Freestyle is fastest, but learning and regularly swimming the other strokes has a lot of value for triathletes
The stroke of choice for open water racing and triathlon is definitely freestyle. And many people with limited time in the open water or at the pool will choose to get the best bang for the buck by getting as many yards/meters of it in as possible.
There’s value, however, in learning and practicing other strokes for a variety of reasons. For shoulder health, skill development, and boredom prevention, there’s nothing better than mixing it up.
The Why Behind Training Other Strokes
Shoulder health is a big deal for swimmers and triathletes. Overuse injuries due to muscular imbalances are common, painful, keep you from training, and can be expensive to treat. Swimming other strokes gives you an opportunity to strengthen other parts of the shoulder by using different movements, thus preventing many problems. And you’ll get a great workout to boot.
And let’s talk about skill development. How you interact with the water in other strokes can carry over to a better feel for the water in freestyle. Humans are land mammals and it takes a lot of time in the water for us to understand how to move ourselves through it efficiently. Exploring all the ways to move in water always benefits you on race day.
Lastly, although you might like nothing more than getting into a rhythm with your stroke and zoning out, that can get boring. Breaking up the monotony is fun, and it keeps the mind fresh, too.
Here’s more about why you should swim the other three strokes in training and keep them as alternates in your next triathlon or open water event.
Yes, it’s the slowest of the competitive strokes. But would you rather be moving forward, albeit slowly, or be at a complete stop in the middle of a race when something goes awry? Wind, tides, currents or just bad navigation can take you off course and a few sight-breaths might not reveal the location of the next buoy. Breaststroke can help you both sight and get back on track if those buoys are a little farther away than you’d like or there’s a chop that obscures your line of site. And for those who are breaststroke-kick impaired: You can use dolphin or even a flutter kick if your breaststroke kick is lacking and you won’t be DQed, as you would in the pool.
Swallow a little water? Goggles need clearing? Need to feed or hydrate? Maybe you just need to rest or are having some anxiety and need a moment to gather your thoughts. Backstroke is for you. When you roll on your back, your face will be out of the water and you’ll be able to breathe, cough, eat, etc. And if you practice backstroke, you can learn to swim short distances and stay on course, despite not being able to see where you’re going. Working on balance in the water and moving forward is well worth learning to swim and kick on your back to keep you in the race rather than coming to a stop.
Although this isn’t a stroke you’re going to bust out in the middle of a race, it’s still a valuable skill to learn. Shore starts and finishes, especially where there’s a long sloping entry/exit mean doing a few dolphin dives. They’re faster than simply running into or out of the water. You really don’t even need the full stroke, just some of the movements. You can practice in the pool in the shallow end and dive over and under lane lines. Don’t have access to lanes lines? Substitute pool noodles for lane lines and have a friend hold them. This makes the movement stronger and helps with timing the dolphin dives.
Fitting in All in Your Training Regimen
Remember, nothing new on race day, regardless of whether it’s nutrition, suits, goggles, or skills that you haven’t trained in. This is why it’s critical to find time in your training schedule to practice these skills. You can try them during warm-up and cool-down. Switch strokes on recovery sets or periods. Incorporate them as part of the main set and part of a repeat or during a long-interval open water practice. While you are at it, it’s not just the stroke skill you need to practice but also transitioning to the stroke and back so you can do it efficiently on race day. Figure out what stroke-to-stroke transition methods work best for you as there’s no one right answer.