Open Water and Triathlon Swimming

Written by Jesse. Posted in Coaching Thoughts

This post comes from a realization I made a while back…….just finally getting around to sharing it! It’s really just a bunch of points that I think explain a lot of the uncertainty in swim styles and swim stroke approaches among triathletes. I’d have to say, there is likely more confusion or unknown around swim stroke mechanics in the athletes and coaches I meet versus any other topic in triathlon:

1) High Turn Over – Open water swimming, when choppy, requires a strong back end of the stroke and follow-through (push past the hips). Folks that have a strong glide phase to their stroke (from either TI swimming or lots of pool based technical swimming as youngsters) tend to be slowed down by the open water chop while in the glide phase of their stroke. They then get re propelled with each pull phase. Unfortunately, a long glide phase typically results in a slow turnover and therefore not too many pull phases per minute to re propel the forward motion (that was slowed down by the chop). Based on that realization, rough open water swims require a high turnover. Many collegiate pool swimmers have a very graceful glide and strong front end that results in efficient, fast pool swimming, however results in a major de coupling between their pool and open water swim times. This can be frustrating for many pro’s who have a swimming background since they crush their competition in the pool but then take a lashing in the open water on race day when competing with swimmers who are more open water borne. This is particularly true if it’s a rough (choppy) swim.

2) Strong Back End – Triathlon swimming requires mass starts with people sometimes around and in front of you for extended periods of time. Due to this situation, what’s the first part of the swim stroke that gets lost? The front end! Due to people/feet in front of you, sometimes there is no way to get a strong catch and pull during the front quadrant of the stroke. This leaves the back end of the stroke as the critical piece to keep the forward motion. Since the back end of the stroke and follow-through are protected no matter how crowded the swim is, it makes sense to apply focus here for top level triathlon swimming.

These two points explain why pool borne swimmers can look very graceful and be super fast in the pool. It also explains why many pool borne swimmers have trouble translating their pool swim times to open water. It’s the front end focused swimmers with a long glide, strong catch, and low turnover (cadence) that are the most efficient in calm, smooth, non-crowded water. However, this same group gets out swam, time and time again in open water by the “hacks” who have a high turnover and strong back end to their stroke.

I hope this helps! Again, if you are looking for an efficient comfortable way to swim in training and racing, focus on the front end, a low stroke count, and long glide. If you are looking to get out of the water first in your triathlons, focus on a strong back end, and higher turnover. All of which still require good balance in the water of course.

Different swim objectives require different training techniques and mechanics. So when getting swim advice or looking for a coach, make sure you clarify the type of swimming you are looking to do and make sure the advice matches the specific objectives….many, many coaches and athletes miss this point.


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