Most people swim many, many more meters than they need to during the swim leg of a triathlon, adding minutes to their time in the process.
By working on your sighting while swim training, you can improve your swim time quickly and with minimal effort.
I wrote about it in the following article: Open Water Swimming Tip: Swim Straight Like the Pros
Be sure to practice your drills and bilateral breathing – preferably in open water conditions. In so doing, you should avoid results as seen in the following video from the guys at Swim Smooth. It highlights the perils of poor sighting.
Try practicing sighting and say goodbye to long, snaking swims where the end never comes, and say hello to fast, efficient swimming.
Try some of the following swim workouts, adding sighting as a key drill and reap the benefits of a swim time that is minutes faster!
Bilateral breathing is often under-rated, but it is a key component of swimming for triathletes. It is fine to have a stronger side, but do incorporate bilateral breathing into your workouts for open water swimming.
Three reasons you should practice your bilateral breathing:
1) Balance your stroke
Just like writing, people naturally have a stronger side when it comes to swimming, and are biased towards breathing to that side. That is perfectly fine, and stick to your preferences when racing, but practice breathing to both sides when you’re training. This will balances out both sides of your stroke and ensure you are equally strong on both sides.
2) Race day skills
If you happen to be swimming beside someone who is super splashy you will want to breathe to the opposite if you don’t want to be swallowing water every breath. Being able to breathe bilaterally will allow you to switch sides and breathe towards calmer waters. You can also track your rivals while racing – there will be no hiding for them! Give yourself options.
3) Open water navigation
Bilateral breathing will allow you to sight to both sides and ensure you are swimming in a straight line. For example, if you are swimming parallel to the shore on your left, but you breathe only to the right, you will miss out on easy sighting. Practice breathing to both sides and reduce the number of times you need to lift your head to sight forwards.
How to add bilateral breathing to your swimming
Add bilateral breathing to your swimming gradually. Breathing every three strokes can be tough on the lungs so increase it gradually.
Start with breathing to the left for one length, then breathe to the right only for one length. This will get you used to your form when breathing to both sides while swimming.
Next, add some breathing to your weaker side every 5th stroke: breathe every two as normal, and then on the 5th breath take three strokes and breathe to your weaker side before switching back to your stronger side. When that becomes comfortable increase the number of times per length that you breathe bilaterally.
To increase your bilateral breathing further, add it every fourth length, then every 3rd, then every second length, until you can breathe bilaterally continuously during a long swim. Here is a great video on how to add bilateral breathing.
Breathing to your weaker side may throw your stroke off and feel weird at first but persevere, it will soon become second nature. You will be glad of this skill when you hit the open water and on race day.
In open water swimming one of the many challenges is to swim straight and keep the distance you swim to a minimum.
You can beat much better swimmers than you by being clever and efficient with your open water swimming. If you snake through the swim and are constantly having to correct course, these tips may help you.
1) Bi-lateral breathing
Most swimmers have a stronger side and that naturally leads to imbalances in the stroke. If you breathe to one side only it increases the likelihood of swimming off to one side (unless you sight regularly). Breathe to both sides to swim straighter. You can use markers to sight to both the left and right, and reduce your reliance on sighting to the front.
2) Practice in the open water
This is where the true test occurs, and the more you practice, the better you will become at open water swimming and in particular straight swimming.
3) Swim blind
When in the pool, close your eyes and see how straight you can swim. Try and get a feel for which arm or element of your stroke might be leading you astray. Practice and see how far you can get with your eyes closed and without hitting the lane ropes. Swim safely though.
4) Keep your stroke long and smooth
This will reduce any ‘jerking’ that may cause you to swim off course. The more strokes you take, the more likely your imbalances will reveal themselves.
5) Practice your sighting
The goal is to sight as little as possible, while keeping as straight as possible. Make your sighting technique as efficient as possible, and in rhythm with your stroke to reduce the energy it takes. Practice regularly in training. When you are sighting, look for tall, obvious landmarks that stick out bit jut the buoys which can be hard to spot. Pre-race, scout the course and see what landmarks are in line with the buoys. Work on spotting them rather than searching long and hard for the smaller buoys.
Open water swimming can be a tough skill to master, but there are many quick and easy tips to help you master it. Swimming straight in the open water is key, as it ensures you swim fewer metres and helps conserve your energy for the bike and run legs.
“Cor, blimey“, a bit of slang in England, is an excalamation of surprise.
The goal of this session is to highlight the role your core plays in swimming and put it to good use. I want my swimmers to think “cor, blimey” as they perform drills, and then transfer that to some longer swimming. It should be an eye opener as the power from their core is highlighted, and for many it will end with sore abs!
The main set’s focus is smooth swimming, building on the drill set and using the core rather than the arms to drive forward & rotate. The first part of the set is designed to fatigue the arms, forcing the swimmer to use the core in order to maintain form. The second part is then a longer aerobic set, the primary focus is form and engaging the core.
On a side note, “Fist drill” is almost the opposite, in that it highlights the role of the forearms and teaches the swimmer to not just focus on their hands.
Warm up: 200m as 50m swim, kick, drill, swim
Drills: 2x (4×50) as 3 drill, 1 swim
#1) Kick with hands by sides, rotating the body every 6 kicks, and to breathe. Focus is using the core.
#2) Side kicking, change sides every 18-20 kicks, use the core to transfer.
4x50m freestyle, with 15 push-ups on poolside between each, 15 seconds rest
#1) 25m head up fast, 25m swim
#2) 25m sprint, 25m swim
#3) 25m head up fast, 25m swim
#4) 25m sprint, 25m swim
In the following, focus on using the core throughout
400m: 80% effort, even pacing
300m: every 4th length faster effort
200m: every 4th length side kicking drill
100m: reduce stroke count each length
Warm Down: 200m easy swim alternate backstroke and kick 25m’s
What do you think? What would you change/add/remove?
I preach endlessly about practicing drills and improving your technique – I know, I know, I’m like a broken record.
I understand though that there are days when you want to switch off your brain and just go for a swim. Maybe you’re tired after a day at the office, or you don’t feel well. OK, OK I’ll let you off this once. No drills today!
What are other quick and easy ways you can improve on the swim?
1. Core strength. Don’t even get in the pool! Do some yoga or pilates. Do abs and back exercises. Do body weight exercises. A strong core will help every part of the stroke, from maintaing streamlined body position to being able to drive yourself through the water.
2. Practice the other strokes. Triathletes tend to stick to freestyle only since it is race-specific. The other strokes are not irrelevant however. I prefer a holistic approach and the other strokes provide benefits, one of which is saving your shoulders from the wear and tear of a single stroke. Breaststroke and backstroke may also be useful in a race. I like to do a few breaststroke strokes at the end of the swim to wake up the legs. Do them in the warm up and cool down. If nothing else the variety will keep you interested and break up a long workout.
3. Breathing – or do not breathe! I also bang on my “breathe easy” drum a lot, but for this tip the idea is NOT to breathe. This will strengthen your lungs and increase workout intensity. Reduce the number of times you breathe per length on longer aerobic swims (breathe every 3 strokes, every 5, every 7) . Build it into fast 100m’s (do not breathe on last length). Remember to keep your form nice and relaxed.
Implement these tips and you will see the results across your triathlon.
Breathing is an important part of swimming. Apart from the obvious need for oxygen, breathing inefficiently has two knock-on effects:
1) puts stress your lungs, body and brain with irregular and insufficient in- and outflows of oxygen
2) leads to poor technique and makes swimming tougher than it needs to be.
This workout starts with some drills to help with form while breathing, and then works the lungs on an hypoxic set, where you strengthen your lungs by limiting the number of breaths you take. It also forces you to breathe bilaterally which is a great skill to have for race day.
Warm up: 200m choice swim, 100m kick
Drills: 6 x 50m as 25m drill, 25m swim, 2 each of the following:
1) Side kicking, working on smooth turn of the head to breathe
2) 6 kicks to 2 strokes – focus on breathing form and body rotation
3) 6 kicks to 4 strokes – focus on breathing form and body rotation
Main Set: 1000m total, gradually reducing the number of breaths per length while reducing the distance per swim. Get your breath back before starting the next swim ~20-30 seconds rest
- 1x 400m: 1st 100m: breathe once every 2 strokes, 2nd 100m: every 3 strokes, 3rd 100m: breathe every 4th stroke, last 100m: breath every 5th stroke.
- 1x 300m: on each 75m breathe every 3, 4, 5, 6 strokes
- 1x 200m: breathe every 4, 5, 6, 7 strokes increasing the number of strokes per breath on each 50m
- 1x 100m: breathe every 5 strokes on 1st length, then every 6, every 7 and every 8 strokes on each subsequent length
Cool Down: 100m backstroke and/or double-arm backstroke + 100m kick with kickboard (fill those lungs with air!)
Spinning can lead to imbalances in leg muscles strength which can lead to sore knees and joints as one side of your leg pulls tighter than the other. A limited range of motion also means the entire leg is not working.
Ballet squats help strengthen the inner and outer muscles and offer a greater range of motion than spinning. Add this to your routine, particularly in the winter when you are doing more spinning.
Start off initially without weights and then graduate to light dumbells once you make progress.
Be conscious of your form (knees & posture), and make sure each rep is controlled.
Adding this exercise to a good stretching and core strength program will help avoid any imbalances due to spinning.
Many beginner to intermediate swimmers struggle with maintaining body position in the water. Is your experience something like this:
As you swim down the pool your legs gradually sink towards the bottom, which makes it harder to swim and tires you out, which causes your legs to drop some more, and then you have to lift your head up and out of the water to breathe, which causes your legs to sink even more, etc.
Sucks, eh?! No matter how hard you work if your legs are dragging behind you each length is going to be a slow, hard, painful slog.
It doesn’t have to be that hard though! The ideal state is floating near the surface of the water, your body in a straight line parallel to the pool floor for maximum efficiency. If you can swim like that you will slice through the water with ease.
If you don’t master this technique, no matter how hard you work, your swim will always be a chore.
Here’s a few tips to improve your body position:
1. It’s all in the hips! Keep them in line with your upper body and engage your core to stop your legs from dragging. Work on your core to make this easier.
2. Remember your physics teacher. Lean on your chest and armpits as you swim. This will keep you top heavy and stop the legs from dragging. For every reaction there is an opposite reaction, remember? Lift your head up and your legs will drop.
3. Practice drills. Side kicking will help with a straight body position and efficient breathing.
4. Don’t work harder to avoid sinking. The goal is efficient and easy swimming. Don’t kick harder to keep your legs up, this will only burn you out and leave you struggling on the bike & run. Relax your legs and let them float behind you. Your kick should be light, regular and relaxed. Go easy on yourself!
5. Breathe! As soon as you hold your breath, your body tenses up and makes it harder to keep that long, straight body position. Breathe in AND out regularly. Work on your head position when breathing. don’t lift it up to breathe – this will cause your legs to drop.
Put a lot of effort into body position. You will see more results in a shorter period of time, than putting the miles in.
A lot of my athletes like to compare notes on their week’s training and try to outdo each other in terms of the hours or miles they racked up. It’s a pissing contest for who gets to be top dog that particular week.
I love the enthusiasm but has the athlete who did the most miles or hours progressed the most? i.e. what’s more important – quantity or quality?
This debate is summarized in Competitor magazine in the following article: Is There Such A Thing As Junk Miles? The article refers to running but it is equally applicable to triathlon in general.
Partly because I work long hours in the day job, I am a firm believer that you don’t need to train hours upon hours to get results. I go for quality first.
We have to be efficient, have a plan and get the most out of each session. Don’t train purely to reach a target of miles completed. Be comfortable maintaining a 3-4 sessions per week. As long as you are consistent and working hard you will see results.
On the other hand, what are junk miles? One theory is that “the only running that is not junk mileage is the higher-intensity stuff (tempo runs, hill repeats, track intervals”
A slow, steady run or swim will build your aerobic base and and burn fat. You can also incorporate drills into this session to also improve technique. Drills are always quality work if done well. Always.
In the end the author sits on the fence a bit where rather than going to either extreme he “advocates a balanced approach where mileage and faster running are given equal weight”.
I think the bottom line is don’t train for the sake of racking up a few miles.
Have a purpose or don’t do it at all. Go enjoy yourself instead.
Outside of being able to stay relaxed in the chaos of open water swimming, I rate sighting as the most important skill triathletes need for the swim. If you can’t swim in a straight line you will end up swimming further and waste valuable energy. Simple.
And one mile (or 1.2, or 2.4 miles) is enough, right?
Here are 5 ways to master sighting, avoid obstacles and finish the swim faster and efficiently:
Bilateral breathing – breathing to both sides will give you a 360 degree view of where you are. Being able to switch the sides you are breathing on will give you the option to follow a marker even if it happens to be on your weaker side e.g. the shore
Match the rhythm of your stroke. Before you breathe lift your eyes out of the water and scan quickly before turning it to the side for a breath and back down again. Lift and look forward, turn to the side and breathe, and back in the water. Simple!
Just a peek – lift your head just enough to get your eyes out of the water to scan for your marker. Lifting the head up too high causes fatigue and costs you time as you pause, and will lead to you dropping your hips and legs.
Landmarks and swimmers – don’t limit yourself to the buoys marking the course. Use your fellow swimmers, although do not trust them blindly. As you breathe to the side pinpoint landmarks you can use to guide your way – this will reduce the amount of times you have to lift your head to sight. Scan the course for such landmarks before the start.
Practice in the pool before you hit the open water. Do 4x25m of “alligator eyes” drill where you lift your eyes just out of the water. “Water polo” drill: swim with head up every second length. This will get you used to keeping your stroke together with your head out of the water. Get a friend to place objects (e.g. cone, kickboard) randomly around the pool and see how quickly you can spot them. As you swim down the lane, scan for particular objects e.g. a sign on the wall. When practicing longer swims make sure you practice your sighting.
Working on your sighting will ensure you are not swimming further than you need to – save your energy for the bike and run!