In started triathlon in September 2009 and focused my first season on the sprint distance (with two Olympic distance triathlons to see how I would fare at longer distance). My first attempt was a small triathlon in the Netherlands in a place called Bodegraven and I finished in a time of 1:21:41. I’ve always been a half-decent runner; not very fast but with a steady pace, and I practiced cycling for five years before getting bored and discovering triathlon. My one big issue was, and still is, swimming. Being 1.70m tall doesn’t contribute to my natural ability in this sport, and further, swimming is all about technique, and I have little of that. Finally, when I raced this initial triathlon I was a bit overweight with 72kg. So, having said that, I managed the worse swimming time and last out of the water position in 14:54 that day. Fortunately, we were starting in waves, so I did not suffer too much of the humiliation, but come to think of it, every single female, kid, and over 60 years-old athlete passed me on that day. I don’t mind the female athletes because many of them are better than I will ever be in the sport, but I thought I needed to do something to avoid being passed by kids under 15 and people over 60 independently of their genders. So, this is my story into improving my swimming. Note that I trained all by myself, instead of joining a club, or getting a coach, which would probably have been the fastest and most painless way to improve my swimming, but if you are about to embark a similar journey, you might find this read interesting.
As I just pointed out, I started in September 2009 with a time of 14:54 on 500m; in June 2010, nine months and 66km of training later, I did my personal swimming best in 9:06 – just short of six minutes faster. This also corresponds to my PB on the sprint distance with 1:11:02 (Swim 09:06- cycling 34:01- run 23:34) compared to my previous time of 1:21:41 (swim 14:54 - cycling 37:35 - run 26:12). Looking at these numbers, I must have been doing something right. Not enough to get on the podium right, but at 40 years old, you might find yourself in the top ten of your age group with a time like that. Of course, if you’re already swimming the 500m in 12’ or 11’, there is no way you’ll get much out of your time through reading this, for that you’d need professional advice, but you may drop one or two minutes from your time.
Come to think of it, I did not train a lot, this table recaps what I did during that time, you’ll see that distance and number of sessions increased significantly going into spring, but it was relatively easy to manage. I’m a fair weather sportsman, so I did not do much cycling until April but running helped me manage my weight and I suspect it also contributed to my improved swimming performance.
What you can notice looking at this data, is that I had a steady increase of volume, due to the increase of training sessions, but the actual distance I swam in every session did not vary much, it was always between 1k for speed sessions up to 1.5k for endurance sessions. I think the volume in itself is responsible for 70% of my improvement. The simple fact of going to the pool two to three times a week made me a faster swimmer. To be honest the first three minutes I gained were simply the effect of turning up at the pool every week. It was a very easy process until I was able to swim in 12’ – which I was capable of around December. It became harder after that, to get under 10’ as you’ll need to do something about your technique.
This is a distance you can build up to in about four months: the first month you do 2K, second 5K, third 7, and fourth 10Ks.
Basically, here too, it’s very simple – I have merely two types of session: speed and endurance.
Speed session consists of:
Generally, at the beginning when you start struggling with front crawl because you can’t breathe, or you’re tired, or you drank water...whatever, don’t stop! Switch to breast stroke to recover, and return to front crawl as soon as you can.
Advantages of the four swim styles and things to focus on:
Endurance sessions, as the name indicates, are about endurance, so distance is key…
I would normally do either:
I am fortunate to live by a lake, so when spring comes, in the weekend, I add a 1K or 2K open water (in which case I often skip the endurance during the week) and do speed in the swimming pool and endurance in the open water. During those sessions I don’t worry about the time whatsoever, I have a watch with me but I don’t keep track of the time. I focus on making the distance being as relaxed as possible, trying to think about a proper technique and easy breathing.
But then again, you will find many better and well thought-out training plans on this web site, so just pick one that will work for you, and you won’t have to think about it again.
That’s what you need to start thinking about to get under 12’. As I wrote above, just showing up at the local pool you’ll be able to get your 500m swimming time down to 12' or maybe 11’. But I don’t think you will be able to reach less than 10’ without a minimum effort concerning your technique unless you are 3 meters tall. So, here are the things I did that worked for me.
If you look at proper swimmers, long distance swimmers (800m+ for example), they hardly use their legs compared to shorter disntaces, they only increase their leg movement in the last 50m to sprint towards the wall, for the rest, the legs are only there to provide balance and a good horizontal position on the water. The focus for you and me should then be on our arms' work:
You can watch hundreds of videos on Youtube from famous and less famous swimmers that will help you visualize the proper stroke. Spend some time doing this visualization work and when you swim front crawl getting your arms right is the one thing you should be thinking about.
At some point you will ask yourself the question about bilateral or unilateral breathing. Initially, the short answer to that is: it does not matter whatsoever when you are a 12’ swimmer. What matters is that you should be relaxed while breathing in water. The tip is: when your mouth and nose (normally they are in the water approximately at the same time) are in the water, a steady flow of air should be coming out of them - if you are not inhaling you should be exhaling. When your mouth is out of the water a rapid intake of air is necessary. The sensation of gasping for air while swimming is caused by you trying to refill your lungs when they are not empty. Try putting some water in a full glass, it doesn’t work, you need to empty it first; same thing with breathing in water. To resume: mouth in water = air coming out of it, mouth out of water = air getting (quickly) in it. Once you have nailed that one, then you can start thinking about bilateral breathing which is nice as it will improve your form (since you will be rolling more and will balance you out) but that’s already an advanced technique you can think about when you are under 10’. A relaxed breathing pattern will help you relax the rest of your body which in turn will help you in getting faster.
As you could see from my training data, not only did I swim a little bit, I also spent a bit of time running and (less) cycling. If my swimming has improved the most compared to the other two sports, it’s also because it was my worse sport. So, what you do elsewhere contributes to your overall fitness level which in turn improves all of the rest. Two other elements were also important to me: I went from 72kg to 64kg during that training period. Although additional fat would contribute to better flotation, it won’t make you any faster. Additionally, I spent some time working on my abdominal section. So here is my final tip.
The key to speed in the water is a good body position so that your propulsion efforts are directed the right way. You want to be as horizontal as you can be, and when I notice that I have a good position (at some point you will just feel it), at the same time I also notice that my abs are mobilized. So building a strong core will help you adopt a proper form while swimming.
To summarize, I got from 15’ to 9’ on the 500m doing the following:
Tip #1 – To improve your swimming, aim at swimming at least 10K every month.
Tip #2 – Forget about using your legs and start using your arms properly.
Tip #3 – Breathe and relax.
Tip #4 – Build up your core muscles.
This really is what I did to improve my swimming and it worked for me. But we’re all different and there is no guarantee it would work for you or anyone else, so try this at your own risk. I’m not a swimming coach, and to continue to improve I now feel the need to get some solid advice from one of them. It may very well be that I will have to unlearn some of the things I taught myself and were effective at the time, but could now be hindering further development.
Happy swimming and feedback is welcome!