Article image

by Sue Sotir

June 23, 2009

Freakin' triathletes! They come to their first Masters practice and tell you that they are only going to swim freestyle and that their coach is giving them their workouts and they just need you to spend the whole practice just fixing their stroke ... immediately... Did I miss anything?

If that is how you're seeing your triathlete members, you're missing out on the passion, focus and commitment these athletes can add to your program. These athletes are extremely motivated to improve and they come to a U.S. Masters Swimming program looking for a coach who can guide them toward that improvement. Your role is to educate these athletes on swimming technique and the sport-specific conditioning demands unique to swimming.

Technique for triathletes should initially focus on reducing drag and increasing propulsion. Practice sets should include long-distance endurance building (800s and up), sets that challenge an athlete to maintain an uncomfortable pace over time (this morning I used 10 x 200 on descending intervals), and sprint sets that build strength and power. Sport-specific skills and tactics should also be included, just as they would for a swimmer preparing for a goal event at Nationals. Triathlon-specific needs include confidence in adverse conditions and head-up sighting. Using breathing pattern sets (such as three strokes, breathe, five strokes breathe, three, then seven, three then nine) can be one way to teach confidence under pressure.

Head-up swimming for sighting can be included using head-up/Tarzan swim and butterfly. Yes, I'm recommending that triathletes swim strokes other than freestyle. Butterfly builds core/lower back strength, demands early vertical forearm, swim-specific strength, and independent head rotation for breathing. So, yes, other strokes have their place in triathlon training. However, you cannot give triathletes all IM work all the time during their competitive season; it is disrespectful of their athletic goals. As a coach, you would not train a swimmer for the 200 breaststroke by having her swim the majority of her sets as sprint backstroke. Now, the off season is an entirely different story!

Swimming economy is the primary goal for a triathlete, meaning the fastest possible swim for the least amount of effort expended. Approach technique from a "most bang for the buck" way-- what is going to allow for the most improvement most rapidly. The number one foe of fast swimming is drag, therefore, drag reduction should be the first improvement sought. Improve body position, alignment and body balance.

Look at the kick. Is it small, even and balanced or is the athlete compensating for poor body balance with a big, wide, drag-creating kick? Many triathletes are absolutely terrible flutter kickers because their ankles are inflexible. Time kicking can be maximized by defining the purpose of the kick set: drag reduction. Many triathlon-specific swimming articles say "don't kick, save your legs." Great, now you are using double the energy to drag the dead weight of half your body along through open water. A small, efficient two-beat or four-beat kick requires minimal muscular energy, increases propulsion to a small degree and reduces drag to a much greater degree. It also aids the circulation of oxygen-rich blood through the system. More circulation equals less accumulated waste in the muscles. One other kicking note: Many triathletes also have inflexible shoulders, so kicking with a kickboard forces the hips down, creating drag. I ask these triathletes to kick using a pull buoy as the board, lifting the head for a breath as needed, or simply have them kick balanced on their side.

Increasing propulsion is the second area to target with triathletes. Many triathlon swimmers do not have an effective catch or pull. Common areas for improvement include: a delay in initiating an early vertical forearm (the arm drops straight toward the bottom, creating drag and forcing the pull to rely on the strength of the small muscles of the shoulder); dropped elbows during the pull phase, limiting the amount of leverage a swimmer can capitalize on; and the dreaded cross-over, either in front during the extension or under the body during the pull phase. Repetition of the correct muscle patterning through the use of just a few well-performed drills is beneficial. There is no good reason for practicing any drill without an image in the athlete's mind of what is right and a focus on attempting mastery.

In our program, we have deliberately chosen to minimize the drills we use for each stroke. Many drills accomplish many different technical aspects of the stroke, but very few adult athletes have the amount of time in the water to master every nuance of a long list of drills. Using a few drills may seem repetitive, but all athletes-- both swimmers and triathletes-- can really achieve mastery of a small number of drills to the benefit of overall technical efficiency. Athletes who can feel that they have mastered a skill increase their belief in the ability to use that skill. The fancy term for this is self-efficacy and it is the basis of sport performance. Self- efficacy is the belief an individual has in his or her ability to successfully perform a specific skill that is required for a successful result. Self-efficacy specifically refers to the perceived level of competence an athlete feels for a specific skill or behavior. The athlete must trust the skill. If the athlete doesn't trust the skill, the skill will not get used and habits that have been "good enough" in the past will be selected instead. Nothing keeps those pre-race nerves in check like knowing you're starting the race thoroughly prepared. It's our job as USMS coaches to both physically prepare and educate our athletes so that all: fitness swimmer, competitive swimmer or triathlete, can feel that trust, both in their conditioning and in their skill mastery and can enter a competition with the confidence offered by that preparation.

Drills Used at Minuteman Masters
12:1 -- Twelve kicks on one side, one stroke, then 12 kicks on the other side; repeat.
Goals: body balance, head position and alignment, proper depth and location of the extended arm

Triple Switch -- Three freestyle strokes, then 12 kicks in the side position, three more freestyle strokes, 12 kicks
Goals: maintaining all of the skills practiced in 12:1, with the added difficulty of using the arms

Dryland Catch -- On land, the athlete bends from the waist and extends both arms out in front like Superman. Moving both arms together, the athlete will catch from the elbow and pull toward the same side hip through to the finish by the thigh. Reverse the pattern using the same high elbow to return through the pull path in reverse, back to the Superman starting position.
Goals: Teaching mastery and muscle patterning for the underwater phase of the stroke

One-Arm Drill -- With the unused arm at the side, not out front as it would be for catch-up drill. Breathing can be same side or opposite side, depending on mastery level.
Goals: increasing propulsion, body balance and drag reduction


Sue Sotir has 21 years of coaching experience, including 10 years coaching Masters swimming. The last 7 years, she has been with Minuteman Masters Swim Club in Bedford , MA joyfully coaching (and swimming with) athletes ranging from novice swimmers to professional triathletes. Sue is currently a PhD candidate in Physical Education/Sport Psychology at Springfield College.