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Quality, not quantity
It’s better to swim 6 yards executing top-notch strokes than mash out a hundred sloppy laps. Why? Because if you put all of your effort into finishing a certain number of laps or getting through the mileage without nailing down the movements, you’re teaching your body poor habits that will stick, and you’ll burn out fast in competition. Concentrate on form first and distance later.
“Swimming only rewards hard work when it’s coupled with technique,” says Dave Sheanin, assistant coach for the University of Colorado Triathlon Team.
Work with a coach
“If you want to cut out 90 percent of the issues that will make it harder for you to be at your best, then a coach is the way to go,” says Mike Ricci, founder and head coach of D3 Multisport, which offers triathlon coaching. “At the very least, it gives you someone to be accountable to, and there will be follow-up and progression. You work on something this week, and then see how it looks the next. Then you add the next, natural piece, so that you’re building on a solid base of good form.”
Of course, private coaching is great, but not everyone can afford it. “Even one lesson can be invaluable, because we can do a lot of great things in a short period of time,” Ricci says. “But if you can’t go that route, find someone who has expertise. Join a masters program. Go to the Y(MCA) or rec center, and don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m a beginner and I need help.’ These days, there are so many people out there with good experience in a triathlon, and you just have to ask.”
Videotape your form.
Underwater video doesn’t lie, and coaches say that using it to pinpoint issues can improve your form faster than any other training technique.
“I can tell an athlete, ‘Put your hand like this,’ and they will say, ‘Oh, I’m doing it right,’ and that’s the end of the discussion,” Sheanin says. “Or I can videotape them, and sometimes I don’t even have to say anything; they’ll look at it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I should be doing it this way.'”
Veronica Penney, a senior at the University of Colorado who has been a member of the college’s Triathlon Team since her sophomore year, says that the videos Sheanin has shot of her over the years have been critical to her progression. “You can know what you should be doing, what the right way is, and not be doing it,” she says. “Then you see it on the video, and the next time you swim, you visualize doing it right, and it happens.”
Don’t forget you’re in a fluid
You’d think that would be easy to remember, right? But Olympic gold medalist Sheila Taormina, who competed in swimming, triathlon and pentathlon in four Olympics, says that understanding how your body reacts to water can change, and improve, the way you move in it.
“Knowing how you gain traction, or friction, that can change how you use the power and strength of your arms and feet,” Taormina says. She recommends doing a little reading on an off day to get some insight.
“It can be overwhelming, because there are three major theories about swimming and propulsion, and even scientists who have been studying it for decades don’t agree. But knowing some of the basics can be very helpful in getting a picture of what is happening between your body and the water.” More at Try a triathlon: Swim training tips from the pros