Swim Focus

Our new coaches are currently being introduced to how a Tri Training Harder coach approaches coaching a group and our Swim Clinics are now under way with more dates to come over the coming weeks until Christmas.

Here are some thoughts from

Head Coach Alan Ward

 ahead of this weekends Swim Clinic.


It is likely many triathletes are currently spending time focusing on their biggest performance limiter. For some athletes this may be the ability to tolerate training load without injury, or it may be their running technique, but for many it will be focused on their swimming.

So, how should you invest your time as wisely as possible? In my opinion, it has become clear that many athletes have a misunderstanding of where to focus their efforts. By focus I mean what do you try to work on in the pool, what part of your swim performance do you spend the most amount of time on?

Take cycling, for example, if you spent 100% of your time working on cycling skills/technique, you may be amazing around corners and at pulling wheelies and skids (which are all fantastic amount of fun!) but you wouldn't have the ability to push down hard on the pedals. Generally, it is accepted that roughly 80% of cycling time is spent at lower intensities. This could mean working on aerobic endurance, strength, skills, technique and then other 20% could be spent on hill reps, intervals and sweet-spot work.

In Parallel, with swimming it can be split across CSS-pace work, endurance-pace work, speed work, strength sets, mental toughness sets, open water skills and technique sessions. 

But we know that swimming is deemed to be the most technically demanding of the three disciplines. It leads to a lot of searching for understanding and correct execution of this mysterious 'perfect' technique. I want to challenge what you currently perceive, how you 'think' you should swim and how you do it.

1. There is no such thing as perfect technique

2. There is only the right technique for 'you'

3. You need to understand and develop your own mental cues/self-talk for your technique

A lot of this focus is directed towards this thing called the 'catch' as this is how you set yourself up for the rest of the stroke. This is where you get a 'feel' for the water, literally grab onto it and lever yourself through it.

This advice is the traditional focus of swim technique to be found in magazine articles, books, websites, blogs, videos even educational literature. The outcome of this is a generation of triathletes who are all over-focusing on the wrong part of the stroke. This part is critical: I am not saying don't ever consider it, I am asking you to challenge where you place the


of your thoughts. Let's break it down:

1. Kicking is widely accepted to give 10-15% of propulsion in freestyle swimming

2. The first 1/3 of the arm cycle from maximum extension to around the line of the head (a.k.a The 'Catch') accounts for around 5% of propulsion in freestyle swimming

3. The second 2/3 of arm cycle from the line of the head until the hand exits the water accounts for around 80% of propulsion

4. Rotation has a potentially multiplying effect on the propulsion effect of the arm cycle and the duration of time spent applying power. Rotation has a multiplying effect on both point 2 and 3. In other words the impact can be huge if both timed and utilised correctly. Note, this is not the degree of rotation but the correct timing of rotation and degree of rotation for your stroke.

So if the maths above is correct, which it is to a degree (the precise accuracy may be debatable), a lot of swimmers believe that they must focus on an area that gives them 5% of their propulsion. That is a pretty substantial focus on marginal gains. 

It is not only the marginal nature that doesn't make sense it is the psychological effect on stroke execution. To generalise, the vast majority of triathletes have a perfectionist and competitive nature with a lack of basic neuromuscular coordination. So they are trying to achieve something incredibly subtle and graceful such as the rise and fall of the Waltz, by approaching it with muscle and gritted teeth whilst having their weight displaced by being in a foreign environment: water. 

When you swim, all of the mental cues are focused on the front end of your stroke. This leads to an incredible amount of overthinking, slow movement, determination and tension in a part of the stroke at the front end where movement, softness, and flexibility are incredibly important to achieve good positioning. Whenever you try to acquire a new skill, ideally you progress from the slow-and-thoughtful to the fast-and-automated. With swimming, however, focusing thinking your way through the catch leads to paralysis by analysis! It slows you down and stiffens you up in entirely the wrong place!

Try filling a sink with some water and take a handful of water. 'Feel' it pass through your fingertips and back into the sink. This is 'feel' for the water. It is incredibly elusive and literally slips through your fingers. You will likely never feel anything. What you will feel is that moment when all the different components of your stroke 'dance' together in time. This is the feeling that you are trying to search for.

Firstly, and most importantly try relaxing. Forget about your catch, focus on keeping a relaxed lead arm and spend more of your time thinking about pushing back (working on that huge 85%). The real difference comes from getting the stroke to drive using a taut torso and hips, pressing back powerfully and keeping your hands in that 85% Propulsive Phase: not stiffly gliding, pausing and stabbing the water in front of your head.

Watch a little bit of Strictly Come Dancing this week and apply the same grace to your arms in swimming, hold your posture perfect with your torso and ensure that your body leads what your arms are doing within your stroke. Don't let your arms control your body. Don't let the tail wag the dog...