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How Do I Swim Faster?

by Justin Chester

Congratulations on taking the leap into triathlon. Even if you come from a bit of a swim background, there is still plenty that you can do to improve your swim, and that’s what we’re going to talk about here: How to make your swim faster even as we are introducing two other sports into the mix. Really it can be broken down into two components: Improve the technique and improve the engine. 

Many coaches in the swimming and triathlon community agree that good swimming is about 70 percent technique and about 30 percent fitness. I’ve even heard the argument that it’s as high as 80/20, but the point is that getting better technique in the pool is going to be the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to improving your swim speed. 

So, let’s start there. When it comes to going fast in the water, we can break it down into two fundamental principles: Reduce Drag and increase propulsion, in that order. If you have a swimming background, you likely have already done quite a bit in the reducing drag arena, but there are still things that can be done. Let’s think about all of the common sources of drag (we’ll assume that if you’re a guy you’ve ditched the board shorts for a jammer or a speedo and if you’re a lady that you’ve picked a suit that is functional and designed for racing). I like to think about drag this way: What are all of the surfaces that I’m presenting to the water in the direction of travel. Yes, I am presenting the top of my head and my shoulders, but am I also presenting my torso and my legs by swimming “uphill” or splaying out my kick? Am I presenting the palm of my hand as it enters the water? Is my hand entry crossing over the centerline and therefore my forearm is creating drag? There are even some more nuanced areas that create drag like a bent wrist or an elbow the drops first as opposed to staying on top (high elbows). 

Next, we have to talk about the propulsion component, and I’m not talking about the aerobic or muscular endurance just yet — we’ll get to that. I’m talking about pressing water opposite the direction of travel for as long as possible. If you think about your arm like an oar for a canoe, you want to use that oar to pull water toward the back of the boat, but too often swimmers are pushing water toward the bottom of the pool, thus pushing your body up toward the ceiling, not forward. I often ask my swimmers, “Which way are you pushing water?” In the catch, are your elbows high, allowing your forearm to hinge at the elbow with your fingers pointing at the bottom of the pool? In the middle of the pull, are you pushing water toward your feet or off to a side? At the finish, are you pushing water across your back or toward the ceiling (bad), or do you articulate the wrist to finish by activating your triceps (good)? 

Propulsion can be gained by having a bend in the elbow as opposed to a straight arm pull (while this arm position does increase propulsion, studies have shown that the drag penalty is much higher). Finally, some more of the nuanced items of propulsion in general include increasing your overall stroke rate, and making sure your timing in optimized (i.e. front quadrant swimming). 

Now that we’ve spent about 70 percent of this article on the technique side of the equation (you see what I did there), let’s talk about the fitness component. Each swim workout should have a warm-up, main set and cooldown, but more than that, the main set should have a variety of intensities that are both faster and slower than race pace (to get faster on race day, you’re going to need to swim faster in practice). 

Next, you’ll need to perform some sort of benchmark test. This test can be as simple as 5x100 FAST with 20 seconds rest, which will give you an idea of both what “fast” feels like and the time associated with it. 

So, if those 100s came in at 1:45, then moderate 100s may come in at 1:50. And maybe fast 50s can come in at 50 seconds, and a fast 200 can come in at 3:35. Having this information will put a time with how an intensity feels. Then when the workout says to go fast, do it! 

Wrapping all of this up, there is room in everyone’s swim to focus on technique and that should always be a focus, but as you work to improve technique you can also focus on sets that offer intensities that are above race pace 

Justin Chester is a USA Triathlon Level II Certified Coach and the head coach of Parker Tri Masters Swim Team. He coaches triathletes and swimmers of all abilities, from beginner to elite competing in all distances from sprint to IRONMAN.