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by Erica Slaughter

May 16, 2015

Help your triathletes and open water swimmers improve core stability

In order to maximize pool workouts for triathlon, training should focus not only on building aerobic endurance, but also on technique appropriate for efficient swimming in a dynamic open water environment. Within the context of triathlon, there are additional concerns beyond performance of the swim itself—namely, conservation of energy to perform well in the bike and run portions of the race—that bring their own specific demands. To that end, the following drills focus on the principle of “whole-body swimming,” that is, emphasis on core control to work in harmony with arm stroke and kick. Without utilizing the core, the arms and legs are doing double duty: propulsion and body stability.

Sidekick Progression

This three-part progression should give the swimmer a feel for how much the core is utilized in maintenance of body position in swimming. Completing 100 to 300 yards of each part, in sequence, is appropriate for training.

  1. With one arm outstretched, kick on one side while maintaining a linear body position (head in line with the spine, the other hand resting on the opposite hip). When it’s necessary to breathe, simply turn the face towards the ceiling but do not take it out of line with the spine.
  2. With a single freestyle stroke, switch to the other side every 8 to 10 seconds while making sure that full extension with the leading arm is maintained each time. This will create a 180-degree rotation of the hips. The goal is to match the timing of the forward arm catch with the initiation of hip rotation, which allows the swimmer to rotate cleanly around the body’s longitudinal axis from head to toe.
  3. Reduce the degree of rotation and decrease the time between switching, and resume a normal breathing rhythm. The goal is to be swimming a long, core-driven freestyle with symmetrical hip roll.

Streamline Kick Progression

Kick on the back in streamline position, focusing on short-sweep upward flutter kicks (toes should be breaking the surface). Use fins if ankle flexibility is limited. Continue to kick while raising straight arms upwards so that the hands (still locked) are pointed towards the ceiling or sky. Maintain this position and continue kicking. Focus on keeping hips near the surface by engaging abdominal muscles and quads. Any kick will be of little assistance in this drill, especially if the focus is on using a downward kick with the heels.

Water Polo Ball Dribble

This is a slightly more interesting and challenging variation of the head-up or lifeguard drill, sometimes called the Tarzan drill. The goal is to advance a water polo ball between arm strokes without touching it; rather the swimmer must use arm strokes to create small inward currents to push the ball forward. At the same time, the swimmer must keep chin at the surface to see forward. This will require the use of core control to keep the hips and feet at the surface. If the hips are sinking, forward progress is reduced. This drill has direct benefits for practicing stable body position while sighting in open water.

Pull With Buoy at Ankles and “Rudder Pull” with Kickboard

Placing a pull buoy between the ankles rather than above the knees forces the swimmer to increase hip rotation rather than a hip sway. This requires connection between the arm stroke and the core—specifically, the moment of catch (after a long extension) is matched with timing of hip roll to the other side. For further focus on this connection, try pulling with a kickboard (above the knees) rather than a pull buoy. Allow some portion of the board to be underwater—this makes the kickboard act as a rudder, which provides feedback on the symmetry and control of the rotation to the swimmer in real time.

No-Wall Turn Sets and Vertical Kick “Rest”

When sighting or rounding a turn buoy, it’s important for swimmers to avoid “going vertical.” Going vertical in the water for even a brief second stops momentum. What’s more, because there are no walls to push from in open water, a vertical swimmer must fight back to a proper horizontal position and rebuild momentum without assistance, which requires a lot of energy.

While swimming long sets, try adding “no-wall turns.” These turns require the swimmer to make a 180-degree turn under the flags without going vertical and without contacting the wall or bottom of the pool. For an added challenge or as a complement to a different set, try treading water (preferably with flutter kick) for 30 seconds away from the wall in between repeats instead of taking rest. After all, such is the reality of swimming in open water—better to come to grips with that in the pool ahead of time than in the thick of the pack on race day! 


  • Technique and Training
  • Open Water
  • Triathlon


  • Pull Buoys
  • Kicking
  • Drills