the entire 60-minute session; even if 10,000 hours is not the golden number, deliberate practice of a skill takes time to refine and embed.
Hopefully, this hasn’t sent you into a pit of despair and got you thinking about taking up duathlon instead. Both of these points are here to get you to think about how you spend your swimming time and challenge you to consider the central question:
Are you spending enough time purposefully practising good technique?
If your answer to this is yes, you can read something else or get back in the water and start looking at how you split your training in the water across the components of fitness (this is a whole other article which will be coming soon). If your answer is no, read on for some tips and tricks to help you build a swimming session that will maximise the amount of time you have and hopefully develop your swimming technique to make you faster and more efficient.
Tip 1 – Think about your technique and find the low-hanging fruit! By this, I mean really spending some time thinking about what is holding you back in your stroke technique. Is it your body position? Are your legs scraping the bottom of the pool in the shallow end? If so, why do you think that is? There are several possible reasons for this, but by and large, the most common we see is the lack of effective exhalation. Most beginner swimmers tend to hold their breath when their face is in the water, which keeps the lungs inflated and due to the position of the lungs within the body they cause the swimmer to float at an angle in the water which has a number of negative effects the most detrimental of which is creating massive amounts of drag, which when you consider water is roughly 80% thicker than air can have a significant impact on your swimming speed and the amount of effort it takes to drive your body through the water.
Tip 2 – Dedicate time to practice. Use your time well and spend time focusing on those identified technique errors. Spend time at the beginning of a session to learn the correct muscle patterns and/or drills, making sure you concentrate on each repeat and execute it as well as you can each time. Once your focus goes, take some time to rest and retry when you are ready. As drills typically over-emphasise part of the stroke, it is likely that the parts of your stroke you are not concentrating on will worsen. You may also notice another fault within the stroke as a by-product of the drill, make a mental note of what this is and address it separately. Don’t be tempted to work on anything like this that comes up each time you do a drill. Or if you are focusing on something during the session, make sure it is the thing you intended to focus on. If you do you will likely lose the focus of the session and become overwhelmed with the faults and lose your motivation to continue, additionally, as counter intuitive as it sounds once you have started to see your stroke break down its probably a good idea to call it a day and get out, ready to try again the next time. This brings us to tip 3!
Tip 3 - Little and often is far superior if you want to improve your stroke than spending a lot of time in the water in one go. Think about it this way if you spend 15-20 minutes practising great form and then 40 minutes reverting to your original stroke, which do you think will remain embedded? However, this is typically not possible with most athletes, so an alternative approach may be needed. One way in which you could address this issue is by bookending your swim sessions with focused technique practice, so you at least finish your swim session focusing on great technique. The structure could be something along the lines of:
Warm up with easy swimming for 5 mins, then on to focused drill work for 10-15 mins limiting this to 1-2 drills or skill focuses. Then swim for 20 mins doing varied paces and distances (depending on your limiters in fitness etc.), then finally spend 10-15 minutes returning to the drills and skills initially practised as part of the warm down or in conjunction with it.
In summary, technique practice is the cornerstone of any relatively new athlete looking at swimming. In general, more is to be gained from swimming more efficiently through better technique than focusing on swim fitness development. Having a plan on how you will get your swims in, little and often, is always going to be challenging, especially when your local pool typically dictates pool time. However, strategic use of endless pools or open water can generally overcome this. It may also help to find local technique sessions or a local swim coach who can give invaluable insights into your technique, accelerating this process. Finally, remember ‘that practice makes permanent’ and ensuring you practice good technique at every opportunity will allow you to develop your swimming stroke and hopefully maintain your hard-gained improvements.
If you are looking to improve your swimming technique we offer a number of options to local and remote atheltes, email us for further info or visit www.tcc.wales to see how we can help you become a better swimmer.
Chris has a BSc. (Hons) in Sports, Health and Performance Science is a British Triathlon level 3 coach, Ironman certified coach, Level 3 Personal Trainer, Training Peaks Level 2 Certified Coach, British Triathlon coach educator, and coach mentor. With over 20 years of experience in teaching and coaching, he is passionate about developing all levels of athletes, especially athletes new to the sport to allow them to meet their goals. Chris has raced over every distance from Sprint to Iron Distance.More about me