Swimming for triathlon has slight nuances from pool swimming. Whether you learned to swim for triathlon later in life, or transitioned from pool swimming, it is likely you’ve experienced one of these all-too-common errors in triathlon-specific stroke mechanics.
One of the most important things to understand when working on stroke mechanics is that you must solve the correct issue at the correct time. Stroke mechanics work in a domino effect – one error is often causal to the next. For example, an athlete may demonstrate poor glide/ arm extension and, as a result, also exhibit a poor catch. In order to efficiently correct both issues, you must know which to focus on first. Attempting to improve stroke mechanic errors in an incorrect order sets an athlete up for cyclical frustration and likely failure.
Below we outline the nine most common triathlon-specific stroke mechanic issues, and specifically list these issues in order of importance. Any athlete aiming to improve their stroke should follow the list in order, one through nine.
1. Poor Balance / Body Position
This limiter is typically seen in new swimmers. Poor balance and body position describes an athlete’s legs and hips sinking when they swim, effectively dragging their lower body at an angle through the water. Establishing strong body position is more important than any other mechanic – without it and athlete will never be streamlined and thus moving forward through the water will be like spooning cold peanut butter with a plastic knife. Athletes tackling this error must achieve strong body position before they can work on any other stroke mechanic.
2. Incorrect Hand Entry
Achieving proper hand entry is typically a quicker and easier feat than mastering the remaining stroke mechanics, but it is absolutely a prerequisite to moving on to them. Correct hand entry into the water – timing, position, placement – must be learned prior to working on the glide, catch, pull, etc.
3. Improper Glide / Extension
Most new swimmers are taught to glide in an effort to reduce the number of strokes they take while swimming. This is an effective way to teach new swimmers balance in the water, but it is a bad habit for triathletes trying to improve their open water swimming. The longer glide an athlete has, the more they will be affected by current, chop, waves, etc in the open water. Counterintuitive to pool swimming, a faster stroke rate is more preferred in open water swimming.
A second issue with longer glide is that many swimmers develop a glide in an upward motion. From a side view, the swimmer is pushing against the water instead of gliding through it. If an athlete has developed an upward glide, then it will be impossible for them to master a proper catch later on.
4. Over Rotation During Breathing (AKA “Over Breathing”)
Just like solving poor hand entry, over rotation is an issue that can typically be solved with cognitive effort – focus while you swim! It is important to take tight breaths and keep one goggle in the water at all times. Lifting your entire head out of the water to breathe will almost always cause issues with the pull of the opposite arm during the breath. Most often this “over breathing” causes a “crossover” pull, so the it must be remedied prior to beginning work on the pull mechanic.
5. Crossover Pull
A strong and correct pull happens after the shoulders and hips have rotated, underneath the armpit, and the hand touches the athlete’s centerline (an invisible line that extends vertically through the middle of the body). Many athletes develop an incorrect pull that crosses over the center line, thus named a “crossover pull.”
Swim stoke power is generated from the pull of the latissimus dorsi muscles (the lats). When a swimmer crosses their centerline, they shift to primarily utilizing the shoulder / arm muscles. Therefore, a crossover pull is an ineffective way to pull water because it sacrifices so much potential power from the pull.
6. A Front Quadrant Swim Stroke
A front quadrant stroke is recognizable by an excessive gliding at the front side of the stroke, allowing the recovering arm to “catch up” to the pulling arm (hence the common “Catch Up” drill). When both arms are simultaneously extended frontwards, the athlete is not generating forward pull.
Old school swim coaches may oppose, but the triathlon industry widely agrees that a continuous stroke without a pause (glide) at extension is a far superior stroke pattern in an open water environment. On this premise, it is important that triathletes racing in open water move away from a front quadrant stroke.
Moving away from a front quadrant stroke allows an athlete to constantly generate propulsion throughout opposite strokes. Visually speaking, when the leading arm is catching the water, the recovering arm is half way through the recovery phase. When the recovering arm enters the water, the pulling arm is already moving through the end of the pull phase. Sometimes described as “180 degree swimming,” arms should always stay 180 degrees apart during the stroke.
This type of swimming is not ideal for new swimmers because it requires strong body position. However, if you’ve made it to number six, you already have body position mastered!
7. Disconnected Shoulders and Hips
This error is less common of the nine-most-common, but will cause notable inefficiency in the water. Typically, it appears as swimmers rotating their hips before rotating their shoulders. Correct mechanics are the hips and shoulders always rotating together. Simultaneous rotation generates much more power and keeps the body streamlined through the water.
Disconnected shoulders and hips are nowhere near as detrimental to swimming as having poor body position, which is why body position is number one on our list, but error number seven will definitely affect a swimmer’s ability to efficiently streamline through the water.
8. Missed Catch
One of the most common swim mechanic errors amongst triathletes is a poor catch, but this cannot be addressed until most of the other errors are resolved. Swimmers are still able to develop strong speed without a strong catch, but reaching the next level beyond that speed plateau requires development of an early vertical forearm.
Errors one through seven are much easier to resolve than a missed catch, and typically yield more immediate time savings, which is why developing a strong catch is one of the final errors to address. Many describe it as the hardest part of developing the perfect swim stroke.
The best way to learn an early vertical forearm is to begin on dryland with tools like swim cords, and an immense amount of cognitive awareness, focus, and repetition. Eventually the dryland practice can be transitioned into the water to move one step closer to the perfect swim stroke.
9. Unfinished Pull
Most triathletes lift their arm out of the water prior to extending the pull past the hip at the back of the stroke. This is a missed opportunity for continuous propulsion. Like the catch, the end of the is not where the majority of power is generated so, while important, we prioritize resolving an unfinished pull as the last error on our list. An unfinished pull affects the vast majority of swimmers, and is the final common error to resolve to put the finishing touches on a perfect swim stroke.