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Learning to swim straight could shave minutes from your open water swim splits, says Swim Smooth head coach and contributor Paul Newsome.

Swimming straight saves precious time and energy

As triathletes we spend hundreds of hours every year working on our swimming to develop our swim fitness and our stroke technique, trying to chip vital minutes off our race performances. But what if I were to tell you that many triathletes lose all that time, and more again, by neglecting a critical part of our swimming skills? Triathlon coaches have always lectured about how important it is to swim straight in open water so that you don’t lose valuable time swimming off course.

It’s always been very hard to quantify and provide swimmers with a real sense of how important this is – until now! Here at Swim Smooth we’ve been equipping swimmers with GPS tracking devices under their swim caps to see how straight they swim – or don’t swim – in openwater triathlon races. The results are quite remarkable. Let’s take a look at a typical result; one of our swimmers Dan Taborski’s swim at the Busselton half- Ironman. We used Google Earth to plot out the path taken by the GPS unit he was carrying during the race.

The gps data tells us that Taborski swam 350m further than a straight-line course during his half-Ironman swim, costing him around seven minutes! Needless to say, Taborski was very disappointed when he looked at his watch and saw his swim split – he’d trained extremely diligently for this race and ended up much slower than he knew he was capable of swimming.

Taborski’s tendency to swim off course is extremely common, and this is by no means an extreme example. The ability to swim truly straight in open water is very rare and our data shows that the majority of triathletes lose minutes at every open-water swim.

Your ability to navigate your way round a swim course is very important, but there’s something even more fundamental at play here: your ability to naturally swim straight without veering off course. In this article we’re going to give you some drills and techniques you can use to develop your stroke so that you naturally swim much straighter in your races. Integrate these drills into your pool training and you’ll find your open water swim splits will drop with no extra effort on your part.

Swimming in a straight line is all about being aligned in the water so that your hands enter and extend straight forwards, with your body remaining tall and long. Let’s look at four drills and techniques that help you develop this aspect of your stroke.


If your lead arm drifts across the centre you'll drift in that direction across the lane

With fins on, kick on your side with your bottom arm out in front of you and your top arm by your side. Get perfectly on your side, with your hips at 90°to the bottom of the pool. Look down and turn your head to the side when you need a breath.

When kicking in this position, become aware of what your leading arm is doing – it’s very likely it’s not straight and has drifted across the centre line. If this is the case you’ll start to drift in that direction across the lane. Experiment with drawing your shoulder blades together and back to pull your lead arm straight. This is a critical drill, as it helps you become aware of the position of that lead hand. If you’re in an empty lane you can really test your ability to track straight in this position by trying this with your eyes closed.

Once you’ve got a good feel for the kick-on-your-side drill you can transfer that improved alignment back into your full stroke. As you swim, think about nothing else but the middle finger on each hand and become very aware of where it is pointing. As your hand recovers over the top of the water and enters forwards, think about extending it gun-barrel straight down the pool. Get this right and you will feel like you cut more easily and smoothly through the water. If you struggle to swim straight in open water then we recommend you include this combination into a drill set during every session you do – it’s really that important.BILATERAL BREATHING

Learning to breath bilaterally promotes a balanced stroke

Bilateral breathing means breathing to both sides – normally every three strokes. If you only breathe to one side then your stroke tends to become lop-sided as you naturally develop better rotation to the breathing side, but much less to the nonbreathing side. This can cause many stroke problems including crossovers as the offside arm gets in the habit of swinging low over the water and then round in front of your head when you’re taking a breath.

For many swimmers, it is at this moment when they breathe that they go off-course. By having the discipline to breathe every three strokes your body rotation starts to equal out and you become much more aware of the symmetry of how your hands are entering the water.

How often should you breathe bilaterally? As often as possible – all the time if you can. Even if you are slightly slower in the pool with bilateral breathing remember that in open water you’ll gain all this time back, and much more, by swimming straighter.

When you go to breathe, most swimmers are simply thinking “give me that air!” and forget about their stroke for a moment – the exact moment a crossover occurs and sends you off course. Here’s a mantra you can say to yourself to help shift your focus back to your stroke. Simply repeat “one-twostraight- one-two-straight…” to yourself as you swim.

The one and two are on normal strokes, but “straight” is on the breathing stroke, and helps you think about keeping that lead hand entering the water and extending straight forwards while you are breathing. Let the breath take care of itself and keep your focus on your stroke at this moment – it can have a huge impact on your ability to swim straighter. The great thing about this mantra is that it is simple enough to use during a race too. Many of us feel quite anxious racing in open water and tend to forget what we are doing and return to old stroke habits. If you know you have a tendency to drift off line, repeat “onetwo- straight” to yourself or use the middle-finger visualisation to help you track in a straight line round the course.EXPERIMENT WITH A HIGHER HEAD POSITION

It's important to find a head position that works for you

During the 1990s it became popular to teach swimmers to swim freestyle with their head looking straight down at the bottom of the pool to help develop a good body position in the water. Some swimmers are still taught this way today, but teaching methods have moved on and we now understand an individual approach is required to head position.

If you have a good body position in the water then try looking about one-and-ahalf metres in front of you to bring your head up a little. If you can do this while still keeping your legs high in the water you’ll gain a greater awareness and co-ordination of your arms in front of your head. A higher head position also helps open up the chest to bring your shoulders back; as we saw with the kickon- your-side drill, this improves your posture and alignment in the water.


If you struggle to transfer your pool speed into the open water then you need to work on your stroke technique to cut through the water much straighter. As we saw from the GPS data, it’s easy to lose a few minutes from your swim split, or in the case of an Ironman distance swim, ten minutes or more. Make time to focus on the extra drills and techniques here and you may be surprised how many minutes you take out of your swim splits this season.

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe

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