Monday, January 14, 2013

Triathlon Swimming : To Front Crawl or To Breaststroke

This is the most common questions asked by friends that are new to the sports. Most Malaysians do not have the basic ability to swim, let alone survive in water. I never had lesson in swimming and "learnt" how to do it when I was struggling at the deeper end of the pool when I was 7 years old (parents, don't leave your kids in pool unattended). When I started doing Triathlon, the biggest worry was swimming. Then it was amplified when the swim will take place in open water (Port Dickson). Swimming in the pool is totally different from swimming in the sea. Visibility being one of them. Buoyancy makes not much differences to most of us that could not efficiently swim. If you are a beginner triathlete or looking at swimming for fitness, what stroke should you consider?
My Take
Unless you are competing for podium, my take on swimming in triathlon race is really to meet the league's cut off. It is most important to keep moving. Personally, most of my triathlon races are done using breaststroke. This was because I could not swim beyond 200m freestyle/front crawl. Doing it breaststroke allows almost perfect sightings aka you will see where you are going. No doubt front crawl should be the main stroke as it utilises the top torso for propulsion and the legs are used minimally, thus saving them for the cycling later. It was only recently that I've managed to swim a full Olympic distance in nothing but front crawl, and I noticed the immense advantage it gave me on the bike - having my legs saved from over utilisation compared to breaststroke (frog kick).
Getting There
It is every triathlete wish to be able to perform front crawl all the way in a race. It all boils down to practice and training. Noted that many multi-sports person places their priority wrongly with their training program - with swimming possibly receiving the least attention. I am of no exception when it come to this. I've only clocked about 9km of swim  2012 - and that was inclusive of race mileage. That translate to almost minimal time in the water.
As a self taught triathlete and constantly looking and searching for ways (legally) to improve, here are some tips for swimming. These tips apply to both the strokes and aim to improve efficiency of your swim and to be more economical with your power usage. Remember that swimming is only a fraction of the triathlon race distance - lacking in it doesn't meant the end of your race. All you need is good spirit and a never give up attitude and you will cover the deficit with a good bike and run time.
Tips for Front Crawl

  • Your kick is not for propulsion, it is to prevent your legs from sinking. One kick per complete hand revolution (i.e. left and right) is sufficient. 
  • Kicking harder and faster does not propel you any faster if you can't streamline your body
  • As your hands leave the water, make sure your elbow leads the way
  • Your hands should break the water right in front of your head and always stretch as far as you can forward - and pull
  • Learn to do sighting even in a pool. Look in front every 6 complete strokes.
  • Breath out when in water, do not hold your breathe. Time your breathing to your strokes.
  • Even though I can breathe on both sides, I usually breathe on one side (left).
  • Do not turn your head up to breathe, ROLL your body
  • To get the most streamline position, imagine your body is a see-saw with your navel as the pivot. Push your upper torso down and your legs will align itself
  • Keep your head stationery to your shoulder, it should only move when you roll the torso
Tips for Breaststroke
  • GLIDE, maximise the stroke by lengthening the body after each kick.
  • Imagine your toes to be a swim fin, as you kick, flex your toes and use it as a complimentary "kick".
  • At the end of every kick, i perform a "dolphin" kick - like those you do when doing Butterfly stroke. That way, I use my core for propulsion too.
  • Your hand movement during this stroke is only to bring you up for breathing. Reason why Breastroke is not economical for triathlon, so don't go crazy with your hand movement, half a circle is more than sufficient
  • Tuck your head between your arms when stretched out
  • Breathe out while in water, get into an almost rhymathic trance-like breathing
Don't sink, keep swimming. No matter what strokes you do, keep moving forward. They key to everything is to keep practicing. Swimming is the toughest discipline to improve. Unless you are a bad swimmer to begin with, improvement at advanced-amateur level is tough. I typically know my own "best swim time" based on distance and could actually tell if the route is under, over or everyone just had to deal with bad current. It is also the easiest to "cheat" by swimming across buoy. You will know it when some one's swim time suddenly improved by a good 10 minutes ;-)
Practice (not cheating) makes perfect!


  1. what about if i am poor in sighting, which one you recommend ? in fact, in swimming pool i can swim quite a straight line.

    1. It is normal as we panic while in murky water. What i do in the pool is i close my eyes and prevent myself from looking down (at the lines). Over time, i learnt to trust my own instinct. Swimming zig-zag are usually due to over-compensating and under-strength arms movement as we all have a more dominant side. Practice, again, ensure that both arms are equally strong.

      If you are poor in sighting, I would suggest you swim breaststroke when swimming OUT and freestyle when swimming IN (towards the beach), this way, you have a "bigger" target when swimming back aka the beach. However, do take the advantage of the time you spend in the pool to LOOK Forward when coming out for a breath every 6-complete strokes.

      I say 6 because it works for me, perhaps you would want to sight every 4?

  2. Good info bro... I planned to have my maiden triathlon this year, but swimming is the biggest worry for me... must spend more time in the pool if i wanted to succeed this :)

  3. Kicking is important, it will be a waste if you have huge foot but not using them.

    High elbow stroke should be in the water, above water movement just use you shoulders to roll over (at least you can splash/slap those competitors beside lol)

    1. Kim - good tips! I better work on my kicks!

      And noted on the elbow-shoulder! THanks!

  4. Many swimmers who swim freestyle tend to cross the 12 O' Clock marker. The hands should enter the water at the 11 and 1 O' Clock positions respectively. By crossing the middle, you will veer to one side. Much energy is wasted compensating to bring yourself back to center.