by Coach Troy Jacobson
Question: I’m new to triathlon and just started swimming laps. It’s by far the most difficult sport for me of the three. What are your suggestions for improving?
Answer: Welcome to your new sport! There’s a ton to learn so be patient and absorb knowledge in small chunks. You can’t become an expert over night. It’ll take years and years of practice, but that’s part of the fun.
Swimming is a highly technical sport and it’s often difficult for adults to master. Hours and hours of pool time are required to develop a ‘feel for the water’ and the conditioning necessary to swim fast. Be prepared for that fact and don’t get frustrated if things move along slowly with regard to your progress.
The first thing I tell new swimmers to do is: focus on technique. Just getting in the pool, hammering out laps and improving your conditioning, is rewarding in the short term, but can be devastating to your long term improvement and swimming speeds. The biggest culprit in holding people back is the development of an inefficient stroke, and it’s hard to ‘unlearn’ bad bio-mechanical skills, so start off with learning good skills from the start. Start by reading books on proper swim technique or watching videos of champion swimmers, like Michael Phelps. Ingrain their stroke technique into your brain, so that your stroke imitates theirs. Become a student of swim-stroke technique and be able to explain what makes for an effective stroke.
Next, get comfortable in the water! Learn how to ‘feel’ the water and move your body through it. Play around with it. Practice sculling on your front, then on your back. Learn how to kick. Experiment with breathing on your right side, then your left. Have some fun.
Now you’re ready to do the work and to start becoming a swimmer. Technique drills should be a mainstay of all swim workouts, even as you become more advanced. I always advise new swimmers to seek the help of a coach to monitor their stroke development and make suggestions on how to improve. Having someone on deck who can help is invaluable. Frequent video taping helps too, allowing you to actually see what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
Once you feel comfortable and confident in the water, consider joining a Masters Program. Swimming with other athletes is fun, motivating and improves your learning curve. Jump in the slower lane and learn proper lap swimming etiquette. Focus on your technique and your conditioning will improve simultaneously. And as you become faster, you’ll be rewarded with moving up to a faster lane.
To recap… it’s important for new swimmers to be patient and to start by focusing on the fundamentals. Don’t learn bad technique. Educate yourself as to what a good stroke ‘looks like’, and then try to develop a ‘feel’ for the water. Then, by working with a coach, learn drills that will aid in your stroke development. When you’re ready, join a Masters swim program and be prepared to see your swimming results take off!