Pro triathlete Emma-Kate Lidbury shows you the secrets of how to swim faster
You might often look at the fastest pro swim times and think ‘They swam how fast?! How do they do it?’
Of course, having more time to invest in training and recovery, and greater access to coaches and facilities certainly helps, but do not despair. There’s still plenty to be learnt, mastered and recreated in your own training to help spice up your swim splits and swim faster than ever.
The trick to swimming fast is training fast. Unlike run and bike training where high intensity workouts cause greater residual fatigue, it is possible – and critical – to add an element of high intensity work to EVERY swim session. Impact on the body is zero and the aerobic benefits transfer across into biking and running. If your swim workouts consist largely of drills and slow, steady repeats you will never see improvements. Train fast to swim fast. Even on recovery days it is highly advisable to finish a session with some short sprints such as 8x25m.
Think about the process
Whether training or racing, if you can stay focused on the task at hand then you will perform better. As you swim, think about the physical act of swimming and stroke mechanics: what do you need to do to help you swim better? What are your stroke limiters? Keep these on a loop in your head and repeat them to yourself as you swim. This is especially worthwhile when performing high intensity sets in training or when racing. Concentrate on the things that will optimise your performance, not splits, position or what others are doing.
If you always swim in a pool and simply migrate to a lake a few weeks before your first race and then expect to perform well, you are putting yourself at an immediate disadvantage. Swimming in open water could not be more different and, like any other skill, it requires practice to improve. You should build open-water practice into your pool swimming all year round. This can include: sighting – try looking for a fixed point at either end of the pool every six strokes; paceline work – a four-strong group swims on each other’s feet and takes turns to lead and draft; deck ups – exit the pool at the deep end and dive back in, e.g. swim 800m with exit and re-entry after every 100m.
Strategy and tactics
Pro athletes always make swim strategy and tactics a priority – and there’s no reason why you can’t do the same. Analyse and learn the race course. Swim it the day before the race if possible. Know which landmarks to sight for and think about where best to position yourself on the start line. Remember that although the tightest line to the first turn buoy might seem best, it could also be where the highest volume of athletes congregate at the start, often leading to trouble!
Learn to draft
If you were to learn no other swim skill this year aside from drafting, it would be a mightily successful year. Drafting is single-handedly the most important swim skill you need and is often the pros’ secret to success. You need to practice it, positioning yourself alongside swimmers whose pace you know is of a similar, or slightly faster, level. The optimal place to swim is tucked in on their hip, preferably on the side you breathe to, but if that’s not viable then on their feet is the next best option. Practise this in training and you will be amazed at the difference it makes. Some of the best pro performances in open water do not come from the best pool swimmers, but from those who have perfected the art of drafting.
Coaching Editor Phil Mosley says:
“Emma-Kate hits the nail on the head about drafting. This allows you to swim at a given pace for about 10 per cent less effort compared to swimming solo. I’m continually surprised at how few people practise it. To become good at it, you need to train with a fast enough group, ideally in open water – as EK does at Tower 26 in California.”