How to re-enter swimming (and competition) safely and efficiently

by Jarrod Shoemaker

The swim leg of a triathlon intimidates most participants with its chaotic, crowded start. Add in the fact that most triathletes don’t come from a swimming background—and that water is one of the more dangerous settings you’ll encounter in sport—and you have the ingredients of fear-inducing scenario. 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of problems, closing pools and restricting access to training. Let’s focus on how to get back into swim shape quickly, and how to lessen some of the anxiety around triathlon in particular.

Focus on your kick

A lot of triathletes who learn to swim later in life are told to not kick, but this is the exact wrong instruction. An effective kick both balances the body and provides steady propulsion during dead spots in the stroke. If you have ever watched somebody swim freestyle and spot a scissor kick (their legs splitting apart behind them), they are not kicking correctly. One of the first steps to take is a drill where you focus on kicking every time the opposite hand enters the water. Right hand in and left foot kick. Left hand in and right foot kick. You’re developing what swim coaches call a two-beat kick, and some of the best open water swimmers deploy this technique.

The next step is to intentionally kick a little harder, training your system to get used to a bit more propulsion from the legs. When you start an interval, work on driving your kick for the first 15 yards, slowly extending how far you can hold that strong kick.

It will take a while to get your legs stronger when you are learning to use a strong kick, but it will not affect your bike and run. Why? Most of your kick actually comes from your core and lower back. It is a snapping motion with your leg from your torso down; the bending of your knees and ankles are just because of the whip of your legs, driven from the core.

To work on your kicking, add in a kick set to your workout consisting of 4 x 50 build (“building” means get faster as you go through the interval, starting easy and finishing fast) kick with ten seconds rest. in between the intervals.

Focus on speed

Most triathletes get into the habit of just swimming and their paces do not change. Speed change is so important to practice, just as it is in cycling and running. Instead of simply swimming 4 x 100, try rotating a fast 25 into the 100, so go 25 fast/75 strong, 25 strong/25 fast/50 strong, etc. This will allow you to learn how to pick up the pace to pass somebody, get around a buoy faster, or stay on somebody's feet. Even if you don’t think of yourself as someone who races in the water, varying your speed makes you a faster, more situation-flexible athlete. You’ll find your swim times improving when you add in some speed variance to each session.

A second quick way to work on speed is to add in 4 x 25 fast on ten seconds rest at the end of your workout. Try to go fast as when your body is tired. Similarly to running, it’s more difficult to swim with bad, lazy form when you’re going quickly, so by finishing a workout with some speed you’re teaching your body to remember the speedier stuff.

Focus on breathing

Finally, focus on breathing correctly. You should be expelling all your air underwater before you turn your head to breathe. Doing so will shorten the time needed to have your head to the side, which is the moment your body is out of alignment. Think about keeping one eye in the water and the other out of the water.

The other way is to work on some hypoxic training. Be careful with this, but my favorite is to try to swim from the flags in and out of the wall underwater. If you include a flip turn it will make it even harder. Stay calm when underwater, breathe out slowly and not all at once. The point of hypoxic training isn’t to hold your breath—it’s to focus on a calm and steady exhalation while underwater. A bonus? Without breathing, you get to focus on several strokes in a row, uninterrupted by the problem of turning your head. Extend your bilateral breathing from every three strokes to every five, then every seven. Can you do every nine strokes?

If you can take and use these three tools while reintroducing swimming to your training, your next race will go better than you imagine, I promise! Remember to work on anchoring your kick to your body, including some speed in your workouts, and controlling your breath. By focusing on these fundamentals, you’ll be surprised at how much more fluid and comfortable you feel in the water.