For most triathletes, swimming is the weak link in their repertoire. The good news is that if you improve that part of your race, you can make some serious overall progress. If you’re fairly new to competitive swimming, you can learn to go faster in a relatively short period of time—if you tune in to these truths from Olympic gold medalist Melanie Valerio (1996, Atlanta, 4x100 freestyle relay):
1. Kicking on your back reveals a multitude of sins. It’s not unusual for triathletes to kick like they’re running or cycling, says Valerio, who has a few Ironman races under her belt. How to know if you’re one of them: Turn onto your back and start kicking. If you see your knees coming out of the water, you’re in that group. Fix it: Your kick shouldn’t start with your knees; it should start in your midsection and you should use the whole leg, she says. To get the hang of it more quickly, put some fins on. Use them to get a feel for what you should be doing, but do the majority of your training without them.
2. She who pulls the most water wins. Swimming faster and more efficiently isn’t about moving your arms through the water like a windmill, Valerio says. “It’s not about who can turn their arms over faster. Swimming is a whole lot of feel for the water and not that much movement.” One way to develop better feel and stroke efficiency is to put paddles on, she says. “Figure out how to pitch your hand and actually pull water. Think about taking the water in front of you and pulling it. As soon as you reach your belly button, you’re going to push the water behind you.”
3. Swimming more doesn’t always mean swimming better. "You really only need to go to the pool three days a week. Unless you’re working with a coach or instructor, swimming 6 or 7 days a week just enforces bad habits," says Valerio. "It’s like starting to run. If I’ve never run and start doing it every day, then all of a sudden I’m just running myself toward a knee injury.” If you’re swimming a lot and not getting anywhere, you may be working on the wrong things and it’s worth checking in with a coach to get your form right.