Thinking of Joining USA Triathlon?

Be a part of our 550,000 member community of multisport athletes. Membership benefits include a subscription to the quarterly USA Triathlon magazine, discounts from USA Triathlon partners, inclusion in the national rankings, excess accident insurance at events, and savings at races. To see why you should join or renew today, visit the membership benefits page. Already a member? Login below.

Forgot Password  |  Forgot Member ID  |  Help Renew Membership Become a Member

Develop World-Class Open Water Swim Mechanics 

By Jesse Kropelnicki

open water swimming Swim mechanics is an area where athletes are subject to a whole host of opinions, and determining which are valid can become difficult. Having performed underwater video analysis on hundreds of individuals, the great majority of them 50 to 85 minute Ironman swimmers, I feel very confident in identifying the most subtle of issues and how to mitigate them. Similar to my writing on run mechanics a few weeks ago, this article and video are geared towards highlighting the most common and critical items related to swim mechanics within the sport of triathlon.

Of the three disciplines in triathlon, swimming is the most difficult and critical to master the mechanics. Swimming has infinitely many degrees of freedom, as compared to running and cycling, because of a lack of sturdy connections to firm ground. As an activity’s number of degrees of freedom increase, so too does the difficulty to master its mechanics. While running, you typically have one foot in contact with the ground, at all times, providing one less degree of freedom than swimming. Cycling, on the other hand, allows constant contact with the saddle, both hands, and both feet, accounting for five fewer degrees of freedom relative to swimming. As difficult as it is to master the mechanics of running, it is exponentially so in swimming, where there are really no solid contact points, and plenty of opportunities to create your own problems.

I want to first discuss some of the sources of athlete confusion as related to swimming. Much of this confusion is born from pool-trained swimmers or coaches, focusing on a longer glide phase and lower stroke count. Open water swimming, in choppy waters, requires a strong back end of the stroke, with a follow-through that pushes beyond the hips. Athletes having a long glide phase in their stroke, tend to be slowed by open water chop while in this portion of the stroke, being re-propelled with each pull phase. Unfortunately, a long glide phase typically results in a slow turnover and fewer pull phases per minute. Fewer pull phases mean fewer opportunities at forward motion, because of not being re-propelled through the water. Based on these facts, rough open water swims require a higher turnover than their pool-based counterparts. 

The above can be evidenced by collegiate pool swimmers who see a major decouple, relatively speaking, between their pool and open water swim times. Although their graceful glide and strong front-end propulsion results in fast and efficient pool swimming, once offered to the unrelenting chop of the open water, these attributes are quickly minimized. This can be especially frustrating for those who race at the professional level, come from a swimming background, and typically crush their competition in the pool. Come race day, with mass starts, and bodies in front, behind, on either side, and sometimes on top of you, the front end is the first part of the swim stroke that gets lost in the flurry. With people and feet occupying the space where a nice, long, and gliding swim stroke might occur, it becomes nearly impossible to get a strong catch and pull within the front quadrant of the stroke. This leaves the mid to back end of the stroke as the critical piece for maintaining any forward momentum. Since the back end of the stroke and follow-through are protected, no matter how crowded the swim is, it only makes sense to apply a strong focus of our attention here, for top-level triathlon swimming.

These two points explain why pool-born swimmers can be very graceful and fast in the pool, but may have a good deal of difficulty translating this in-pool speed to the open water. It is the front-end focused swimmers, having a long glide, strong catch, and low turnover/cadence who are most efficient in calm, smooth, non-crowded waters. However, this same group is often out swim, time and time again in the open water by the high turnover crowd, who thrashes through the water with a strong back end to their stroke.

One of the most frustrating aspects for swimmers with poor mechanics is that many spend countless hours in the pool, swimming hard, 5,000 meter workouts with masters groups, but fail to make any significant progress in their open water swim speed. This equates to a misappropriation of the athlete’s “stress budget”, because a good deal of stress is utilized with little or no return on the investment. In a case like this, the stress spent on swimming is likely better spent cycling and/or running, where speed is less dependent upon mechanics, and gains in fitness are much more likely to directly impact race speed. As such, the athlete may be able to consider backing off on swim intensity, to focus on the mechanical issues that are impeding gains in speed on race day.

If you are looking for an efficient and comfortable way to swim in training and racing, focus on the front end, a low stroke count, and long glide. If you are looking to lead the swim portion of a triathlon, focus on a strong back end, and high turnover, both of which still require good balance in the water. 

Different swimming objectives require different training techniques and mechanical demands. So, when receiving swim advice or looking for a coach, make sure that you clarify the type of racing that you are looking to do, and make sure that the advice matches your specific objectives.


Jesse Kropelnicki, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon Level II certified coach who founded QT2 Systems, LLC and He is the triathlon coach of professional athletes Caitlin Snow, Dede Griesbauer, Ethan Brown and Jacqui Gordon, among others. His interests lie in coaching professional triathletes using quantitative training and nutrition protocols. You can track his coaching blog Visit QT2 on Facebook HERE!