Improve Your Triathlon Swimming Technique

Triathlon Swimming Technique
Coach Steve
Written by Coach Steve

“I feel like I’m swimming with poor technique, and perfecting it with each workout!” — an IronMan distance competitor

So what is good swim technique? You’ll get as many different answers as there are swim coaches, but when you listen to their advice keep in mind that there are distinct differences between fitness swimming and triathlon swimming where the goal is pure speed. This article assumes you’ve achieved ‘fitness,’ and now your goal is to build speed. Here are a few key points that will help you move fast through the water:

  • When you swim your body is moving through the water, but your hand/arm is not; your hand/arm should hold onto the water like an immovable object. Your body should feel as little resistance as possible; your hand should feel the most resistance possible as it holds the water effectively.
  • Water has extremely high resistance to movement (friction), so you’ll slow down very quickly when you’re not generating force to pull/push your body forward. In fact it’s to your advantage to minimize glide time, so, “You must always be pulling.” Sheila Taormina
  • The most efficient force to drive you forward will be exactly opposite your direction of movement (remember that from Newtonian Physics?), so changes in depth of your hand or lateral movements cause slippage—energy lost. Hand angle is also crucial, and pulling surface area (hand/forearm) should be optimized.
  • Poor body position (head and shoulders high/hips and legs low), or an inefficient kick will increase drag negating a distinct percentage of the pulling force you can generate.

The most common technique flaw is a poor beginning of the pull as your hand first enters the water. This is usually caused by too much time focused on minimizing strokes per length (glide). To achieve fewer strokes per length most swimmers will spend progressively more time gliding (keep in mind that strokes per length is determined not only by proper form, but also by a swimmers size. Assuming both have perfected form, a 5′ tall swimmer with short arms will never achieve as few strokes per length as the 6′ tall swimmer with longer arms. The shorter swimmer can create similar speed with faster turnover). Perfecting glide is good when it contributes to optimal body position and streamlining, but gliding without a pull is just decelerating at a lesser rate. If you focus on holding the water well through your pull, you’ll get across the pool with fewer strokes.

It’s true that a fully extended arm at entry will optimize your glide, but why glide when you could be pulling and maintaining momentum? Also, while gliding on a fully extended arm, elbow locked, hand pointed forward, how can you begin to pull? You can’t; all you can do from that arm/hand position is push down toward the bottom of the pool which contributes no force to move you forward, and worse, it’s the most common cause of shoulder injury. This is where the high elbows dogma comes in, with high elbows (more on this later) above water, your hand entry will be angled downwards into the water not far ahead of your head (some coaches describe this as “spearing the fish”). This is good!

Upon entering the water your hand should go to a depth of about 12 inches immediately. Also, your elbow should be very slightly bent out front, never locked. As soon as your hand has entered the water and your arm is fully extended (not to the point of elbow locked) in front, your wrist joint should flex (some coaches describe this as, “dropping your pinky”) so your hand is at an angle where you can hold the water and begin to pull. The sensation you should feel is pulling your hand/arm toward your body, not going deep to the bottom of the pool.

Consider what happens if you optimize glide with your arm fully extended near the surface, elbow locked, hand pointing forward. All you can do from that arm position is push downward. That generates no force to drive you forward. In fact, if you push down with a fully extended arm you’ll be creating force to lift your head and upper body which in turn pushes your legs lower- not good! This form flaw is the cause of most shoulder injuries for swimmers.

Next think about the pull, ideally your elbow is slightly bent out front, elbow higher than hand (high elbows again), the wrist flexes so your hand is perpendicular to direction of movement as you’re starting to pull your body over your hand/arm. Yes, think about it—it’s your body that moves through the water not your hand! The goal is for your hand/arm to hold the water efficiently as you pull your body forward over your hand/arm that’s holding the water like an immovable object (like grabbing the rung of a ladder and pulling yourself up). If you can keep your elbow high (there it is again) from the start of the pull, you’ll increase the surface area that you’re pulling with to more than just the palm of your hand—a good thing! You’ll be using not only your hand, but your whole forearm to hold the water with your elbow high.

Now let’s consider slippage. When your hand changes depth or moves laterally that’s slippage—wasted energy. Focusing on an ‘S’ pattern pull creates slippage; pulling straight back in line with your shoulder/side is the way to go. Keep it simple. When you rotate your body to breathe, body position as related to your hand/arm changes and in fact this is your ‘S’ pull pattern.

Another factor to consider is hand depth. If your hand goes too deep you gain leverage, but lose power and especially endurance. Think about it, when you’re pulling/pushing yourself up out of the pool will it be easier with a straight arm out in front of you, or a bent elbow with your hand close to your body? This applies to your stroke; an elbow bent at 90 degrees as your body moves over it is more powerful and efficient than a straighter arm that goes too deep.

Now how about the finish (push) of the stroke? As your body moves over your hand-arm unit to hold the water effectively, your hand angle must change so it’s always perpendicular to the direction you’re moving. This means when it’s under your chest your hand is in-line with your forearm, but at the finish of your stroke it should be pronated (at 90 degrees to your forearm, as if pushing yourself out of the pool with hands at thigh level). Your stroke should finish up with your hand right next to your thigh just before your hand/arm pulls out of the water, not away from your body. The finish of the stroke is the best time for swimmers to think about glide as it promotes pushing all the way back, and a focus on correct hand angle.

One more important thing…if your hand doesn’t follow your body line as it pulls, it will cause lateral motion of your body and legs (turning). If your hand changes depth as it pulls, it may cause your body to move up and down. Both are bad and will slow you down. Many swimmers compensate for these stroke flaws with their asymmetrical, big kick, but this just compounds the problem and creates more drag.

Good body position has your head and shoulders low (just a sliver of your head showing above the waterline), with your feet and legs high, no lateral movement through the hips, legs. The goal is to be as close to perfectly horizontal as you can. Your kick should come mostly from your hips and not be too big (feet should not separate by much as big kicks can actually create more drag than propulsion). Beginner or pro, dedicate part of every swim workout to form work!

If you’ve never actualy seen yourself swim I recommend having a coach videotape you in the pool. A coach can carefully describe all the changes you need to make. The first time I saw my swim form on video it was a revalation. Of course I thought it would be fabulous, but in fact it was a mess. I made changes during the very next swim and gained speed!

About the author

Coach Steve

Coach Steve

I'm Coach Steve with 17-seasons of elite-level competitive cycling, followed by 20-years of multisport racing; I have practical experience to complement my analytical skills. As a former National Cycling Team member as well as Triathlon and Duathlon Team USA member, I've won age-group National Championships in triathlon, duathlon, and cycling.

I've helped hundreds of endurance athletes attain their competitive goals for triathlon, duathlon, cycling, and running; I've coached for USAT and USAC, as well as independently: coaching résumé. I combine coaching theory with years of race day experience for results!

I offer personalized coaching to triathletes and duathletes, as well as single-sport endurance athletes. Each training plan is unique, created one-at-a-time based on your specific needs, not pre-written or computer-generated generic. My coaching philosophy is based on the belief that you should make the most of your training time, so every workout has a purpose. I understand your training cannot always be the first priority in a healthy lifestyle so I make adjustments as needed.