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Sweat the small stuff – follow these four tips to improve your swim times this summer

Paying attention to the "small stuff" can pay big dividends to your swimming if done right

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When training for triathlon, the key elements are to show up, put in the time and work hard.  If you are consistent in all of these, you will see progress over time. You can think of these as the “big stuff” that you need to focus on. Get these down and you don’t have to worry too much about the “small stuff,” right?

Unfortunately, when it comes to swim training, just focussing on the “big stuff” isn’t necessarily going to pay off. I have seen many athletes stuck in the same groove in the pool – working hard, showing up and being consistent – and yet only making minimal progress. Why is this? The water is a very unusual environment for many triathletes, and it often behaves counter to our expectations and our experiences on dry land. This means that even for many experienced swimmers there is a lot to learn about how to best move in the pool. We cannot just buckle down, lower our chins and count on hard effort and consistency to get us to the next level.

Related: Swim training post-COVID – getting back in the pool

Photo: Kevin Mackinnon

Here are some seemingly small things that I see triathletes regularly ignore that would pay dividends if they did right:

  • Streamline properly off every wall. Every time you streamline properly you practice getting into and holding the proper body position. This will translate to all of your swimming if done regularly.
  • Use the pace clock. If you are swimming with a group then this is the only clock that everyone can see and agree on. This will help you pace your workouts evenly (see #3) instead of regularly drafting or racing to catch up. Even if you are swimming by yourself, use the pace clock. Constantly checking your watch for your splits or reaching for your wrist is a great way to mess up your swimming technique. If you have to use a watch because there’s no pace clock then take it off and set it on the pool deck, letting the beep tell you when it’s time to go.
  • Pace your workouts properly. Most pool swimming, and even much open-water swimming, is done using an interval training approach, with regular, albeit potentially short, rest periods. Always going out too hard for the first 25 m of your 100 m repeats is akin to sprinting for 30s every km during a long run. Practice pacing your 100s as evenly as you would pace a long run.
  • Work on turning well. Turning badly in the pool is a combination of streamlining poorly and pacing yourself improperly. You’re using and reinforcing inefficient technique and also slowing down every time you turn. This creates bad habits and means that you need to accelerate after every turn, spiking your overall effort level.

This is just a sample of seemingly small things that, if incorporated into your regular swim practice, would make a difference to your long-term progress. If this is too much to work on all at once, focus on one or two things at a time. Write them down, read them before practice and think about them during your session. Focus on those few elements for several workouts, and then mix them up. Over time, this will allow you to work on many different elements of your swimming and the changes will start to add up. Each time you revisit working on a small detail you will improve at integrating it into your swimming. In this way, working on the small stuff can add up to make big changes over time.

Darian Silk is a triathlon coach and Clinical Exercise Physiologist based in Toronto.  Read more about Darian here or email him at darian@teamatomica.com.  You can also check out his TrainingPeaks profile here.