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Speedo Says...

How to streamline your open water swimming

Training for a triathlon? Want to shave time from your swim leg and conserve energy? It’s time to get streamlined. Triathlon swim coach, Dan Bullock, reveals the open water swimming tips that will help you become more streamlined.

How to recognise training improvement
Triathletes love their stats. How far, how high, how long – if we can put a number to it then we know we’re getting faster or slower, travelling further or for longer. However, some swim specific issues are harder to measure than others. For example, when I tell people the advantage of a modern wetsuit over not wearing one can be as much as 10 minutes over Iron Man distance, it’s not a hard sell. It’s believable due to the instant, recognisable improvement – you know you’re higher in the water, you know your legs are no longer dragging behind, and it all just gets a lot easier regardless of your swimming ability. When I suggest that a wetsuit made in the last 18 months is going to be significantly better than something older, it gets a little harder to measure.

Just like this, there are several technical improvements that are harder to measure when it comes to drag issues, but I believe they’re worth pursuing. The fixes are rarely rapid or straight-forward, but the resulting easier, faster swim is worth the pursuit.

What’s preventing your swim from becoming streamlined?
The following technique issues are basic swimming faults I work with daily in my triathlon coaching with people of all shapes and sizes, all of which can prevent a streamlined body position in the water. These are the most common themes that hold most swimmers back, regardless of their physique. Although, obviously, if your feet are a size 12 and point to the bottom of the pool, they will drag more than a size 3 foot pointing to the bottom, so results will vary. Other issues such as fatigue, speed, and how much the heart rate is pushed up, can also affect how much drag is created.

We tested these swimming faults during a training session, performed in an un-fatigued state. Bear in mind that as you fatigue, the inaccuracies exaggerate.

Try working on these elements to reduce drag during your swim.

Tight ankle
Such a small part of the stroke is the ability to point the toes backwards. Whether you have tight ankles or shins the position is devastating to fast, relaxed swimming. The exposed surface area creates drag and the swirling water around the feet sink the legs to the extent that in our training we saw 10 strokes added per 50m from this issue alone.

Bent knee kick and scissor kick
These related issues are extremely damaging to freestyle (front crawl), as they not only create drag (due to the exposed surface area displayed), but they also require a lot of effort from big muscle groups. Aim to keep the leg kick hidden behind the trunk at all times. A bent knee will keep the legs low and sinking, and the scissoring will keep the heart rate high. In our tests, speed over short distances (50m) wasn’t compromised so much, but heart rates were 30-40 beats per minute higher than a ‘hidden’ leg kick.

Straight-arm push down
Lean on the pulling arm when taking a breath and it’s only 50% effective at pulling the body over the hand position. Breathe every 2nd stroke, and for many this means 12 strokes over just 25m, where you’re doing little more than swimming single-armed. This issue is a great hindrance to forward speed, but longer-term I would be concerned about the stress to the shoulder, as more ‘shoulder joint’ is stressed and less musculature is used. Instead, aim to introduce a balanced, symmetrical arm pull for 5-7 strokes fewer per length.

Arms crossing the centre line
Starting your pull sequence from an incorrect position guarantees time wasted realigning it back to the right position during your swim. Since water is dense enough to allow an incorrect pull pathway to upset your body position, you may find it also throws your hips around. In addition, the combined drag when sweeping the arms across the body on entry (the forearms expose a lot of surface area that could have been hidden with the entry taking a forward alignment) and it’s a recipe for a slower swim. We found stroke count increased by 5-6 when swimmers were not positioning their hand entry slightly inside the shoulder and driving the arms forward.

Swimming flat
This issue keeps a lot of the upper body submerged, adding surface area. It shortens the distance between the fingertips of the hands when trying to extend a lead arm forwards and trail arm beyond the hip, shortening the breathing window and pull distance. Here, speed was only compromised a small amount but heart rate increased by 20-30 beats per minute as the window of opportunity to take a relaxed breath shortened, and there was more area to shunt through the water.

Breathing too high
Even with the head in a good, neutral position in the water, you can roll it into the breath. Look up to the ceiling and you might need the pulling arm to stabilise your head position by sweeping wide. At the very least with this issue the head is out of its key neutral position for longer than it needs to be. Keep the head still to swim faster. Take lower breaths with the mouth just above the surface. As your speed improves you’ll be able to breathe below what appears to be the surface due to the bow wave and trough formation. In our tests, 2 strokes were lost per 25m when the breathing lowered

Head held too high
Think of your body position; if you feel you’re looking forwards and facing forwards, you can be certain you’re adding drag to your swim. In addition, keeping the head in this high position continually places stress on the neck. The real damage here, though, is that the sideways breath exposes the side of the head to a lot of oncoming water and keeps the mouth low. Again, 2 strokes per 25m were lost when the head returned to a better position and a turn to breathe was introduced instead of the sideways lift.

Fingers too open/too closed
If your hands are too small, with clenched fingers, it’s easier for them to slip under the body without providing much forwards movement. Too large a gap between the fingers, and water slips through – and again the hands slip under the body. A sliver of daylight between the fingers and you hold the most water. Personally I checked this one in training, keeping as many other variables similar. With fingers wide open I was 35 strokes for 50m, 33 strokes with fingers touching each other and 31 strokes with a small gap between.

Try this triathlon training drill
The best way to demonstrate why streamlining is of use is to go about your triathlon swim training with a slightly different mind-set. Rather than swimming a distance where it’s logical to get slower as efforts increase, we can swim to time. As fatigue builds, streamline and technique start to disintegrate and you can see yourself covering less distance with each swim. Swimming in this manner really hits home as to what a lack of efficiency can do to your swimming.

For this drill, it is important to perform a sensible warm-up first and consider this your main set. Follow this with a cool down.

  • 3×6 minutes swimming at 70% effort. Rest 30 seconds between each swim. Think more about distance per stroke travelled and streamlining as you try to attain the same distance with each repeat.

  • Swim an easy 2 lengths recovery.

  • 3×4 minutes swimming at 70% effort. Rest 30 seconds between each swim. Think more about technique and streamlining if distance travelled starts to slip.

  • 3×3 minutes swimming at 80% effort. Attempt to swim as far as possible. Rest 30 seconds between each swim.

  • Swim an easy 2 lengths recovery.

  • 3×1 minutes swimming at 80% effort. Attempt to swim as far as possible. Rest 30 seconds between each swim.

The bottom line is that swimming with more drag quickly becomes a punishing swim, as you work harder to beat the water holding you back. Streamline your swim more and you’ll move through the water more effectively, with better results in your swim and overall triathlon times. For more open water swimming and triathlon tips, visit our news, tips and technique section.