10 Top Tips to Improve Your Swim Stroke

10 Top Tips to Improve Your Swim Stroke

In our recent poll, only 25% of triathletes claimed 'swimming to be their strongest discipline...' (which probably comes as no great shock if you're one of the 75% who would prefer to go for a run or ride the bike, than get in the pool) We also know that avoiding training, or not putting in the effort to improve your stroke, isn't going to help you on race day.

Many would argue that, of all the disciplines, swimming is the one in which you can enjoy the most gains, so long as you're prepared to put in the graft. However, it's also one of the most technical to learn - and many of us don't have the appetite to read the manual or have time / access to coached sessions (so continue to thrash it out the only way we know how...)

Race season is coming at us like a steam train, so we sought advice from an expert - and asked for 10 tips that can help swimmers of all abilities. John Wood (Level 2 tri coach and Level 3 swim coach) at Tri-Coaching, was happy to offer the following advice and guidance. We've found these tips mega useful and sure you will too. Let us know in the comments which you will be focussing on implementing in your next swim session! 

John Wood

'As a swim coach, I often get asked about how to make quick changes and improvements in the water. It can be very individual – we’re all different after all – but equally, most issues boil down to very similar things. The other question I get asked is about improving breathing; this tends to be more a symptom of other things being wrong, and therefore the thing you notice, rather than the actual issue. Again, this tends to be more simply fixed by sorting some of the foundations of your swim!

Here are my top 10 tips to improve your swim at any level. Hopefully, these are the changes that will give you biggest bang for buck.

1) Fix your body position.

Unless you are swimming quicker than 1.30/100m (and even if you are!), chances are that you can improve the position of your body in the water. The ideal position is close to/at the surface with your whole body; shoulders, hips and heels. The majority of swimmers swim with their hips below the surface to some degree, potentially with the feet even lower. What this means is that 1 – you’re creating a whole lot of extra resistance that you then need to overcome, and 2 – that however strong you are, you’re not in an ideal position to put down power on the water.

The key then, is to think about good posture. A lot of coaches, blogs and videos will tell you to “look down”, which is part of the equation. What we really need is to think about engaging the core a little so that we can then balance our body over our lungs and help bring the hips and feet up. My favourite tip is to get people to push streamlined off every wall – this will encourage you to engage your core (like doing a squat), remind you of the ideal body position, and give you extra speed off the wall that you can look to maintain.

Pool swim

2) Whole body swimming.

People tend to think about swimming as an arms or upper body sport. Especially if you’re doing triathlon, you may have been encouraged to not kick, to save your legs. I’m going to tell you that that’s losing you power and effectiveness.

First up, your lats should be doing most of the work (see point 3 below). Secondly, if you can engage your core and roll each and every stroke, this will help your rhythm, help your breathing AND increase your power and stroke length. Finally, you might not need to kick your legs like a drum and bass beat, but your kick aids with balance and control of your stroke. You don’t need a world beating kick, but again, this will add power and rhythm. Think of your body like a bike – if you literally just use your arms, your body ends up like the bottom bracket of an old bike, flexing and twisting all the time and leaking power. If you can utilise your whole body in tandem, much more of your power gets transferred to the water. 

3) Press don’t pull

Once you have your whole body moving, you can think about what your arms are doing under the water. This is the engine room of your swim really; your legs, unfortunately, don’t produce that much thrust.

While it may sound like semantics, when your arms go through the water focus on pressing your hands and forearms back rather than trying to pull. If you try and pull on the water, your elbow is likely to come back first – with your forearm parallel to the surface/bottom of the water. This is what I affectionately refer to as T-rex arms… Basically, you’re relying on your shoulders an awful lot. Instead, if you reach down a bit deeper into the water and think about pressing/squeezing your arms back, you can engage your core and your lats as the main muscles – far bigger than your shoulders; you also get to use your forearms and not just your hands, so a larger paddle too.

Lake swim 1

4) Less haste more speed.

Basically, stop rushing! Depending on your ability, and what you have read/learned, you may be guilty of trying to move your arms too fast in the water – especially when working hard. When your hands are in the water, you need to control the water. The more you grab at it, the less likely you can apply force.

Your arms don’t have to move at constant speed (at any effort level). Instead, think about being a little slower when your hands are in front (think control) and then moving a bit faster past your thighs and exiting the water (think accelerate).

Cadence is something that gets mentioned quite a lot, and you can bring the arm speed up without rushing too much – just make sure that your hands don’t ever stop. They don’t necessarily need to move fast, but some people end up over reaching and getting stuck with their arms out in front, and then slowing down. 

5) Use swim toys – but don’t rely on them.

Swim toys and kit are a valuable resource. Some people love them a bit too much though! Many people prefer swimming with a pull buoy (see point 1!), and while this can be really useful, they can become a bit of a crutch. Use the pull buoy to put your body in the right position, get a feel for it, then swim without and try to replicate that. A favourite set of mine is to swim with your float at your thighs, then at your knees, then between your ankles – and then do a fourth rep normal full stroke. This can be a challenge, it forces you to control your core, as you move the float further down, your hips will sink and bow in the middle if you don’t. When you come to the full stroke at the end, it (hopefully) feels much easier and more in control.

Fins are brilliant for working on your kick, keeping your legs long, loose and relaxed.

Paddles are perfect for working on power – try to use just middle finger straps rather than wrist/side straps, so you can work technique at the same time, pressing the water backward rather than ripping at it.

Snorkels are fun and ideal for helping you to swim smooth and keep your head still, let your stroke carry on as you need to without needing to breathe.

In all and any kit cases, take what you can from swimming with any of the toys into your full stroke, they should be an extension of what you do, not completely different.

John Poolside

6) Swim mindfully, don’t just plough up and down

Too many people get in the water and do the same sessions time and again, or swim for 1/2/3km and get out. How are you ever going to improve doing that? Unlike running and cycling, where doing more means even incremental gains, water is 750 times more dense than air – so we need to swim smart.

Think about what you’re doing, think about why you’re in the water and what you’re trying to achieve from the session. Most people won’t go out and cycle or run without at least a vague plan, make sure that your swim is the same. It doesn’t have to be complex, but you do need a goal to work toward.

7) Slow down, stop pushing all the time

Linked to point 6 – and very much the same as other sports – you can’t swim fast/hard all the time. This may even be why you feel out of breath, because you’re working harder than you think (or need to be). Swimming slower has lots of benefits, physiologically, technically and mentally.

By swimming slower, you can work a lot more of your aerobic capacity, which requires much less recovery (both in and out of the session). By swimming easier, you have more time to think about your form (and possibly swim quicker into the bargain!). It can help you stretch out hips and shoulders. And it can help you feel more calm. Take your time, enjoy yourself, and remember what you’re working toward.

Lake swim 2

8) Include drills

Drills are one of the best things you can do to improve your swimming – if done properly! This doesn’t mean you need to do ­ ALL – the drills, or perfectly, but they will help you understand your stroke, your body and general awareness. As long as you don’t race through them, take your time and know what you are trying to work on with each drill, you can make real steps forward.

My favoured time to include drills is in the warm up for sessions, to help switch your brain on for what is to come. Maybe you need to focus on not crossing over in your stroke, so catch up might be your go to. Or when you work hard you end up grabbing the water, so you may include some sculling.

By the same token, you could do drills to break up an endurance set where speed/pace don’t matter, or in recoveries between fast sets to help you reset.

Whatever and whenever you chose to do them – just think quality over quantity!

9) Swim with friends

Of course, this might not always be possible; but as with riding and running, having company can help push you on to higher heights. Encouragement (even to make sure you get in the water!) and camaraderie are great boosters to performance. Equally, having company might give you something to draft off and help keep the pace up as you fatigue and tire. If your pals are good swimmers, they may even be able to point out things to focus on in your technique (see point 10 below).

lake swim 3

10) Get someone to check over your swim/plan

Swimming is hard to work on – more so than cycling and running because you can’t see much of what’s going on, and if you do look around it really disturbs your flow. So getting a coach to watch your stroke and point you in the right direction can be an absolute godsend.

If you swim at an amenable pool, you might be able to get video of you swimming so that you can look back at it as reminders and for cues to work on going forward.

Someone who has a bit of knowledge around swimming can also give you direction on what you do in your swim sessions and help you get the most out of your time in the water.'


Thanks again to John Wood at Tri-Coaching

For regular coaching tips he can be followed on Instagram @tri_coaching or email john@tri-coaching.co.uk if interested in hearing about coaching packages.

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