My previous articles covered how swimming for a triathlete is different to that of a ‘pure’ swimmer, how to breathe and streamlining or alignment. With these in place, the last significant piece of the swim jigsaw is how to generate and maximise propulsion. The "how and where" the propulsion occurs is often the biggest area of confusion with triathletes I see for video analysis sessions and in swim camps.
This is often borne out of advice from pool-based swimmers and their coaches (or triathlon coaches from the same sources) where the focus is on what appears to be on a long, ‘slow’ (but I will come back to this) gliding stroke.
Many pool swimmers do appear to do this (but not all) and this is mainly due to their long development in swimming where they have been able to develop and maintain a good level of mobility and strength in their chest, back and particularly their shoulders.
This longer (reaching / gliding) stroke often works for the developed swimmer simply because she/he has the mobility to quickly and strongly bend the elbow (often referred to as the early vertical forearm) to initiate the propulsive part of the stroke.
Not only is the mobility required to do this severely lacking in many triathletes, but swimming in open water, which is almost always much more turbulent than a pool, makes a long / slow stroke very ineffective. By focusing on the front part of the stroke, many triathletes then ignore or are not able to complete the stroke at the back - when swimming in open water, by not finishing the stroke they miss out on the main propulsive part.
For many triathletes, the focus in effort needs to switch from the front (where propulsion is minimal) to the rear. And to finish the stroke properly requires a good strong push that goes beyond the hips – a video of this part of the stroke soon highlights whether this is the case!
Propulsion can only be optimised when there is minimal drag and so requires good streamlining/alignment and only when all the energy in the propulsive stroke is directed in a straight line backwards.
This sounds obvious but is often not performed very well, starting with the hand position and orientation when starting the stroke.
As a coach I tell triathletes in particular that I’m not interested in how the arm recovery is achieved; ie. the part of the stroke with the hand/arm is above water; the only exception to this is the entry point of the hand as it re-enters the water. How this occurs will dictate or compromise the effectiveness of the propulsion.
Hand entry is critical
If the swimmer is streamlined, to travel forwards as efficiently as possible, water must be pushed backwards as effectively as possible and this is where the hand entry becomes critical.
Hand entry must be in a straight line in front of the same shoulder and entered with the first action being that the water fingers immediately drop into a position that allows the maximum amount of water to be pushed back. Crossing over at the entry point will severely limit the ability to generate propulsion until very much later in the stroke – and often leads to a snaking movement and also potential shoulder injury.
Viewed from the front the hand entry should be forwards and downwards and ideally be directly in front of the shoulder; the palm should then begin to be rotated to a vertical (rather than outward) orientation. For the swimmer, the hand should be the main focus of attention at this stage, not only is the hand the most sensitive but if entry is correct it will lead the forearm - also a major contributor to propulsion into the correct position.
There are many descriptions about this front part of the stroke, often referred to as the catch, but the one that most people seem to be able to relate to is to wrap your arm around a barrel or Swiss ball [see photo below].
This description is also quite apt, as the action should be to "wrap around" – this implies a relaxed movement which is exactly how this first part of the stroke should be. I see too many people being almost aggressive and using a lot of energy at this front end of the stroke in an attempt to get a good catch or lengthen the front of the stroke by reach out (and gliding), and then actually having almost zero catch!
The front end of the stroke immediately following hand entry is where the whole stroke can go really well or be quite ineffective. Very few triathletes are able to do this well, mainly because I believe their focus is on feeling water pressure at the front, rather than at the back, of the stroke, and is where I see the majority of triathletes compromise their propulsion, either from being too aggressive on the entry, crossing over or simply by reaching out – in an attempt to lengthen their stroke.
The end result of all these actions is that the hand will glide forwards/inwards/upwards and then the elbow drops, the classic ‘dropped elbow’. However, the action deceives the triathlete into sensing a good hold of the water purely because there is a massive amount of pressure felt – from pushing water downwards, not backwards.
This action lifts the front of the body (so dropping the legs), effectively stalls the swimmer's progress and puts lots of pressure on the shoulders, often causing the shoulder problems which are common in older swimmers.
Applying less effort, with more control and awareness, during this initial part of the stroke is required; this will help set-up a good stable anchor from which water can be pulled and then pushed back for an effective propulsive stroke.
Think of your straight hand entry being relaxed and simply dropping into position around a Swiss ball (not grabbing it) and this sets up your hand and arm to maximise the effort that can then be applied to the water. At this set-up point, your hand should be vertical with fingers pointing directly downwards, the wrist should be firm and forearm mainly vertical and with your elbow high.
Once this has been achieved, the hard work begins – imagine pulling your hand straight back along a track and then pushing back fully – and visualise your hip moving away / out of the way to enable your hand to push fully back.
The key here is to feel water pressure increasing as your hand moves backwards until it leaves the water past your hip.
All of the above will increase the stroke rate and can feel like the stroke is shortened – and for many swimmers this is the case, but the stroke is actually more effective as the propulsion is being directed backwards rather than being applied downwards or when it's simply too late.
A relaxed front end of the stroke, from a straight hand entry, will set up the stroke effectively to maximise propulsion. There is no effort required in the first part of the stroke, and DON’T be tempted to reach forwards. DROP your hand downwards to wrap your hand around a Swiss ball.
From this position, the real propulsion starts – and hard work – as water is directed in a straight line backwards to a point where your hand exits the water when the arm is fully extended.
I often encourage a swimmer to think about the effective stroke length rather than simply stroke length. The effective stroke length may feel like it begins 'later' or closer to the front of the body, but when the hand correctly drops into a good set-up or catch position it is then in a better position and orientation to be effective with a straight pull and a full push back.