How to be a Better Swimmer

There are many simple things you can do, starting right now, that will result in an improvement in your swimming. The first and undoubtedly most important one is... swim more.
Created: February 2011
Revised: August 2011
Latest Feedback: August 2011

Introduction

In this article we assume you have a sufficient level of swimming confidence to contemplate a triathlon but recognise you have a long way to go before you'll be competitive in the swim. Perhaps you have already tried a few triathlons and have found you're lagging behind the mob in your age group, or maybe you're still finding it's a struggle to get through the distance even though you've been swimming weekly.

Whatever is your weak point, the good news is that there are many simple things you can do starting right now that will result in an improvement in your swimming. The first and undoubtedly most important one is... swim more.

Swim More

But what does this mean? This means frequency of sessions, not necessarily volume. Each time we do a swim session we are training our bodies in more ways than one. Some days we feel good, some days we don’t. The more often we swim with these different feelings the better we adapt. Swimming is definitely about adapting to conditions and making adjustments naturally. But this is not a time for you to zone out – if you are serious about making an improvement you should be watching those adjustments and observing how it affects you.

Of course all the extra swimming will improve your cardiovascular fitness too so even if you’re a regular runner or cyclist, doing the extra swimming will focus specifically on the aerobic fitness and muscle groups specifically used to swim and that is the key. Swimming is a highly skill-focused, repetitive motion sport. The more movements you can make the correct way, the better you get at swimming.

Swimming "better" doesn’t have to mean you'll make a 4 minute improvement in your 750m race! In fact, swimming better can be as simple as recognising the difference in your fitness after exiting the water from that 750m swim. Do you normally exit the water exhausted and incapable of running to transition? After increasing the frequency of your swimming you might find your times don’t improve but your stamina does, which will set you up for a stronger cycle. Unfortunately, one swimming session per week is NOT enough if you want to improve. The more you swim the more you'll see an improvement. It doesn't get much simplier than that!

Technique

That brings us to technique. The more often you can swim fresh, the less likely you are to swim with poor form. It doesn’t initially matter if your best form isn’t technically perfect, you just don’t want to be doing the bulk of your training when tired – so if the choice is 1 long session per week or 2 shorter sessions, you should always opt for 2 shorter sessions (or more if possible). That way, less of your overall swim time per week is done whilst fatigued, which only ruins your technique.

Even if you are making some technique errors your body will make natural adjustments to make your time in the pool more efficient if you are swimming frequently. However, you should put some effort into understanding what is good technique so you have a goal to think about in your sessions. Refer to swim technique books, or DVDs. Then get someone to film your swimming - this will give you something to visualise in your own sessions and help you make the necessary adaptions.

Drills

When you shift focus from swimming for pleasure, or purpose to “training”, that is you are swimming with the intent to “get better”, you need to figure out what points in your stroke need to be improved upon and then map out a specific training plan to account for your technical needs.
Whether you get the advice of a coach, or refer to a book or DVD you will quickly find there are a few common drills that you can use to build into your swimming sessions. The most common of these drills are:

  • Single arm (left arm, right arm)

  • Closed Fist

  • Catch up

  • Finger drag

  • Thumb to Thigh

  • Stroke Counting


We won't go into specifics of each drill here, but there are many good books and DVDs in our Shop that will guide you on the techniques to perform each drill and how to incorporate using drills in your swim workout.

Use Swim Aids

As in all sports, there are lots of gadgets on the market designed to attract people that want to improve to spend money on "quick fixes". Most swim aids do not fall into this category however you need to know how to use them properly to make use of them effective.

If you've never done anything different other than swimming up and down the lane then get yourself some basic equipment. A kick board and a pull buoy are probably the best two swimming aids you can use in your workout. Next, you can add a set of fins (flippers) and finally you can go for hand paddles.

Each of these 4 swim aids works on a specific muscle group or technique as follows:
Kick Board - the main reason for using the kick board is to focus your attention on your kicking technique. You should not have your head in the water at all so you can keep your goggles off for this drill. Push the kickboard out in front of you but with bent arms pushing your chest up so you are working on your legs. Aim for fast, effective leg kicks.

Pull-buoy - a peanut-shaped floatation device. Swimmers tuck the pull-buoy between their thighs. Swim drills with the pull-buoy are done without kicking, relying on the floatational support for hips and legs. This isolates the arms for practising the stroke and breathing techniques.

Fins (Flippers) - put on fins and you'll easily swim faster, so why use them in training? Amongst some perfectly sound advantages, the main gain is teaching your body what going "fast" actually feels like. When you swim fast with fins you'll glide through the water. It's a chance for your body to experience that feeling. It will give you a benchmark feeling to aim for. However, swimming with fins will also improve your ankle flexibility, which will lead to a more efficient kick technique. Fins also help you to hold a better body position, which allows you to focus on other parts of your technique.

Paddles - hand paddles are hard plastic scoops worn on the swimmers hands. These increase the volume of water being pulled by the hands and increase the effort used in the stroke. This extra effort will enhance the upper body strength and encourage the swimmer to focus on a correct, deliberate stroke.

A nice way to use all 4 items of equipment is to start off your workout with a warmup of 100m x each aid. ie. 100m kick, 100m pull-buoy, 100m fins, 100m paddles. There are also numerous workouts you can adapt using each aid to focus on a particular technique.

Plan your Workout

One of the most important aspects of wanting to improve your swimming is ensuring that you effectively plan your workouts so that you don't just do the "junk miles". That means, you need to structure time for speed work, time for drills, time for recovery, time for endurance work. If you only work on one of these aspects you will not improve.

You don't have to have a swim coach provided you understand the basic principles of how to structure your workout and have the discipline to not only stick at it, but push yourself to reach your limits.

There are many ways you can access various swim programmes and workouts so have a try adopting this into your own workout schedule - the rest is up to you! Remember, its all about swimming more, so enjoy it.
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