Tri Training: An Olympic Gold Medalist Shares Technique Tips for Improved Performance in the Pool

Misty Hyman explains how to improve speed, endurance, and overall performance in the pool and on race day

According to Olympic gold medalist Misty Hyman, the best way for swimmers to improve speed, endurance, overall fitness, and prevent injury is to improve their body position in the water.

“In swimming, everyone always talks about what we do with our arms and our legs,” she explained. “But to me the most important part of what we do when we swim takes place between our hips and the top of our head.”

She says that each of her training session at Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley, Arizona, where she now offers instruction for fitness, competitive, and triathlon swimmers, begins with an evaluation of where the swimmers “hips are riding.”

“Yes, my first job is to look at your behind,” she joked. “I can tell a lot about your swimming by how low or high your hips are.”

The goal, she says, is to swim in a position so that your butt and heels just barely break the surface.

“Contrary to popular belief kicking and pulling harder will not necessarily get your hips higher in a sustainable way,” she explained. “The posture of your body can, though.”

Poor head position is another mistake that Hyman said is common in many adult swimmers.

“Many of us learned to swim with our faces looking forward at the end of the pool and the water line hitting us right above the eyebrows,” she said. “Often this causes our hips to sink.”

Instead, she says that for optimal efficiency swimmers should focus on keeping their necks long and straight and their heads in a neutral position with the eyes gazing down.

Once you can effectively employ this body position, Hyman says you can then move on to working towards improving your speed, endurance, and specific triathlon techniques.

Improving Speed in the Pool
Hyman says that once your body position is correct, the next step you should take towards increasing speed is adding power.

“Many triathletes have trouble connecting their arms to their lats and core muscles when they pull the water,” she explained. “I like to compare this to swinging a golf club with only your arms instead of your whole body. You wouldn't expect the ball to go very far if you only moved your arms without rotating your hips and torso. In swimming it is similar.”

She explained that although you won’t “twist” your body while swimming, you should focus on rotating it.

“In doing so we are able to put the power of our abdominals, back, and chest muscles behind our hand to ‘paddle’ the water with more power,” she said.

For increased speed, Hyman also suggests incorporating swimming-specific weight training in order to strengthen the lats and upper back muscles as well as prevent shoulder injuries.

“Core training is also invaluable in swimming to help with the body position,” she added.

Improving Endurance in the Pool
Hyman says the most important aspect of building endurance is spending consistent time in the pool.

“Endurance on land does not necessarily translate to the pool,” she said. “I recommend swimming at least three times per week. I also recommend learning to use a pace clock and swimming intervals. Just like we don't run and bike at the same speed or the same distance all the time we should not just get in the pool and swim the same distance and at the same speed each workout.”

Tips for Triathlon-Specific Pool Training
“The biggest difference between the pool and open water swimming is sighting buoys and landmarks or watching where you are going,” Hyman said. “I recommend regularly practicing sighting in a pool.”

To improve these skills, she offered the following drills, which she recommends doing at least once each week for a few lengths of the pool.

1. Swim the whole length of the pool with your head up. Train these muscles for the race. They are different muscles than you use with your head down.

2. If you have a lane to yourself, swim along the center line with your eyes closed. Open your eyes every five to ten strokes to get an idea of how straight you swim. This can give you great feedback on how balanced your stroke is and give you some indication as to how often you should sight.

3. Swim five strokes with your head down in a neutral position and five strokes with your head up. While your head is up try to focus on something specific. If there is a clock or sign try to read it. I often find it hard to focus or find things when I lift my head up from the water. I feel disoriented. I find that practicing focusing my eyes on something when I look up really helps.

4. Finally, practice swimming five to ten strokes and then quickly lifting your head up to see where you are and putting it back down. Try to make sure that your head goes back to a neutral position and your hips come back up to the surface.

Preparing for Race Day
In her final remarks, Hyman offered triathletes advice about how to prepare mentally for a race,

“Visualize your race in advance. Picture yourself swimming with great technique and then adding power,” she said. “Visualize challenges that may come along and how you will handle them. Always imagine going back to your basics. Most swimmers will get anxiety their first several races in open water. It is helpful to expect this to happen and practice some coping mechanisms that you will utilize to persevere.”