The Zen of Swimming + Workout

author : Gareth
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Swimming for the triathlete.

For runners and cyclists wanting to compete in triathlons swimming can be very hard. Why is swimming so difficult ?

The way that you train in running and cycling – you get more results the harder you work, just does not work in swimming. In swimming if you work harder you tend to go more slowly and waste a lot of energy in the process.

 Why is this?  The reason is because water is the most resistive environment that you can work in. You may have experienced the ‘drag force’ if you raise your head and upper body when cycling at speed. Well, water is 800 times denser than air. The more force you use, the harder the water pushes back against you. Harder swimming does not work so we need “smarter swimming”.

My rules of swimming are:

1 - “Reducing Drag is the most important focus, maximising propulsion comes later.”

 2 - “ Any part of the body that is moving forward in the water has to cause the least amount of resistance.”

 3 - “ Any part of the body moving backwards in the water has to find the maximum possible resistance.”

 4 - “ Do not ‘push down’ on the water, only ‘push’ back on the water when the hand and fore-arm is vertical.”

 5 - “Economy of force. Use the least amount of effort that will still move you forward effectively.”

 6 - The three R’s of swimming: Swim with “ rhythm, range and relaxation.”

 7 - All swims must include drills that will improve your technique and “feel” for the water.

Tips for reducing Drag:

Swim smoothly, think long and streamlined, keep the head on the centre line or ‘vertical axis’. Use a narrow kick that does not extend outside the “body shadow”. Always push off the wall in a tight streamlined position.

 The head, torso, hips and legs need to be as horizontal as possible. This is achieved by holding the head in the “neutral” position. Eyes look down and slightly forward, 1 to 2 metres ahead. The water level is between the crown of the head and the hairline.

 Minimize “ up and down” movement of the body as this increases drag. Hand entry: The hand must extend into the water smoothly, slowly and carefully. Reach forward, extend the shoulder forward and move the hand down into the catch gently.

What if you are already a good swimmer ?

 If you have come from a competitive swim background then you do have quite an advantage as a triathlete. However the swim leg of a triathlon is very different to an event in a swim meet.

 1 – In a swim meet the event is swum at maximum effort. You want to touch the wall at the finish having given all you have, if you have the energy to swim another length then you have not put enough into the swim.

 2 – In a Triathlon you need to have lots of energy left over to put into your cycle and run. We need to stress economy of movement and efficient, easy speed.

 3 – The goal in a swim meet is to swim at the fastest possible pace. In a triathlon it is better to swim at between 80 to 95% of your maximum. The more efficient your technique and the better your conditioning then the faster you can swim before running into problems.

 4 – Events are often swum in Open water. Technique changes are to develop a more continuous pull and use bi-lateral breathing. Open water skills are navigation, drafting, pack swimming, passing large packs and specific skills to deal with waves and rough water.

 5 – Distance swimming is the norm. Swim distances range from 400m to 1500m or more for “ironman” events. Training should focus on distance work.

This Month's Swim Workout:


Stroke: Free. Multi-sport Date: 07/10/03 Plan: 18 RPE: 7-10
Main Focus point:
Soft Catch; Finish end of stroke


Distance: 1,850 – 2,050 Aerobic: 46 %. Anaerobic: 43 %. Lactate: 11 %.


Warm Up: Swim “ spinning” low force on arm pull Type: EN 1.
250 m as: 50m free /50m free with fist/100m free /50m free with fist
RPE: 07 100 m – Kick - 25 m as: Front / Left side / right side / Back

Entry & Catch - at easy cruise pace Dist: 400m RPE: 06 Rest: 30 secs.
4 by 50m as: 25m Head up free (watch hand entry), 25m easy free

Second Set: Interval set @ cruise pace RPE: 08 Rest: 45 secs.
Type: EN 2. Lane 1 - 4 by 200 m. Lane 2 – 5 by 200m
Even splits for each 50m, Hold same time, stroke rate & D.P.S for all.
Breathe as: 1st 50 - 5 strokes, 2nd 50 - 3 strokes, 3rd 50 & 4th 50 - 3/2/3.

Finish end of stroke: thumb brushes thigh, turn palm in & lift elbow up

Sprint set: Build and Pace. Dist: 200m RPE: 09 Rest: 90s
8 by 25m fast: maximum stroke rate (dynamic rest).

Cool Down: Easy Pace 50 m Slow backstroke
Distance: 200 m 150 m Super slow freestyle.




RPE =  In my workouts they are on a scale of 1 to 10. Easy warm up might be 5 to 6. A swim at cruise pace is 6 to 7. Hard Anaerobic swim would be 8 to 9 with a maximum effort at 10.

EN is a scale describing aerobic work. EN 1 ( medium aerobic ), EN 2 @ anaerobic threshold,  EN3 is VO2 Max work. I will go into this more in a later email.

DPS is Distance Per Stroke.

Dynamic rest means to rest say after a sprint swim by moving in the water. Could be kicking on back, easy backstroke, easy freestyle etc.


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date: September 4, 2004


British ASA Level 2 Swimming Coach / Teacher. Working towards British ASA Level 3 Club Coach in Swimming.


British ASA Level 2 Swimming Coach / Teacher. Working towards British ASA Level 3 Club Coach in Swimming.

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