Sorting Out the Swim Technique Puzzle
By Steve Tarpinian

For most of us Northern Hemisphere triathletes our first race is at least four months away. That gives you plenty of time to make some real improvement in your technique. The timing could not be better for working on your swim technique. The challenge is to sort out all the great information available in away that applies best to you. Many times a tip from the fastest guy in the pool or an offhand comment from a swimmer, while well meaning, can cause more confusion.

I recently met a triathlete, Pat Crespi, from Denver who expressed her frustration with her swim training. She enjoys swimming and has had some improvement but has leveled off. She feels that there must be some easy changes to help her, but they have eluded her. The fact that some of the information she has gotten is conflicting does not help matters. Does this sound familiar?

Let's start by getting some advice from two swimmers who have been successful:
Mike Smedley: Mike is a member of the National Team and has really improved his swimming in the two years he has been racing professionally. What does he attribute it to? "Focusing on my technique with directed drills and putting in the laps and training to get more comfortable in the water."
Mike Barth: This Mike is an amateur triathlete who dropped 3 minutes off his 500 meter time in three months and is looking forward to qualifying for Ironman this year. "Doing specific drills for my stroke and putting in the meters."
What is important to learn from their answers is the words specific and directed. Simply doing drills will not lead to maximum improvement. Doing drills that are directed at an area of your stroke that needs work and doing them correctly is the key.

Obviously we can not reach out through an article and tell you what you need the most, however we can pick three very important aspects of freestyle technique that all swimmers at every level should be improving on and describe them for you. Chances are very good that at least one of these is going to be a winner for you. Interestingly, the swimmers we work with at the professional and beginner level need work on the same aspects, the only difference is that the faster the swimmer the better they are at these aspects.

1. Streamlined and level or balanced body position (especially on your side)
2. Rotation from side to side
3. Propulsion, generating power in the correct direction

Most swimmers with any experience have done some or all of the following drills. What is important is to do them correctly, so pay particular attentionto the descriptions so that you do not make the same mistakes in a drill as your stroke and simply cement in your flaws.

1. Kick on Side drill - Mastering a balanced position on your side is best worked on by lying on your side with one arm at your side and the other outstretched in front. One of the keys to this drill is to lie your head down on your arm and strive for "one eye (goggle) in and one eye (goggle) out".This will keep you from lifting your head up and driving the legs down. You may struggle with this and get some water up your nose, be patient and if you are having trouble getting air, rotate your head as opposed to lifting it. See photo of Peter Hursty, Professional Triathlete and swim coach demonstrating this drill in our 99 brochure.

2. Kick on side with rotation - Once you get the side position then it is time to work on rotating from side to side. Here the key is to rotate from your kick and hips so focus on making your shoulders the last part of your body to rotate. Kick six to ten kicks on a side then rotate and continue that sequence.

3. Fist and catch up drill - These are two great drills to work on generating power when you swim. The fist drill is best done by alternating ten strokes with your hands closed then ten open. This dynamic way of doing the drill helps make the changes of bending your elbow earlier more permanent. The catch up drill can be used for many purposes, here accelerating through the pull should be the main focus.

Lastly, technique is crucial, but at some point we need to match efficiency with speed. For that purpose it is best to do a min-max drill. Here you go for minimum strokes with maximum speed. Do a set of 50's where you count your strokes and time it. Add the two numbers. The idea is to play with speed and stroke length to find the optimum efficiency. Speed comes later, as my friend Doug Thralls says "play on".

Steve Tarpinian, Creator of the SWIM POWER video, author of the Essential Swimmer and coach of triathletes of all levels. For information on swim and triathlon clinics or training: (800) 469-2538, Fax (516) 775-5164 or Email