Trying to improve your swim? Focus on the critical things…

Triathlon is a relatively new sport and a consequence, there’s a huge number of people aged 30+ who have never swam competitively and find themselves now destined to a life of frustration, trying to learn effective front crawl. 

Many years ago I worked as a tutor for British Triathlon delivering their coaching qualifications. When the courses were put together, British Triathlon did the most sensible thing available to them at the time. They approached UK Swimming and British Cycling and asked for advice and input on the swim / cycle coaching element of the qualifications. This was the most obvious thing to do as we were training coaches to be competent in the 3 disciplines of swim/bike/run so it made perfect sense to speak to the experts in each field. If you want advice on swimming, then surely the best people to approach are UK Swimming?

Triathletes aren’t swimmers…

There is an argument that approaching UK Swimming wasn’t the best thing to do, it all depends who you are coaching. The triathlon population are very different to the swimming population in several ways, which is why the coaching methods are not necessarily suitable for both. Most swimmers start at a very young age and drop out by the age of 16, whilst most age group triathletes start at a much older age. Teaching a 10 year old child who has a high level of mobility and floats in the water, is very different to teaching a 45 year old ‘ex-rugby player’ who sinks like a stone and can barely move his arms above his head. But more importantly, it’s possible that the child will eventually be ‘perfect’ but that’s not the case for our rugby pal.

Forget excellence, focus on the critical things

There is a very traditional model of coaching, which I’d refer to as the ‘excellence model’. The easiest way to explain this is to take an age group triathlete with no ‘swim background’ and video their swim stroke. You can then sit with them and watch their stroke, whilst simultaneously comparing them with a video of one of the world’s best swimmers.

The coach will alternate between the 2 videos saying “look how they do it and then look at what you’re doing” followed by “you need to do it like them”. This coaching method works really well for young swimmers who train with clubs/squads. There is no reason, given the attention required, that a 10 year old swimmer, by the time they reach the age of 21, will not have the same stroke as the best swimmer in the world. HOWEVER… just in case you haven’t worked it out for yourself, if you’re an age group swimmer with no swim background, you will NEVER look like the best swimmer in the world. I’m really sorry to dash your hopes.

So given that information, why are you comparing a video of yourself with the best in the world and hoping to attain something which is way beyond your ability? That is simply setting you up for failure.

Critical V Non Critical

If we were to compare a video of you and the best swimmer in the world, we could potentially generate a list of 500 things which you need to change / do better. Any coach with half an ounce of knowledge can compare and list the faults for you. The most important thing in terms of your performance, is deciding which of those faults you should you work on first. From 500 potential errors, there may be 10 CRITICAL things which will make you 10% faster and the other 490 NON CRITICAL things might provide another 5%.

How do you decide what to work on first?

Usually the first thing to work on, will be the first thing the coach or bystander spots.

“Hey Billy!! Just noticed that when you swim, that left elbow recovers a bit funny, you need to get it higher!!”.

There’s a lot of ‘snapshot coaching’ which takes place. This is a term for when a coach, bystander or other athlete spots a specific fault and tell you about it. You spend the next session thinking about nothing else but trying to correct it, with no idea whether it’s right or wrong.

The first step to correcting your stroke is to look at EVERYTHING and then make a list. From that list, whittle it down until you are left with a small number of critical things, which will make the biggest difference. Solving your ‘sinking legs’ might save you 10 minutes, but working on a high elbow recovery will probably do no more than make you look good. That in itself is an issue with swim coaching, it’s very ‘aesthetic based’. What I mean by that is people judge you by how you look, rather than how effective you are.

“Look at that swimmer, they’re so graceful and glide so elegantly through the water” …. Yeah that might be true, but they’re swimming nearly 3 minutes for each 100m, so they won’t be winning any awards in the near future.

To summarise:

1. Traditional swim coaching doesn’t often work well for age group triathlon competitors as we are still a relatively new population. More specific training is required to match our needs and abilities.

2. Give up on trying to be perfect, it’s not going to happen. You need to set a realistic target for improving your swim performances.

3. To achieve that target you need to understand your stroke faults and then have a clear understanding of those which are CRITICAL and will save you the biggest amount of time and those which are NON-CRITICAL.

4. Once you’ve resolved the CRITICAL faults, make sure you crack on and do some training in the pool. You can achieve a very high standard of performance by mastering the critical stuff and then doing some swimming. We’ve had many swimmers with no ‘swim background’ go under 1 hour for Ironman swim by focusing on the basics, then simply swimming some volume.

5. ‘Drills’ and ‘Technique’ are 2 completely different things. Don’t get drawn into endless and pointless drills which never make any difference. Swim and think about your technique whilst you’re doing it.

6. Relax and enjoy it. One of the reasons people hate swimming is that they’re constantly reminded how poor their technique is. Enjoyment is key as you’re more likely to swim more and have a positive experience. You’re never going to be perfect so stop buying into this constant negative feedback loop which is the cause of persistent frustration.

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Marc Laithwaite is a level 3 qualified coach, who has been coaching endurance sports for the last 22 years. He is a former sports science lecturer of 12 years and spent 2 years with the British Cycling team as a bloods analyst. He has worked with British Triathlon Coach Education as a coach educator and spent 5 years as head coach of the NW Regional Triathlon Talent Squad. He’s also a former national age group triathlon champion, European duathlon champion and Ironman age group winner.

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