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My Shoulder Hurts When I Swim Freestyle

I recently asked the My Triathlon Swim community to share their biggest challenge, when it comes to swimming freestyle. I received some great responses. (A BIG thank you to everyone who replied.)

Many of the usual suspects were represented in the feedback….

I swallow water when I breathe…”

“My legs sink!

But several members of the community listed injuries as their biggest challenge. This isn’t really a surprise, since swimming can be brutal on upper body joints, especially the shoulders.

There are a couple of common stroke-related factors that can contribute to shoulder injuries. One causes shoulder injuries when preforming an incorrect stroke technique, while the other causes injury when attempting a correct stroke technique.

Here’s what I mean….

Figure 1

Incorrect Hand Entry: Through, Not Over
As your hand enters the water your goal is to reach through the water to around 12-inches below the surface. (See the lower half of Figure 1.)  You’re reaching and gliding, in search of stable water in which to “anchor” your hand.

Instead of reaching through the water, many swimmers reach over the water. (See the upper half of Figure 1.)

This creates three issues:

  1. Brings air down into the catch zone.
  2. Forces the swimmer to start pulling immediately, without gliding and finding stable water.
  3. Places a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulder joint.

If you suffer from shoulder pain when you swim, take a look at how your hand enters the water. Is your arm already straight when your hand enters? Do you see a big pool of bubbles where your hand entered? If so, consider entering with a bent arm and reaching through the water. Then glide.

Correct Catch: Strength and Flexibility is Key
Once you’ve reached through the water, glided on your lead hand, and found that stable water, it’s time to start your pull.

Figure 2

The correct technique here is to keep a high elbow and make a “paddle” with your hand and forearm, as illustrated in the lower half of Figure 2. Many swimmers drop their elbow and “slip” the water. (See the upper half of Figure 2.)

Performing a high-elbow catch is the most advanced skill we discuss on this beginner site. You can read more about the correct catch technique in the book, plus get workouts in the workout section.

A high-elbow catch requires strength and flexibility. For that reason, it’s important to stretch and strengthen your shoulder joints, using dry land exercises.

If you’re looking for a good way to strengthen your shoulders for swimming, consider getting a set of StretchCordz. I often encourage swimmers to keep a set at the office or home and do a few sets each day. You’ll be surprised how quickly you see a difference in your stroke.

I hope these stroke tips help with any shoulder injuries. However, stroke adjustments might not be the fix for your shoulder issues. I encourage you to see a medical professional if shoulder pain persists.

Should I cup my hands when I swim?

One fairly common question I get from beginner triathletes is, “Should I cup my hand when I pull underwater?”  This is a fair question. It seems like cupping the hand would help the swimmer scoop more water. This might make sense if the underwater pull was a straight-line, scooping action. But, it’s not.

Let’s review a section from the Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes book…

How the hand enters the water is important because it “sets up” the all-important catch phase. The “catch” happens when a swimmer reaches through the water and anchors their lead hand in stable water. Keeping ahold of this water while applying accelerated pressure is the key driving force for triathlon swimmers.

(Editor’s note: Get the free of Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes.)

There are two pieces of the above statement you should make note of….“keeping ahold of water” and “applying pressure.”

To “apply pressure,” swimmers should maximize the hand’s surface area by keeping it flat. Swimmers should think of their hand (and forearm) as an oar, rather than spoon. In other words, cupping the hand reduces the surface area and should be avoided.

To “keep ahold” of water throughout the pull, swimmers must adjust the pitch of their hand. The underwater pull is not a straight back pull. Swimmers who effectively use the pitch of their hand to find stable water and propel themselves forward are said to have a good “feel for the water.”

So, rather than cupping the hand and scooping water, swimmers are far more effective if they maintain a flat hand and adjust the pitch of their hand throughout the pull.

One of the best drills to improve your feel for the water is sculling. When sculling, a swimmer keeps their hands and arms along a horizontal plane, i.e. moving from left to right. In other words, their hands do not travel along their body line at all. They use the pitch of their hands, as they move them in-and-out to create forward momentum. Think of how the pitch of a propeller moves an object forward. Sculling is often a very slow exercise, and that’s fine.

So, the bottomline is that scooping the water with cupped hands is not advised. Creating an oar-like plane with the hand and forearm is preferred for distance freestylers.

We’ll incorporate sculling into our free workouts here.

How to Train for a Triathlon Swim While Traveling

How do I train for a triathlon while traveling?” is one of the most common questions I get. Traveling can be fun and exciting. But it can also kill a triathlete’s training program…or at least severely hamper it. Finding a time and place to squeeze in a swim workout can be a challenge. Whether for business or pleasure, travelers are often at the mercy of other people’s schedules. And, while it’s not hard to find a hotel with a treadmill and stationary bike, most hotel swimming pools are nowhere near long enough for a proper swim workout.

But some careful planning and a couple of swim devices can help. Here are a few tips for training for a triathlon while traveling:

Scope Out a Local Pool

While the hotel pool might not be long enough for a training session, there’s a good chance that a local pool is. Visit SwimmersGuide.com and search for pools in the area you’ll be visiting. The site gives you a list of pools close by. It also gives you the size of pool, opening hours, pricing, contact details and more. If you find a pool close by, it’s a good idea to call ahead and ask about the best times to swim. Often, other swim programs take up some of the lanes, squeezing lap swimmers into a couple of lanes. You might also ask whether a masters swim program or triathlon club meets at the pool. It’s always good to train with a group.

Travel with a Stationary Swim Trainer

A short hotel pool is often the most convenient option. If that’s the case, consider traveling with a stationary swim trainer. This is one of my favorite swim training aides. In fact, I often use it even when I’m in a 25 yard pool because it helps me simulate an open water swim.

StrechCordz-Stationary-Swim-TrainerA stationary swim trainer is a belt with one or two bungee cords attached. The belt goes around your waist, while the other end of the bungee anchors to something. Trainers with a single bungee chord anchors to something on the pool deck. A trainer with double bungee chord anchors to a lane line on either side of the swimmer. Some swim trainers use foot straps to hold the swimmer in place rather than a belt around the waist. Personally, I prefer the waist. While a belt around the waist restricts my body roll a little, I prefer to keep use of my feet.

A stationary swim trainer turns a short pool into an endless pool. I like to use my swim trainer with a freestyle snorkel and waterproof MP3 player. Using the snorkel means I don’t have to worry about turning my head to breathe allowing me to focus on maintaining a balanced stroke. The MP3 player stops me from getting bored. I recommend this set up.

My favorite stationary swim trainers are the StrechCordz Stationary Swim Trainer and the StrechCordz Long Belt w/Slider.

Get a Swim Workout in Your Room

Sometimes the client you traveled to meet is only available during your scheduled swim time. Or, when visiting family, your nephew’s football game kicks off right when you planned on diving in. All is not lost. Another device, also made using bungee chords, gives you a quick way to keep your freestyle muscles tuned.

strechcordz-modularStretch cords are resistance bands for swimmers. Many competitive swimmers use them. They are, again, made from bungee chords, with a handle on one end and an anchor on the other. Swimmers simulate the underwater pull, helping strengthen their back, arms and shoulders. It’s important to keep the elbow high at the beginning of each pull and extend the arm at the end.

There are a variety of bungee thicknesses available, offering differing levels of resistance.

Stretch chords are easy to travel with and, in a pinch, allow travelers a chance to exercise the same muscles used in freestyle.

I recommend that all triathletes incorporate some stretch chord exercises into their training. It’s a quick, convenient way to work key freestyle muscles.

My favorite bands are the StrechCords Modular Resistance Bands.

Swim training for a triathlon while traveling can be challenging, but not impossible. I encourage you to find a close-by pool. If that fails, use the hotel pool, using a stationary trainer. And, as a last resort, do some extra dryland exercises, using stretch cords.  Good luck and safe travels.

My Number One Technique Tip

Body position is crucially important for triathlon swimmers. By finding the right body position, it’s possible to swim faster and with less energy…and that is a wonderful thing.

It’s common for beginner triathletes to feel like they are ploughing through the water, with their legs dragging as dead-weight behind them. Much can be gained from shifting your center of buoyancy from the air-filled top half towards your legs. You can do this by pushing your chest down and forward. Imagine you are swimming downhill….but not so far downhill that you reach the bottom.

If done correctly, you will feel your feet come closer to the surface.

Now, it’s important that you make this adjustment by pushing your chest down and not just dropping your head down. Maintain a correct head position while pressing your chest down and forwards. Experiment with several degrees of “chest-press” and see which one feels natural to you.

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How to Choose Your First Triathlon Wetsuit

Choosing your first triathlon wetsuit can be a daunting task. With so many features and price-ranges, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some considerations:

Know the features
A triathlon wetsuit is unlike wetsuits made for other activities, like scuba diving or surfing. Triathlon suits are made to repel the water and help the swimmer float, whereas diving suits, for example, soak up water and designed to help the diver become submerged.

There are many suits to choose from. They all attempt to do the same things — provide buoyancy, warmth and reduce drag. Most are made from coated neoprene, which give them a rubber-like feel. Manufacturers will place different thicknesses of material strategically throughout the suit, to help with swimmer’s body position, although the USA Triathlon regulations restrict the suit thickness to 5mm for sanctioned events.

You will have three styles of triathlon wetsuits to choose from.

A full cut suit covers the arms and legs, which provides a little extra buoyancy. However, many triathletes don’t like to have their arms covered while swimming because it interferes with their pull. The forearms are an important part of the pull and covering them up can feel counterproductive. In addition, a full suit can restrict the shoulder motion, which is also important to maintain good technique.

A sleeveless suit, as the name suggests, attempts to free-up the arms from any restrictions. Most manufacturers make a full-cut and sleeveless version of each suit. Both styles of suit cover the legs down to the ankles and the fit is tight, to prevent water from entering the suit. Tight ankle cuffs can be a challenge during the first tradition (T1), from swim to bike. It’s common to see triathletes struggling to get these suits off. Some suits include “quick release” features, which allow the athlete to tighten before the swim and quickly loosen during T1.

The third style of wetsuit has several names, including Short Cut, Swim Skin or Farmer Johns/Janes. These suits cover the thighs but not calfs. Seeing as they have the least amount of material, they provide the least amount of buoyancy but don’t restrict the arms during the swim. They also make for an easy transition.

There are many factors that should be considered when deciding on the style. But probably one of the biggest is your swim strength. Week swimmers like to go for the maximum buoyancy delivered by full cut wetsuit, whereas stronger swimmers prefer not to let the suit restrict their stroke and will opt for a short cut or sleeveless suit.

Set a budget
There are many suits to choose from. There are a dozen or so manufacturers and each one has several styles, from entry-level to elite competition. It’s tempting to creep up from one suit to the next, justifying each new feature. If this is your first triathlon wetsuit, it’s often good to find a good entry-level suit. The entry-level models will most likely be made from the same material and deliver the same buoyancy as the elite models. If money is no object, get the best. But if you are looking to get into triathlons on a budget, have a price range in mind before you start shopping, to avoid shopper’s creep.

Ask Around
One of the best forms of research you can do is soliciting input from people you know. If you have a group that you train with, ask them about their experience. As you do so, keep in mind their swimming ability as compared to yours. You can place more weight on advice from people who started their triathlons with a similar swimming ability to yours.

Try it Before Your Buy It
The ultimate form of research is to try several suits. Every one is different, so a suit that’s a good fit for one person will not necessarily be a good fit for you. If you are able to actually swim in the suit, all the better. When you do, be sure to do more than swim a couple of laps in the pool. This won’t likely reveal a suits friction points. If possible, swim a full workout in the suit.

Some triathlon stores have demo models for you to try. Alternatively, if you have a friend with a similar build who is willing to let you borrow their suit, that’s a good place to start. Also, there are a few triathlon wetsuit rental sites online which will send you a suit for your race. Some will even allow you to buy the suit if you like it.

Finding the right suit can be a hassle. Start your search many weeks before your race, to give you time to find the right one and practice using it.

Maintain you suit
With proper maintenance of your new wetsuit, you will be able to get many races before needing a new one. Also, triathlon wetsuits have a healthy used resale market. The better you maintain your suit, the more you will fetch for it, if and when you decide to upgrade.

Always wash your wetsuit with freshwater after each use. Saltwater and chlorine will degrade the neoprene if you don’t remove it. Be sure to rinse the zipper well. There are some suit washes on the market that can help keep the material healthy and smelling fresh. After rinsing the suit in fresh water, either lay flat or hang on a wetsuit hanger or padded hanger.

Check out triathlon wetsuit reviews page to help choose the right suit for you.

Reach Through, Not Over, the Water

Effective swim coaches are have a plethora of analogies at their disposal. Drawing from the “dry world” can be an excellent way to communicate a technique in the pool. “Pretend you’re a pig roasting on a spit,” helps a swimmer perfect a body roll while maintaining a stable head position; “Imagine you’re swimming through a tube,” helps prevent a high arm recovery… and so on.

But probably my favorite analogy is to imagine a ladder running 1-2ft underneath the water. Your hand should enter the water in front of your face, with a high elbow. Then reach through the water to the farthest rung of the ladder you can reach. That means rotating onto your side to grab a rung further up the ladder. Notice that I said to reach through the water for the furthest rung and not over. This is important. It’s much easier to catch the water if you reach through the water because you bring less air into the water that when reaching over. By slicing through the water air pockets are minimizes, but when you each over and slap the water with a straight arm, you create one big air pocket.

Try it. The next time you swim, reach over the water and look how many bubbles you see ahead of you. Now slide your hand in with a high elbow and reach forward, through the water. You should see fewer bubbles.

The ladder analogy helps the swimmer experiment with hand entry and reach. If you try this, also experiment with the velocity with which you enter the water. Many coaches encourage a rather vigorous entry and reach to help with body roll, i.e. to gain an extra rung on the ladder.

Let me know what you think of this visual. And if you have a favorite analogy, share it below.

Why Use Interval Training in Your Workouts

Most competitive swimmers don’t just jump the water and swim straight for an couple of hours before hitting the showers, unless they’re an ultra-distance swimmer…or a loner.

Instead, a coach gives a series of “sets” designed to work various aspects of the swimmer’s stroke and fitness. For example, one or two sets might be given as a warm up; then perhaps a set to focus on the swimmer’s kick; then another that focuses on swimming at race pace; and so on. A single set might take the form of, say, 8 x 100s (25 drill, 75 swim).

Occasionally, a coach will set a rest period between each repetition, like 15 seconds rest between each 100. But, more often than not, a coach will give a specific interval for each rep. So, for example, the 8 x 100s above might be “on the 2:00.” That means the swimmer has two minutes to complete each 100 swim. If the swimmer completes the 100 in 1:30, they have 30 seconds rest before starting the next one. If the swimmer goes faster, they get more rest. If they go slower, they get less. This is called interval training and it’s a great idea for you, if you are training for a triathlon.

Here are some reasons you should try to incorporate interval training into your workouts.

It’s a Monotony Breaker
Breaking a straight 800 swim into 8 x 100 can make workouts much more fun. Even having 10 seconds to lift your head and look around can help break the monotony of a straight 800 swim. Swimmers also get to interact with a coach and other swimmers — to receive feedback, encourage each other and confirm the number of reps to go.

In addition, many coaches take the opportunity to place some variety within each rep. So, for example, in the 8 x 100s example above, the first length is drill. This again breaks up the monotony of a straight 100 swim.

Intervals Provide a Challenge
Intervals add a whole new dynamic to the workout. You or your coach can change the intervals to experiment with different speeds. If you have 15-30 seconds rest between each 100, you can probably hold a faster pace that you would normally hold by swimming straight through.

On long sets, it’s common for swimmers to get the most rest on the first rep, less on the second before settling into a groove. Interval training, therefore, helps the swimmer establish a feel for their pace. This becomes extra important on race day, when it’s common for excitement and adrenaline to cause a triathlete to swim harder than they need to.

Get Real-Time Feedback
After a while, you’ll realize that intervals that used to give you 20 seconds rest are now giving you 30 seconds comfortably…you’re getting fitter and faster! So, interval training gives you better real-time feedback on how you are doing than swimming straight through.

Interval training is a wonderful thing for triathletes. If you aren’t already doing some of it, you should try it.

However, it’s important that you find the right intervals for you. If you have someone that’s a similar ability to you, then you can use the same intervals. But if you’re swimming, say, 100s with a group and someone is getting 45 secs rest, another 20 secs and another 5…that’s not good. Each group is probably working a different system.

In the next post, I will suggest a way for you to determine your intervals.

The Two Keys to Preparing for Your Swim – Time and Patience

Most people have some sort of a biking or running base when they start training for a triathlon. The swim is a different story, however. It’s not uncommon for beginners to have never (or only occasionally) swam for exercise. To work your way up to a race distance swim, it’s important to take incremental steps and be patient. One way is to commit to doing the distance but not to worry too much about how you get there. As the swim becomes easier, transition from just “making it” to “making it good.” Ruth Kazez calls this the “Go Long” strategy.

If you are just beginning, there are two ways to increase your distance. You can do a mile from day one, changing your stroke to anything easy, even sidestroke and elementary backstroke, whenever necessary.

After a week, restrict the non-freestyle to something like every fourth lap, later to every eighth lap, until you’ve eliminated non-freestyle altogether. Or, using no alternative strokes, you can swim shorter distances, strictly limiting rest time to ten breaths, gradually increasing the yardage. Both methods should take about six weeks until you are able to do the whole mile non-stop, all freestyle. Read full the article…

Another thing to keep in mind is that your swim fitness won’t happen overnight. As frustrated as you might be, stick with it. You’ll always have good days and bad days but the more you practice, the fewer bad days there will be. Give yourself plenty of time to prepare. Gale Bernhardt suggests 12 weeks…

If your fitness has been dormant for quite awhile, it’s good to give yourself about 12 weeks to get in shape and minimize the chances of injury. In 12 weeks you can condition tendons, ligaments and your endurance so that you can enjoy the race. If you can commit to training five days per week-two and a half to four hours per week-that’s plenty of time to get in shape. Read the article…

However you prepare, be sure to relax and enjoy the swim. If you dread it, it’s not likely that you will spend the time nor patience you need to prepare.

A Good Set to Practice Buoy-Spotting

Here’s a good set to help practice spotting the buoy during race day.

If you are training in a 25 yard/meter pool:

Swim 4-6 x 100 yard/meters freestyle. In the middle of each length, lift your head and take 2 arm cycles with you chin on the water. Place your face back in the water and complete the length.

Take 20-30 seconds rest between each 100. Adjust this if you are swimming in a 50 meter pool or in open water.

Here’s the important thing to remember. Each time you finish swimming with your face out of the water, be sure that you return to the correct body position. Lifting your head can cause you to lose a well-balanced body position.

The Pros and Cons of Fin Training

Fins are fun. Put them on and you instantly become fish-like. Now, having a killer freestyle kick is not as desirable for a triathlete as it is for a swim sprinter. Triathletes need to preserve their lower body for the bike and run. However, having a poor kick will render your legs a liability during the swim, so your kick is important to maintaining a correct body position and balance.

Here are a few good reasons to incorporate fins into your workouts.

Practice a Good Kick Motion
An effective freestyle kick starts at the hip, then bends at the knee, followed by the foot. It’s often described as a “whip” kick. The “up-kick” is done with a straight leg. Wearing fins helps the swimmer adopt this motion.

Help Ankle Flexibility
Another important piece of the kick is ankle flexibility. The swimmer should kick down with the top of their foot and up with their sole. Many swimmers find it hard to gain forward momentum with their kick and, often, this is due to their ankles not being extended.

Discovering the Water
So much of swimming is about sensations. It’s good to experiment with different speeds; different techniques; different body positions; different strokes. (What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis…?) Most equipment lets you do “discover” the water. Fins let you feel new things that you might not have felt before. Things can start clicking….

BUT…There is a danger in overusing fins. If you use your fins too much, you will miss out on the finding the best unassisted stroke for you….and that’s what you’re going to need on race day. Don’t use fins so much that you start depending on them.

As Sheila Taormina says in her excellent book, Swim Speed Secrets:

Using fins as a crutch is the worst thing a swimmer can do, and I see the used in this manner frequently. New swimmers who should be learning to feel the water will oftentimes put on fins )or be told to put them on by a coach who does not understand the importance of holding the water with one’s own limbs to generate propulsive forces) as a way to gain confidence. This slows the learning process, because every moment you are using fins means that you have lost that moment for developing true feel.