Improving in the Pool: The Benefits of Drill Training for Triathletes

How one swimmer learned the importance of drills for improved performance, and expert advice from an Olympic gold medal swimmer

Flickr/**RCB**, Licensed under Creative Commons

For beginner and veteran triathletes alike, swimming is often the most difficult part of training for and racing a triathlon.

Many of us learn to ride a bike during childhood, and even if we’re not so great at it, running is, for the most part, an innate ability. But then there’s swimming, an activity that for many is foreign and awkward, sometimes even for those who were fortunate enough to take lessons growing up.

That’s not to say that the final two legs of a triathlon are, easy. Both cycling and running are challenging in their own ways. Both disciplines cannot be mastered without learning special skills and techniques.

However, as Marni Salup, the CEO and founder of The Salup Group, a 500-hour certified yoga teacher, and a veteran Triathlete explains, she found that a sole focus on building endurance in the pool was holding her back from truly improving her performance in the water.

She learned this on a recent “adventure-cation” to St.Croix. She made the trip to improve on her open water swimming endurance and technique with Tailwind Endurance coach Earl Walton and Olympic gold medal swimmer Misty Hyman.

“One of the most valuable lessons I learned was understanding my space in the water in the context of the plane of space that I am supposed to be swimming within,” Salup said. “Ironically, this finally clicked while I was learning butterfly.”

She explained that before working with Walton and Hyman she would, as she described it, “windmill” her arms during butterfly or bend them during freestyle.

“Now I completely understand my position in the water for optimum swimming,” Salup said. “Comparing swimming to other sports like running, I would never run with my arms straight out and two feet in front of me, because I understand the power range of running. I finally got it in the pool.”

She mentioned that these ideas seem basic, but she was surprised to find how much the off-season technique drills helped to improve her performance.

“Technique plays such an important role in increasing speed and efficiency,” Sallup added.

Hyman agrees, and says that body posture is one of the most important things a triathlete can work on for improved performance in the pool.

These are some of the drills she recommends:

  • Focus on keeping your neck long and straight with your head in a neutral position and your eyes gazing down so that your hips won’t sink. Avoid lifting your head forward.
  • Do not twist your body, but instead focusing on “rotating” your torso with each stroke. The idea is to put the power of your abdominal, back, and chest muscles behind your hand in order to ‘paddle’ the water with more power.
  • Practice “sighting” drills in the pool so you can become more spatially aware and get better at spotting markers like buoys in open water. These drills include:

1. Swim the whole length of the pool with your head up. (This trains neck muscles that are different than the ones you use while your head is down.)

2. When you have a lane to yourself: swim along the center line of a pool lane with your eyes closed, open your eyes every five to ten strokes. (This will help you get an idea of how straight you swim—indicating how often you should sight, and provides feedback about how balanced your stroke is.)

3. Alternate between swiming five strokes with your head down in a neutral position and five strokes with your head up, focusing on a specific object while your head is up. (This can help you learn to feel less disoriented when you lift your head up to sight.) 

4. Swim five to ten strokes and then quickly lift your head up to see where you are. When you put your head back in the water, practice returning it to a neutral position so your hips allign properly.


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