Swim Tech Video: head for the swimming pool

Swim for Tri

With the open water racing and training season now well and truly over – at least in the UK – swim coach Dan Bullock from SwimForTri (www.swimfortri.com) has some thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and a video to help get you back to the swimming pool and off to the right start in your Autumn/Winter training.


For many the idea of heading back to the pool in the autumn after a long summer of open water racing and training can be quite unappealing both psychologically and physiologically. Pool based training is often quite uninspiring and on top of that there are some actual physical differences in your stroke mechanics that will make the transfer back to the pool quite tough. It usually takes me about six weeks to feel comfortable when training in the pool after a long summer of open water swimming. The feel for the water is different, the body position different, the lack of wetsuit makes it physically harder and the general feeling of swimming in treacle is no fun. During this transition period, training can be laboured; even less fun then normal and more likely the attitude of ‘putting off getting to the pool’ will prevail.

In the winter months, from Jan onwards many will be focusing on adding kilometres for their fitness and getting onto a training camp. Come the spring, race preparation will be the focus with the thought of heading out into open water soon. Summer for most will involve weekly sessions in a body of open water and racing on the weekends. The autumn can be a key time for lots of active recovery sessions from the race season disguised as technique work. If you are still biking and running it is highly unlikely you are going to get unfit at this time by taking the throttle off your pool intensity. If we can get you to the pool then this is a great time to put in some fine tuned practice. What follows are some observations and remedies to helping you get back in the pool this autumn and make this significant transition smoother.

Body position – lack of wetsuit:

This alone will lower the body position 5-10cm overall and allow the legs to sink leaving most triathletes scrambling for their pull buoys. Legs need to be kicked to generate forces that provide lift and propulsion. We are asking you to limit a large kick by using the hip flexors and glute muscles to control a small kick. These are not the muscle groups used primarily in biking so need not be saved for the bike. If you are really struggling then have you considered a swim skin (thin wetsuit) for training in this winter? A swim-skin will bring some of the benefits in terms of body position of a wetsuit but will not a limiting factor on learning to kick correctly by excluding them with a pull buoy.

Head position with consideration to breathing:

With the body position lower, the head position will be lower meaning that you may need to rotate the head slightly more to come up for air. Key word here is ‘turn.’ Try never to lift your head forwards and up into a breathing position, this will increase the surface area of your frontal profile leading to more drag and slowing you down. Your window of opportunity to get the breath in will narrow as you sit lower in the water. On the upside, the water you swim in could be a little smoother then a regular open water swim and if you persevere with your training, improvements to technique, lowering drag and an increase in speed will have you sit higher in the water. Swimming faster will have you sit higher in the water and deepen the trough either side of the head as a bow wave forms around your head. Some more fin work may assist in the early stages while you need some help artificially propping up your body position.

Degree of body rotation:

For those that put the technical and fitness work in with me during the run up to race season I have been amazed at how much has been lost. Granted, many will have had a few well deserved weeks off but never the less the deterioration in people’s strokes goes back further. Falling into a style for the summer that is offset by being in the wetsuit that has a lower drag coefficient then skin allows for more mistakes to be covered up. Degrees of rotation seems to be one of these. As you now return to the pool and your body position is lower in the water more of you will be submerged for longer. Returning to a more disciplined degree of rotation through the long axis will keep your surface area minimised and therefore levels of drag also down.

Feel for the water:

You have swum on people’s feet all summer or very close to, meaning you possibly have de-tuned your sensitivity for the feel for the water. All that disturbed water you have been pulling through means a possible change in hand shape/positioning to try to maximise holding the aerated water that has lost density. You are probably now back in the pool and training at 5sec intervals to the person in front of you. This situation means you are more likely swimming and holding onto water at its normal density meaning you are pulling more effectively but it will feel quite tiring for a while. Persevere, the muscles of the Lats and Triceps will adapt to this extra workload. Paddles might help accelerate this return to a pool based ‘feel for the water,’ or sculling with swim mitts on to further deaden the feel for the water. Switching between this style of scull and normal full stroke will enhance your full stroke.

Angle of your Catch:

If you have not been swimming in a wetsuit at least a few times per week in the summer I imagine you might still find it a bit of an effort. Despite the amazing advances of manufacturers technology you are still encapsulated in few mm of neoprene, which you have to work a little harder initially to swim in. Setting up an accurate ‘catch phase’ is hard at the best of times so slipping back into a ‘pivot at the shoulder’ straight-arm pull is possible. Work on your catch in the Autumn months to bring back the more accurate ‘pivot at the elbow’ position favoured to expose the surface area of the forearm in a propulsive position.

The wetsuit manufacturers learned a thing from the previous mistakes of swimmers when shaving down. If you accidentally shaved the inside of the forearm then setting up your catch with a slippery forearm was made really tough. As a swimmer you only made this mistake once. The wetsuit manufacturers caught onto this and added the various ridged/rippled/waved forearm panels to assist in the hold of the water at this key phase in the stroke. I can’t help but feel when returning back to the pool and you are sans suit then your catch is going to suffer as you have lost the bionic arm panels! I would suggest you focus on some hand position drills at this point to minimise the hand surface area and promote a better awareness of engaging the forearm.

Finesse over aggression:

Racing for the season is now over and done with so finessing your FC should be an aim. Apart from the odd overtaking manoeuvre in a public session getting past Billy Driftwood your stroke should not be in self-defence mode until next May/June. Try to smooth out the rough edges that undoubtedly will have crept in. Listen to your stroke, swim with your eyes closed for sections of each length, keep the splashing to a minimum with soft hands. Add some sculling routines to help start to feel the water again. Any time you try to engage too much force or strength with your FC then the water will just punish you by sliding around your hand. Pulling masses of aerated water with its density reduced is not going to help your ability to pull the body over a static hand/forearm position.

Leg mechanics:

I mentioned earlier the direct effect of losing the wetsuit and the body sitting lower. If there is no kick then the legs will sink if you are quite muscled in that dept. One stage further back is the forceful downward momentum that a two-way pivot at the knee will bring. This position is easier to attain as it involves the Quads and Hamstrings. The addition of a wetsuit will not stop you from kicking this way. What it will do is lift them higher in the water, allow you to relax more and be a little less frantic, giving you the excuse to put off fixing them once more in the off season as you have promised yourself over the years. Unfortunately even with this improved body position the arms will still be pulling a highly non-streamlined ‘back end’ through the water limiting top end speed and making for a more tiring swim.

There was a great submerged race picture of some swimmers in a recent 220 magazine showing some amazing leg positions. I bet at the time the picture was taken the swimmers did not ‘think or feel’ they were kicking but some looked as if they were racing in a hurdling event. Use this time to really shift from a Quad/Hamstring Kick to a Hipflexor/Glute kick and you will be rewarded with a better streamline allowing the arms to do less work to pull you faster.

Maybe this collection of reasons for lethargic pool training along with some fixes will help get you back to it sooner rather then later. It is not easy, the two disciplines of pool training and open water racing are quite different. Many triathletes enjoy mountain biking and cross country racing in the winter. Both are quite different skill sets and some adjustment is needed to work these related but different disciplines. Give your swimming some time this Autumn and try not to let your frustrations get the better of you.