Swimming, the neglected discipline. Time and time again I have experienced athlete’s frustrations about the swim and their improvement or lack thereof. The stories and comments I hear are quit disheartening to me. Phrases such as, “I’ve been doing this swim thing for 2 years and I have not seen improvement.” or “I have been with a master’s swim program for over a year and I have not improved.” I guess I am just not meant to be a swimmer, that is ok I can bike and run good. Wrong! Everyone has the potential to become a competitive swimmer.
I say competitive swimmer because that is what we do in triathlon. We compete. There is a big difference between “just swimming” with friends and swimming competitively with a group of crazy people in dark open water scrapping and clawing for position and survival.
Here are a few areas on why I believe athletes struggle with swim improvement.
Quantity Focused Not Quality Focused: So many put in countless hours of laps in a pool but never see improvement. It’s very admirable that your swimming 10k a week and have that eau de chlorine by CK going for you but without specificity to that quantity you are not doing yourself any favors. Every second of every minute of every lap of every workout should have a goal and purpose. If it doesn’t you should start. I’ve heard of people in master’s swim classes that are learning nothing but being put in the far lane and being told finish what you can. No one gets better that way, especially in a sport as technical as swimming. Here’s an example.
Swim for 30 minutes or do 2k with some kicks and pulling.
I’m doing what the guy in Lane 4 is doing. Instead add some quality to the workout!
30 minutes total time done as:
200 warmup – open water sight practice 2x every odd lap or every even lap
8×25 alt free/back kick on 45 secs 8×25 as 25 fingertip drill / 25 swim
4×100 building to race pace throughout the 100, say each 100 on the 1:30
10×50 Fast on 60 secs
Adding specific goals and focus to just 30 minutes of a swim set or a plain 2k swim will start yielding improvements over time.
Unclear goals or lack of Goals: Define your outcome goal and put the performance and process goals in place to achieve that outcome goal.
Initial Outcome Goal: I want to finish the 70.3 swim – Very general goal
Performance Goal: I want to swim 70.3 New Orleans in 35 minutes.
Initial Outcome Goal: I want to be faster and better. I want to be efficient.
Performance Goal: Improve 10×100 holding effort per 100 pace to 1:40. Learn bi-lateral breathing.
You have One Speed: Get to the other side as fast as I can. Just as in running or cycling you must learn to swim at different speeds. If your warmup is faster than your main set slow down! Skipping the warmup, you miss your chance to get a feel for the water, focus on drill work, practice holding body position, work on breathing. The warmup is a chance to go slow and focus on specifics. This allows your body to prepare itself for the main set. Proper warmup set will yield a more productive main set. Make sure to cool down or warm down after your main set. Again, another great time to practice drill work, body position, breathing drills, and very relaxed swimming. If this is faster or equal to your race pace, SLOW DOWN! No one has ever gotten a medal for fastest warmup or cool down, not even Phelps
Drill Work: If you’re not doing drill work to improve your weaknesses, you should start. Make sure you know why you are doing a drill, what the focus is and how it should feel. You should have a ladder progression. Example: Can I hold a neutral body position, Do my fingers enter the water first. Do I have a high elbow catch or does it drop? Focusing on each phase of the swim stroke and working on each individually can yield fast improvements to your swim. Don’t just do a drill because you saw someone doing it and not understand it. You’re better off doing short sprints than doing a ton of drill work incorrectly.
Refocus your mind: You may not be Michael Phelps but you can start thinking like him or any professional swimmer for that matter. As you know the mind is very powerful and it is usually our own worst enemy. Where the mind goes, the body follows. Go into each swim set having confidence. Focus on being confident with your drill work. Believe in yourself and the time you are dedicating to improvement. Have a mantra you repeat while swimming such as: I am swimming faster, I feel faster. I have good body position. Just like anything else each swim set will not be magical. I have handfuls of bad swim sets from missing pace efforts to just not feeling comfortable in the water. Great swimmers know how to refocus quickly and move on.
If you get frustrated during a set, start to slow on pace or form is going downhill, instead of getting frustrated, back off the pace, refocus on form. Take a longer break after the frustrating set and refocus your mind and then continue.
After your swim think of what went well during the set. Maybe you felt more relaxed than normal, breathing felt better or you felt stronger on your 10×50’s. Whatever it was being able to acknowledge those accomplishments, realize the frustrating sets will get better will aid in you staying focused, happy and enjoy what you are doing. This will make a big difference going into the next swim session feeling positive.
Conclusion: Set specific goals, focus on consistency, add specific drill work to your swim routine and most of all smile and enjoy being able to do this sport!