I get call after call after call after call from budding triathletes who just can’t seem to improve their swim times.  And, when you look at triathletes as a whole, the swim is the absolute worst part for most.  If you are not terrified the whole time, you are at least glad it is over so you can get to the fun part, to the part where you actually move at a rate greater than your 80 year old grandmother.

So why are triathletes such terrible swimmers?

Well, there are some issues that we can’t do a lot about such as the fact that most great swimmers started as children. But there are some patterns I see over and over that contribute to bad swimming.  As we face the winter months, there is a great opportunity to spend some extra time to improve your swim.

Here is the main problem.  You practice bad form.

There is definitely some form involved with running and biking, don’t get me wrong, but swim form is critical.  Critical with a capital C, with an exclamation point, like when your mom says your whole name to get your attention.


If you have bad form, you will swim slow.  There is no way around it, and many triathletes spend most of their time practicing bad form.  If most of your time is spent practicing bad form, what do you think is going to happen?

We of course don’t think of it that way.  We think of it as “getting in our workout” or “getting in the distance.”  But perhaps, you are sacrificing your whole swim season by “getting your workout in.”

Here are 4 ways to improve your swim.  I realize we live in the “I want it now age,” but there is no way to become a good swimmer quickly.  You need to swim a lot AND you need to be wise.  Here is my wisdom for what it is worth.

  1. Take swim lessons.  For some of you, this may be a royal pain in the rear.  There are not a lot of places that offer adult lessons and if you live in a rural area you might have to drive. You will definitely have to spend some money on them.  But if you have no idea what good form looks or feels like, you will not be able to do it.  Just 4 lessons can help tremendously.
  2. Quit covering the distance.  Your plan says 2000 yards.  You (being type A, likely) vow to cover this distance at all costs.  You jump in and start swimming.  The first 300-500 feels somewhat acceptable and for a brief moment you convince yourself that you have become Michael Phelps like overnight.  God has answered your prayers for a miracle.  THEN…..you continue swimming, and you continue getting sloppier and sloppier and sloppier.  But, you justify it by saying that Michael Phelps swam long distances and you should too.  Well, Michael did.  But he did not swim 75% of his distance with poor form.  He swam long distance WITH good form.   You are likely practicing and ingraining poor form.  It would be better for you to swim 5 times a week and swim just 800 yards with great form than 2000 yards 3 times a week with poor form.  Make sense?
  3. Quit Swimming Back and Forth with No Plan.  “Do you do drills?”  No. “Do you have a specific workout you follow?”  No.  “Do you use fins, a pull buoy or paddles?”  What are those?  “Ok, so what do you do when you go to the pool?”  I just swim back and forth for as long as I can.   This is a typical conversation I have about swimming.
  • Drills:  If you don’t know any, go back to point number 1.  Take lessons.  If you don’t do them, realize that Olympic level swimmers still do drills.  That might be an indication that you also need to do them.
  • Workout:  See point 2.  Swimming back and forth with no plan will help you cover the distance but it won’t make you a better swimmer.
  • Fins, Pull Buoys, and Paddles:  You need to be able to do a variety of things in the water.  The more comfortable you are moving through the water in a variety of positions, the better you will be able to “feel” the water and figure out how to move through it faster.  Plus, these tools will make you stronger and make swimming a little less boring.

4.  Swim With Others At Least Once a Week:  This does not mean show up at the pool while other people are there.  This means make plans to go to the pool and do a workout with others.  This also does not mean that everyone does the workout at their own pace.  It means that there is an interval set for the 100s and everyone tries to make that interval.  If you don’t make the interval, you sit out and jump back in on the next one.  Why do this?  If you are at all competitive, you will work your tail off.  You will figure out ways to hold your form in order to keep up.  And, you will learn from those that are faster.  Isn’t it true that we want to surround ourselves with people that are more talented than we are, so we can learn from them?

So, if you do actually do drills, which ones do you do?  Help your brothers and sisters out here…..