The Triathlon Swim - Improving Economy

I’m now 46 years old and did my first triathlon when I was 15. I was one of only two teenagers in the event. I wore thigh length togs, rode a steel frame 10 speed and wore my mum’s running shoes. I remember seeing the race advertised in the local paper so I rushed home, told Mum I wanted to do it and rode off to the local primary school pool on the 10 speed. I proceeded to swim as many laps as I could of the 15 metre pool in an attempt to convince her that 1km in the sea wasn’t going to kill me. I'd had no previous formal swim instruction, however with no fear of water and a ‘sporty kid’ background I prided myself on being able to just watch the top athletes and then mimic what they did.  Mum was convinced, but come race day about halfway through the swim I started to question whether this had been such a brilliant idea. 1km was a long way on a diet of 5 training swims and self-taught freestyle.

30 years on, and still having only ever received 4 swimming lessons, I count myself as extremely lucky. When I tell people my Ironman swim PB is 49mins 59secs they assume I come from a swimming background - in truth I managed to grasp the basics of freestyle through reading, watching and listening.  I also know that I’m in a very small minority and due to my work with novice adult swimmers my sympathies lie with those facing the biggest obstacle to participation in triathlon......the swim leg.

 Bevan McKinnon Challenge Wanaka

Bevan McKinnon Challenge Wanaka

I now have over 20 years experience in teaching swimming and in that time I've shared the pain with many adult swimmers as they’ve struggled with the concepts of pool based freestyle technique and the transition to open water swimming.  Very rarely as adults do we voluntarily expose ourselves to the 'fight or flight' sensation which occurs when a novice swimmer, who is not absolutely confident in their technique, starts to swim in water over their heads.  With years of experience in witnessing the frustration, anxiety and stress this situation provides I’m going to throw a spanner in the works and suggest you approach your swimming from a different angle.  Traditional freestyle instruction for pool based swimming may not easily transfer to the demands of a triathlon swim leg.  I find my pool stroke is not my triathlon stroke as sighting, water conditions, race intensity and other athletes force me into a slightly different swimming action.  I encourage you therefore to train as you intend to race and focus on economy over speed.  The irony is that as your economy improves so will your speed. For my swimmers I focus on 3 key areas to improve economy for open water swimming:

1. Body position

2. Body and stroke alignment

3. Stroke cadence and length

These three factors can be achieved with some very basic movements and will provide immediate improvement.  Let’s start with:

1. Body position:

We should try and keep our hips as close to the surface as possible throughout the freestyle action.  This is one of the most common inhibitors to new swimmers (especially men) as in a lot of cases our flexibility has diminished and our ability to kick effectively is compromised so the additional propulsion and associated 'lift' we would normally hope to get from the kick is nonexistent.  Firstly we can help to change this by focussing on our balance point. Think of yourself as a see-saw with the balance point situated at your breast-bone.  Approximately two thirds of your body (ribs to toes) is on one side with the front third (chest to finger tips as your hand stretches out in front of you) is on the other.  Imagine that the front third is falling over a waterfall as the hand enters the water and to help achieve this allow the front third to relax completely.  Do a quick audit, is my neck relaxed, leading arm and hand loose and falling towards the bottom of the pool before I start the catch and pull.  This will mean that with the neck and shoulders more relaxed the head will fall a little deeper into the water subsequently lifting the hips closer to the surface.  If you struggle to relax your neck and shoulders ask yourself if you’re holding your breath while your face is in the water.  This generally leads to upper body tension so you should try and minimise any holding of breath by exhaling into the water as soon as you can after you breathe in.  You may drink a little more water in the short term whilst turning to breathe from this deeper head position but you’ll quickly make a natural adjustment to this as there will be a little bow wake made by the head as it travels through the water allowing a pocket for you to breathe in.

Another way to immediately improve body position, which I see some coaches discouraging, is the use of a pull buoy.  For me, if an athlete has a combination of very poor flexibility and therefore an ineffective kick and also shows a body type with no natural buoyancy, I encourage the use of a pool buoy.  It will assist swimmers in the same way a wetsuit will and we’re lucky that 99% of the time you’ll be wearing a wetsuit when you race so the use of a pool buoy only brings a swimmer closer to what they’ll experience on race day.  This is not in my opinion a defeatist way to approach a swimmer’s inability to kick but borne more from allowing a swimmer to train more effectively in the short term rather than waiting for the slow development of necessary flexibility.

2. Body and stroke alignment:

To minimise wasted energy the freestyle stroke should be relatively symmetrical and not cross over the centre line of the body either in the (above water) recovery phase or the (below water) pull phase.  Body alignment (from head through hips and down to toes) should stay in a relatively straight line at all times. Think of yourself as a kayak. The stroke you make on the right of the boat stays only on that side as does the stroke you make on the left.  If the arm swings across the mid line on entry it can cause the shoulders and hips to twist (wasted energy) or the underwater pull to occur underneath the body therefore eliminating the recruitment of the powerful back muscles to assist in the stroke.

 Poor body alignment

Poor body alignment

3. Stroke cadence and length:

In open water swimming, as opposed to pool based freestyle technique, a higher arm turnover is encouraged.  Pool swimmers tend to over glide in an attempt to improve their distance per stroke but this can cause a dead spot in the stroke where forward propulsion ceases and hips drop.  It can also affect the position of the leading hand and forearm as it starts the pull phase from a shallow position in relation to the surface of the water.  This generally means the elbow leads the way as the arm travels backwards and the forearm (which is part of our 'paddle') slips across the surface of the water rather than pressing water backwards.  Open water swimming suits a higher stroke rate than pool swimming with a more continuous stroke cycle. The usually rougher water and contact nature of the triathlon swimming leg tends to force you into this stroke cycle anyway.

The drill I recommend to help eliminate crossing over and affecting body alignment, encouraging good shoulder rotation (even for those with neck and shoulder flexibility issues) as well as increasing stroke length and cadence is a straight arm recovery drill.  A lot of coaches put undue emphasis on a high elbow relaxed hand position when bringing the arm from finishing the underwater stroke up and over to re-enter the water.  For some people this is very difficult as it requires good flexibility and for open water swimming it has less relevance. The straight arm drill has been used to good effect.  The arm upon exiting the water is extended high and in a windmill fashion moved up and over the head (increasing shoulder rotation and stroke length) and enters the water in or just outside the line of the shoulder

The hand and fingertips once entering the water continue downwards (falling over the waterfall) before making their pull through the water (without crossing the centre line). Be very diligent with this pulling action especially when turning to breathe as this is when most swimmers lose sight of the centre line and their arm is dragged towards the direction they’re breathing.

Now to test the success of this new swimming stroke try counting your strokes each length as you swim in your normal fashion. Focussing on body position (falling over the waterfall) and using the straight arm recovery again try counting your strokes per length.  Try to swim at the same intensity each time.  If your stroke count has lessened then it will be a combination of improved body position, better shoulder rotation and increased distance per stroke.  You’ll also probably be swimming with a greater turnover as the 'windmill action' has eliminated any over gliding.

 Straight arm recovery

Straight arm recovery


If you experience this change then congratulations your swimming economy has improved and now as your fitness continues to improve so will your speed.

Bevan McKinnon

Chris Collyer