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Sorting Out Swim Technique
by Steve Tarpinian

Whether you are a beginner or a pro, it's all about balance, rotation, and propulsion when you swim. There's always time to make some real improvement in technique. The challenge is to sort out all the great information available in a way that best applies to you. Many times a tip from the fastest guy in the pool or an offhand comment from a swimmer, while well-meaning, can cause confusion rather than help.

Recently I met a triathlete named Pat Crespi from Denver who expressed her frustration with her swim training. She enjoys swimming and has seen some improvement but it has leveled off. She feels there must be some easy changes that might help her, but they have eluded her. What's more, she has received conflicting information about technique. Does this sound familiar?

Let's start by getting some advice from two swimmers who have achieved success in the water: Mike Smedley and Mike Bark.

Smedley is a member of the USAT Resident Team and has greatly improved his swimming in the two years since he began racing professionally. What does he attribute it to? "Focusing on my technique with directed drills and putting in the laps and training to get more comfortable in the water," he says.

Bark is an amateur triathlete who dropped three minutes off his 500 meter time in three months and is counting on qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman this year. "Doing specific drills tor my stroke and putting in the meters" is what Bark says helps him.

What is important to take from both Mikes' answers are the words specific and directed. Simply doing drills will not lead to maximum improvement. Doing drills that are directed at an aspect of your stroke that needs work and doing them correctly is the key.

Obviously, we cannot tell each triathlete reader what he or she needs the most, but we can identify three very important aspects of freestyle technique that all swimmers at every level should be improving. Chances are very good that at least one of these is going to be a winner for you.

Interestingly, the swimmers we work with at both professional and beginner levels need work on the same aspects; the only difference is that the faster swimmers require a little less correction in these areas:

1. Streamlined and level or balanced body position (especially on your side)
2. Rotation from side to side
3. Propulsion: generating power in the correct direction

Most swimmers with any experience have done some or all of the following drills. The key is to do them correctly, so pay particular attention to the descriptions so that you don't make the same mistakes in a drill as in your stroke and simply cement your flaws.

Kick on side drill
Mastering a balanced position on your side is best accomplished by lying on your side with one arm at your side and the other outstretched. After 6-10 kicks, rotate over to the other side for 6-10 kicks, etc. Work on generating the rotation from your hips and kick. Rotate body together generating power from you hips.

One of the keys to this drill is to rest your head down on your arm and strive for "one goggle in and one out." This will keep you from lifting your head up and driving your legs down. You may struggle with this and ingest some water, so be patient, and if you are having trouble getting air, rotate your head as opposed to lifting it.

Vertical Kicking Drill
The best drill for finding and perfecting an efficient kick. Kick in one place in deep water.

Cork screw drill
This drill helps with rotation. With your arms at your side, you use your core muscles and kick to rotate over.

Kick on side with rotation
Once you get the side position down it's time to work on rotating from side to side. Here the key is to rotate from your kick and hips, so focus on making your shoulders the last part of your body to rotate. Kick six to 10 times on a side, then rotate and continue the sequence.

Fist and catch up drills
These are two great drills to help generate power when you swim. The fist drill is best done by alternating 10 strokes with your hands closed and then 10 with your hands open. This drill helps you keep a high elbow with nyou pull. This dynamic method helps make the change of bending your elbow earlier more permanent. It is very important to make the connection of this drill to rotation.

The catch-up drill, which involves waiting for one hand to enter the water before pulling with the other (like single-arm drills) can be used for many purposes. Here, the main focus should be accelerating through the pull. Successful catch-up drills are awesome for improving both rotation and rhythm or "pacing" of your stroke.

Finger tip drag drill
This drill helps with relaxing your recovery and gaining a clean, smooth entry. On the stroke recovery, drag your finger just at the surface of the water with elbow in the air.

Lastly, though technique is crucial, at some point we need to match efficiency with speed. For that purpose it is best to do a min/max drill. Here you go for minimum strokes with maximum speed. Do a set of 50s wherein you count your strokes and time it. Add the two numbers. The idea is to play with speed and stroke length to find the optimum efficiency. Speed comes later.

Drills help you effectively work and concentrate on only one aspect of your stroke at a time. Repetition will make it natural. You have been swimming the way you do for a long time. Be patient: the changes may take a while. All drills with the exception of fist drill get best results with fins (preferably Zoomers). As my friend Doug Thralls says, "play on."
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Steve Tarpinian is creator of the "Swim Power" video, author of the "Essential Swimmer," and coach of triathletes of all levels. For information on swim and triathlon clinics or having one call (800)469-2538.