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Stroke Technique / Training / Triathlon

Building an Efficient Freestyle

Triathlon swim training with equipment: fins, paddles, and snorkels

Erica Smith | January 16, 2014

First, the fine print

Before you begin incorporating training equipment into your workout sets, it’s important to understand that such tools should be used to correct technique, not swim faster in training sets. Improper use of paddles can accelerate shoulder fatigue and lead to rotator cuff injury. Therefore, it’s important to use paddles strategically during workouts—with your goal of distance open water swims in mind, you should avoid using paddles to do speed work in the pool.

Efficient freestyle for a triathlon swim

Freestyle is a long axis stroke (as is backstroke): The body is held in alignment to facilitate rotation around the long axis of the spine. The head is kept in line with the spine, which is in line with the legs. Excess movements disrupt this alignment and make the stroke less efficient. Seemingly minor flaws, such as sinking feet, hips that sway rather than rotate, and improper head position, can present significant hindrances. One stroke flaw tends to lead to another: if head position is too high, it results in the legs sinking. There are several other flaws that affect alignment and the ability to rotate.

When it comes to long distance freestyle in a turbulent open water environment, keeping the body in alignment is crucial to an efficient stroke. There are additional considerations for a triathlon swim, since the race is not over at the conclusion of the swim. Efficient swimming is crucial in the overall success in triathlon, and it has less to do with split time than it does with an athlete’s energy level after the first transition (T1).

Using equipment to “build the line” in freestyle

Deliberate use of equipment during pool workouts can train the body into holding an optimal hydrodynamic body shape while in the water, making for economical energy use.

Snorkel

Improper head position tends to be a primary flaw from which secondary flaws arise. The good news is that improper head position is usually an easy flaw to correct. Using a snorkel, keep your head steady and make sure that you set your gaze at the bottom of the pool, a few inches in front of you. Focus on staying in alignment and rotating symmetrically around your long axis—your spine. An added benefit of using a snorkel is being able to focus on breathing rhythm and resultant buoyancy changes.

Fins

Although commonly used for generating speed, fins are better used for the purpose of balance while swimming freestyle. The effect can also simulate the sense of balance one gets from swimming in a wetsuit. The impact of kicking on propulsion in distance freestyle is minimal. With that in mind, use a narrow kick with a short vertical sweep while wearing fins and thinking about keeping feet at the surface. In this way, you are also forming a more hydrodynamic shape.

Paddles

First, find a set of paddles that are only slightly larger than your hands. It’s not necessary to get paddles much larger than that. You’ll be using paddles to improve your feel for the water and find resistance for the catch at the front of the stroke. Remember to keep your elbow elevated through all parts of the stroke and don’t break at the wrist. In a triathlon swim where the water is constantly moving, it can be challenging to feel the catch with every stroke. Once you master this in the pool, chances are that you’ll be able to consistently feel for the catch in open water. Pro tip: Don’t use wrist straps to keep your paddles on, just the finger straps. If they are hard to keep on using only finger straps, it means you are breaking your wrists or dropping your elbows. This immediate feedback will help you feel your catch properly.

Using all three at once

Each training tool has its own role, but the three can also work together. It’s a good way to work on hip rotation and lengthening strokes (referred to as “DPS” or distance per stroke), which make your freestyle more efficient. While training for the swim portion of a triathlon, always consider the swim within the context of the whole race, and how you’ll want to feel in transition and on the bike course. Feeling a sense of control in the water as well as confidence will mean the beginning of a well-rounded triathlon race. 

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Erica Smith

Erica Smith is an open water swimmer and former NCAA All-American swimmer. She's currently an assistant coach for the men's and women's swim teams at Eastern Michigan University, where she's working toward a masters degree in exercise physiology. Erica owns and operates BuoyantSwim, a triathlon swim clinic series in southeast Michigan.

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