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by Erica Slaughter

December 9, 2019

Increase your swimming aptitude and become an effortless swimmer this winter

The triathlon offseason affords you the opportunity to evaluate your aptitude as a swimmer. You will have much more to gain from your swimming workouts in-season by continually assessing the effectiveness of your abilities. In order to get the most out of technique drills and pace training, you must be reasonably conditioned specifically for swimming, what competitive swimmers often refer to being “in shape.” It’s not enough to be generally aerobically conditioned—you could be able to run five-minute miles and still be floundering in the pool. Getting in swim shape necessarily involves some rudimentary skill review, especially if you’ve never had much swimming instruction.

Foundational Abilities

The two most important aspects of competent swimming are core stability and breath control. Without them, swimming is like trying to learn calculus without having working knowledge of algebra and trigonometry. This can be dangerous in triathlon because if you’re not a completely competent swimmer, you’ll be less capable of dealing with the unanticipated conditions in a frenzied open water swim.

Core stability in swimming is essential for maintaining alignment of your body and mitigating form drag while simultaneously propelling your body through the water. With the density of water being 800 times greater than that of air, every tiny errant movement or dropped elbow/hip/leg/foot is amplified with direct consequences on speed and the effort required to move through the water.

To evaluate the effectiveness of your core stability in the water, the simplest thing you can do is work on floating stationary in a supine position, looking upward in streamline position. Keep your body as aligned as possible, with legs fully extended and your toes at the surface. Control all impulses to “catch” yourself and bring your legs back to the surface using your abdominal, oblique, back, and thigh muscles. Don’t cheat by kicking them back up or sculling with your hands to re-establish position.

Breath control is important in tandem with core stability because the percentage of air in your lungs directly affects your buoyancy and therefore your position in the water. Of course, with every inhalation and exhalation, that percentage changes constantly. Get in the deep end and put it to the test sometime. Exhale as much as you can, and you’ll begin to sink.

Think of your lungs as balloons—try to keep them between 40 to 60 percent filled with air at all times. What you’re doing is programming your tidal volume to also work on behalf of your buoyancy while swimming, in addition to the purpose of respiration which is to nourish the cells with oxygen and remove the waste products (CO2). While swimming, you need to train yourself to ration the air in your lungs. Then you need to learn how to do that at the appropriate times in your stroke cycle. This is because your center of mass changes with each arm movement forward or backward.

While in the water testing your core stability with supine floating, change the position of your arms from overhead to by your sides. This moves your center of mass lower, and farther from your center of buoyancy (your lungs). In this movement alone, you’ll understand the connection of core stability and breath control and their necessity for swimming efficiently. Practicing positional changes in the water and floating in different positions are valuable for becoming a competent swimmer. With repeated workouts, core stability and breath control can become instinctive.

Getting the most out of drills

With most triathlon swim distances ranging from 500 meters to 2.4 miles, your technique focus should be on long distance freestyle drills. Long distance freestyle technique is generally distinct from sprint freestyle technique with differences in:

  • Length of the stroke (more distance per stroke)
  • Frequency of stroke cycles (fewer cycles per minute)
  • Degree of hip rotation (more rotation in concert with longer strokes)
  • Contribution of kicking (kicking mostly to aid rotation)
Use of long distance freestyle technique is not only a biomechanical advantage in longer swims (especially long open water swims), it’s also a much more economical use of your energy resources than a sprint freestyle stroke technique with high stroke turnover and vigorous kicking. Not surprisingly, core stability and breath control are even more important for having the most efficient long distance freestyle technique.

What is swimming efficiently? Maintaining body alignment, reducing form drag, maximizing distance per stroke, and rationing breathing through stroke cycles and changes in center of mass. Once you have this down, you’ll gain more from any workout you do.

Valuable offseason sets for triathletes

  1. Side kick with board: Holding a kickboard with one hand extended in front, kick on your side, changing position of your other arm from laying on top of your side to having your hand on your hip.
  2. Side kick without board: Holding your arm out front, extend into a side kick for 10 seconds, and then rotate 180 degrees onto your other side and repeat 10-second side kick on opposite side.
  3. Head-up freestyle: Look forward and keep your head straight, and work on keeping your hips and feet at the surface. Don’t forget to ration your breathing even with your head out of the water.
  4. Invisible kickboard: Hold your arms out front in streamline and kick as you normally would with a board.
  5. Stop and tread: In any set, add random pauses to tread water for at least 30 seconds, and then resume swimming without pushing off the wall or bottom.
  6. Pulling with bilateral breathing: Breathe every three or five strokes, and work on maximizing rotation until you feel like you could roll over—correct this using core muscles. For an added challenge, move the pull buoy to between your ankles.


  • Triathlon


  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon
  • Training