Triathlon Swimming Techniques - A Discussion

Let me first state, as clearly as possible, that I'm by no means an expert in triathlon training.  All the opinions expressed in this mighty blog are mine (as well as my friend Steve's) and those of the websites referenced.  I'm sure that, had I dug deeper, I could have found differing opinions to varying degrees and I urge everyone to research, and train, with the methods that best suit them.

A month or so ago (when I was still racing and my season hadn't yet gone down the tubes), I was standing around after a triathlon and struck up a conversation with a swimmer from a relay team.  He (Steve) did the swim leg for a friend of mine who runs and trains with the Sound Shore Runners and Multisport Club.  (Great club, by the way - it's where my wife and I got our start in competitive running and triathlons).  Anyway, it was post-race and we were talking about how we both swam in college and we ventured onto the topic of the differences between competitive swimming, and swimming for triathlons.

I mentioned that I had trouble with implementing a lot of the 'best practices' for triathlon swimming as I have the muscle memory from my days (years) of age group, high school, and college swimming.  By best practices for triathlons, I mean:

Streamlined body position: Looking down, not forward.  Rotation of shoulders is key in both, but keeping shoulders high and 'out of the water' isn't necessarily the best approach for triathlons (more on that below).

Front quadrant stroke technique:  Where the current technique is to always have one hand / arm in front of our body when swimming, I was brought up on the "S" stroke with high elbows.  While we did catch-up drills to keep our stroke as even and balanced as possible, the words "front quadrant" didn't exist back in the 80's (at least where I grew up).  As I understand it the "S" stroke isn't what most great swimmers practice anymore.

You can see in the above photo progression how the left arm stroke doesn't begin until the right arm has entered the water.  Hence the term "Front Quadrant" stroke technique.

We discussed how, back in college, the goal was to look forward, with the waterline breaking on your forehead and your shoulders and back as far out of the water as you could get them.  This cut down on drag and made you faster.  It also burns energy.  In a triathlon, you don't want to burn up all your mojo on the swim leg.  Here, focusing on torso rotation during your stroke is key to keeping drag to a minimum.

You can clearly see the difference in the head position of the competitive swimmer (above) and the triathlete (below)

Breathing is also (or can be) a little different.  In a pool, you can turn your head just a little bit - sometimes with half of your face and mouth still under water - and sneak a breath in the pocket of air that is formed behind your wake as you move forward. Minimal exertion of energy again being the point.  In open water, waves (and in some cases surf) may not make sneaking a breath like this possible.

None of this is earth-shattering news.  But it was great to talk with someone who grew up with the same training techniques as I did and to discuss how they differed from some of the triathlon swim training tips that are on the web and are taught, rightly so, by numerous coaches.

Steve and I went back to discussing the S Stroke and he started to mention a book written by James E. "Doc" Counsilman called The Science of Swiming

This book was written in the late 60's, and the techniques and methods were still the de rigueur in the 80's when I was in high school.  Apparently they are still highly regarded now.  While I realize that there are many differing techniques that are taught currently, a lot of the basics are still the same.  It was amazing to me that this book is still looked upon as a benchmark for swimming technique, training, and theory.

Okay, enough walking down memory lane.  Tomorrow morning is open water swim day with the Westchester Tri Club.  I'll try to disregard all my old swimming habits.