Be Careful What You Wish For….

I wish I was a swimmer… or do I?!

Dan Bullock, Head Coach and founder of Swim for Tri (, takes a light-hearted look at how the green-eyed monster might rear its ugly head as you watch that great swimmer in the next lane to you.

Sometimes the water might not be greener the other side of the lane rope. The next time you look enviously at your teammate who swims like a fish, remember the downside for them. As my triathlon teammates would remind me, I would swim like a fish, run like a duck. Here are some of the pitfalls a swimmer might suffer from and how you once out of the water will be chasing them down.

Big feet

A natural advantage in the pool is simply from having bigger flippers. Unless of course your tight running ankles leave your toes pointing at the bottom of the pool, but let us gloss over that for a moment – see next paragraph! You might have heard of Ian Thorpe and his size 17 shoes which helped him break 5mins for 400m legs only (not a typo – 5mins!), at his peak. Now some studies suggest bigger feet can help you run faster, but let us focus for a moment on ground contact time. I defy anyone to get a size 17 foot off the ground quickly enough, repeatedly enough, to finish a race before dark. Whatever the size of your feet, try your best to make the best of them by at least not having them fused at 90deg at the ankle. This position will sink your legs quicker than using a brick as a pull buoy


Think about the flexibility at the ankles to create the perfect streamline in the water. No wonder your swimmer friend has such a low stroke count! They only swim half the length of a 25m pool. Other than a ballerina, who else can point their toes in this way? My super flexible ankles while being filmed for a running gait analysis years ago left the expert in hysterics; ‘the worst running gait I have ever seen.’ It still haunts me. If you can improve your ankle flexibility a little bit but not to the point it impacts your running stability it will really improve your swim if you stop pulling those anchors along.

Wingspan/Arm span

Michael Phelps probably brought this to public attention regarding swimmers’ physiques most recently and the media had a field day. Being blessed with a longer arm span than your height is a very common swim thing. It really helps. Mr Phelps does have some pretty impressive stats though regarding this anthropometric trait, what with him being three inches wider/arms longer than he was tall. Hide your smugness when you see your swimmer friend in discomfort on tri bars that never seem to fit or with arm warmers that only cover up half their arms. You might not be able to improve this personal statistic, but with some improvement to your flexibility your upper bodies range of motion will get better and your rotation will improve, making the distance travelled with each stroke greatly improved.

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Like large shovels finely honed to catch water all day long, to make the slipperiest of the elements feel solid. An elite swimmer’s hands are the tools of their trade. But try tying run shoelaces in T2 on a cold day just off the bike. Or how about changing gear on your bike with the finesse and panache of a TDF rider? Unlikely with those big bunches of bananas on the end of your wrists. 

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When I tried it usually sounded like the gearbox of my 1963 Morris Minor with the missing 2nd gear. Again, you might not be able to improve this literally, but ensure you do the best with what you have. Don’t cup them too small and too clenched allowing them to slip under the body as you pull. This scenario offers little reward in terms of the body being pulled forwards. Many swimmers I watch also don’t pull with the hand coupled to the forearm. Think of them as one unit as you anchor the ‘blade’ vertically and pull the body forwards.


The average height of the male swimmers in Rio 2016 racing at the Olympics was 6ft 2 or 188cm. Not that uncommon you might think and how would that be an issue? Well, if you combine that with the other desired Phelpsism of shorter legs being preferred for a great swimmer then sadly that combination would not be so great for reaching the pedals or ground with the legs. Good height with short legs usually means long torso and a better centre of mass / centre of buoyancy, leaving our lucky swimmer floating horizontally in the water.

You will always spot the swimmer on a flight as the tallest person sitting down but once you disembark they will disappear into the average throng of the population. Phelps at 6′ 4″ had the legs of someone usually ‘only’ 6ft tall. Not much you can do about your height in in the water, but make the most of what you have. If you push off the wall in a starfish streamline, well, you will swim like one. 


Years of long-distance FC swimming left me with what I thought would be a decent set of glutes having elevated a straight leg back up to the surface six times per arm cycle, for 13 or 14 strokes per 25m, for literally 000s of metres each week across 20+ hours of swimming weekly for 50 weeks of the year. Cue my first running injury when starting triathlon years later to be told by my physio I had weak glutes. I was devastated. If you can straighten out the upsweep of your kick you will significantly improve your kick and reduce drag. Try the glute kick drill or the Pilates swimmer to get a feel for this movement.


Those broad shoulders that developed as a teenager ploughing up and down the lane will not help them stay in front on the bike. I know one elite duathlete who spent a winter trying to crack the swim by adding hours of solely ‘pulling with paddles.’  They then, when back in the wind tunnel the following spring could not work out why their numbers were now so bad. They had actually added a few cm of mass to their upper body/shoulders and now could not get as aero as before when down on their tri bars. A pull buoy and paddles should be part of your swim training, not literally your swim technique. If you are faster with a PB then work out why.

International Swimming League / ISL
Photo Credit: Mine Kasapoglu –

The mystical feel for the water

You take a week out of the water and your next swim feels like a water boarding experience by CIA recruits who are not that good at it yet. Listen to your fish neighbour miss one day and they will be crying how they have lost the feel for it and a session of sculling will be needed to reacquire it. Try it, it does help the water feel more solid and thus easier to catch. As will swimming with a few mm of space between your fingers, exfoliating your palms lightly and swimming in those water mitts you see people using who bought them by mistake instead of paddles.

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Generally Clumsy

It is said that swimming often chooses you at a young age as you slowly discover dryland activities do not suit you. Last to get picked for football/netball? Don’t like team sports or sharing the glory? At the age of 11 I was actually asked to leave my junior football school team as I accused the other players of not trying hard enough. I had the fitness from hours of swim training, already just no skills. Don’t enjoy getting rained on? Then head indoors to swim, we all know chlorinated water is fine! Enough bruises on shins to warrant leaving your older brothers shin pads on all the time? It was a good look with short trousers. All these cues tell you one thing – try swimming. It is how most of us found it. Therefore, it won’t take long for you to catch up to the swimmer in front on your bikes, they’ll still be on stabilisers.

As they say, no race was ever won on the swim in a triathlon and there is not much fun in exiting in the top-10 to then be overtaken by 2,000 competitors, such as I was at IRONMAN Lake Placid some years back, but if you can take a few tips on board to improve it will help. During this lockdown, watch, learn from, and partake in as much swim-related dryland training as you possibly can each week to minimise the damage done from being out of  the water again these next few months.

After three months of dryland stretch cords with us last Spring many of our regulars who came to the lake were not too out of sorts when returning to the water. Rusty, a little mechanical with a loss for the feel of the water was reported, but swim fitness and technique were soon reacquired. If you can return with some of these aspects improved you will sure to be gaining on the fish in the next lane.

A respected figure in the swimming community, Dan Bullock is a Speedo & Vasa Coaching Advisor, and Coach with the London Disability Swimming Club. He regularly contributes to Tri247, Outdoor Swimmer and more. Visit Swim For Tri HERE.

John Levison
Article by
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in the sport for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages. While his passion is triathlon, you'll also find him watching Boxing, Darts or at the theatre enjoying a good musical...