This 3-part blog series was contributed by triathlon swim coach Andrew Sheaff of Mastering Flow. Andrew specializes in swim skill development for athletes of all levels.
For many triathletes, the swim can be a real challenge. It’s a foreign environment and a foreign skillset. Because of the difficulty, there is a lot of interest in information that can improve one’s swimming. As a result, there are a lot of resources available to triathletes to help them improve. While this can create a wonderful opportunity for learning, it can also be difficult to determine which information is appropriate for you.
To help create some clarity, I’m going to provide you with a simple framework that you can use to improve your swimming over time. You will swim faster and easier if you can accomplish these three steps-
- Learn to get comfortable in the water
- Learn the key skills in freestyle
- Train to be able to sustain these skills
Over several articles, I’m going to explain how to accomplish these three steps from a big picture perspective, including simple actionable steps along the way. In the future, I’ll dive deeper into each segment. We’ll start off with the most important and most neglected area in swimming, getting comfortable in the water.
It’s All About Air
Almost all swimming technique advice centers around what the limbs are doing. While the limbs are certainly important, they overlook the most important reality about swimming. Effective swimming is all about managing air.
To swim well, you need to be able to effortlessly attain and maintain a horizontal position on the surface of the water. If you can’t, ALL of your energy will be spent trying to do so. Ever see someone kicking constantly? They’re desperately doing so as a natural instinct to keep themselves up at the surface.
To achieve that position, you need the air in your lungs to help you float, and you need to be able to use that flotation to get horizontal. This is a critical skillset that is often neglected.
Unfortunately, you also need to move air in and out of your lungs so that you can stay alive, as well as fuel your athletic efforts. This is where it gets tricky. To remain comfortable in the water, you need to be able to breathe in a smooth and controlled manner. This will ensure that your breathing never gets away from you, and you’re always able to use your air to support yourself in the water.
If you can’t effortlessly control your air and use that air to maintain your position on the surface, any effort spent focusing on the specifics of freestyle technique will be wasted. It’s like building a house on a foundation of sand.
Therefore, the first priority is to learn to get comfortable in the water through effect air management. Unfortunately, this is a skillset that is rarely discussed or addressed, which leaves many triathletes struggling and frustrated with their swimming.
What Can You Do?
Here are three exercises that can be implemented today. They all work on different aspects of air management, and they work synergistically.
The first is the ball float. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate that you can float in the water with little to no effort. It lets you feel support and flotation, and it’s an exercise than can be done by anyone, anywhere.
The second exercise is the bob. As mentioned above, you’re going to need to breathe, and you’re going to need to breathe in a controlled manner. For those not particularly comfortable with their head in the water, this is a great way to get practice breathing rhythmically. You can perform bobs in shallow or deep water, with the latter being more challenging due to the longer time between breaths.
Lastly, there’s the ball float to X float. The value of this exercise is that it teaches you to create tension in your legs and back to ‘hold’ the legs up at the surface, preventing them from sinking. Think of performing the ‘superman’ core exercise while performing this activity, which is also a good exercise to develop these muscles.
Ball Float to X Float
How Relevant Is Comfort For YOU?
If you’re just starting your triathlon journey, particularly if you’re just starting your swimming journey, establishing comfort in the water is going to be THE most important skill you can work on. It is the platform upon which all future success is built.
As a result, a significant amount of time should be spent working on these types of exercises. They can be included during warm-ups, warm-downs, or in between repetitions. How you implement these exercises is secondary to putting in the time.
At the other extreme, if you’re a fairly experienced triathlon swimmer, you may find that these exercises still provide benefit. While they may not result in major changes in your swimming, they may provide valuable insights that improve your swimming in subtle ways.
Everyone else is going to be somewhere in the middle. Improving comfort in the water doesn’t need to be the central focus of your swimming training, yet improvements will still result in a major positive impact on how fast and easy you can swim.
About the Author
Andrew Sheaff is a triathlon swim coach who specializes in all levels of athletes. Andrew runs Mastering Flow, a coaching and training platform designed to simplify the process of swim skill development so that individuals can find comfort, ease, and speed in the water. Follow Andrew on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.