Open water swimming is not like the calm and controlled environment we experience in a pool. Most triathlons take place in lakes, rivers and even the sea where tides, waves and currents often come into play! Finding the best technique allowing you to swim more efficiently and therefore expend less energy, which will help you get to the bike and run in the best shape possible!
I’ve included some of my favourite drills and techniques to work on.
Good cadence is key in triathlon! Having a good cadence allows you to swim at a chosen pace and maintain it without tiring. This in return gives you the confidence to swim to your own plan and pace in a race. It also helps if water is choppy (i.e. a sea swim) as it allows you to change your stroke style depending on the variables. Think of when you are running uphill compared to downhill, your stride length changes and the same principle applies in water.
A really good drill to practice for increasing cadence is the water polo drill. This is where you swim with your head up. Look to get your arms over quickly. This should eliminate any gliding in your stroke and force your hand into the water and immediately into a ‘catch phase’.
Catch and body position
Improving your body position in the water will ultimately make you swim faster as you will be reducing the amount of resistance that you have to overcome in the water. The biggest thing to pay attention to is your head position. You need to find the sweet spot between it being too high and too low as this will affect the back end of your stroke. Gazing underwater a few feet in front of you will be about the correct distance. Think about the power coming from your hips as you rotate through. Engaging the larger muscle groups like the lats will also help with this, while also keeping your core engaged.
Some drills to practice perfect position would be: floating. You can simply push off the wall in a streamlined position to see how far you can get. Or practice a cannonball float; this is where you tuck your knees up to your chest and wrap your arms around. You should find that you begin to balance. Then try and release arms and legs into a streamline position and still try to stay on the top of the water!
When swimming freestyle it is a good idea to practice breathing bilaterally - to both sides. This is useful because it helps to balance out your stroke, making it easier to swim in a straight line. This will become very useful once you move to open water as there is usually no black line on the bottom of the floor to help see where you are going! Breathing bilaterally also helps you to keep up with where the race is going. You may have faster swimmers on either side of you and being aware of where the quicker swimmers are will help you choose the best feet to get on to.
A good drill for this would be to mix up the cadence of your breathing within reps. For example, do 4x50m focusing on breathing every 3:5:7:9 strokes.
Being able to switch legs off and use upper body
As the swim portion is the 1st part of the triathlon you really want to leave something in the tank for the rest of the race (bike and run) and having fresh(er) legs will definitely help you towards the back end of the race. A useful way to do this is to isolate the arms during your swim session by using a pool buoy. This helps you build strength in the upper body.
A really useful drill to practice is to do some pull and band work (tie your legs together) and practice getting your arms over quickly. This will help when you translate to open water too!
There is a lot to think about with swimming so my final bit of advice would be to work on one thing at a time. If you try to focus on everything at once, it could be overwhelming. Focus on getting one thing nearly perfect before moving onto the next.