In long-distance swimming (the kind we do in triathlon), the ability to delay fatigue is key if you want to exit the water with fresh legs. But if you’re already tired after swimming only a length or two in the water, the issue is about more than just strengthening your lungs and muscles.
MX Endurance and Effortless Swimming expert Brenton Ford is here to help us learn how to swim efficiently and control our effort level in the water so we stay fresh for the bike and run.
Inhaling and exhaling properly while swimming helps to keep your heart rate down and keep you relaxed in the water so yo can swim longer than 50 or 100 meters without needing to take a break.
Brenton says, “When you exhale, most of that should be done through your nose. If you do it all through your mouth, then a few things tend to happen. You get a bit of buildup of carbon dioxide, you tend to go in a bit more of a panic state.” Exhale while your face is in the water; you can do bubble-bubble-breathe drills to help you with the timing as well as becoming comfortable exhaling through your nose.
“Your legs are made up of the biggest muscles in the body,” says Brenton. “Even if you're a great swimmer, if you are kicking very, very hard for one or two hundred meters your heart rate is still going to be elevated. If you're a weaker swimmer and you're kicking that hard, then it's going to be very difficult to swim more than 50 or 100 meters without needing a break.”
It may be difficult to know when you’re over-kicking because when in the water, you don’t really feel like you’re exerting much more effort than you’re used to. What you can do to avoid over-kicking is to decrease your effort, especially when you’re swimming for distance instead of sprints. “You will hardly need to put any effort at all into your kick because if you're looking to swim 1 to 3 kilometers and you're kicking harder it's not going to be sustainable.”
A good way to quiet that kick is to use a pull buoy while kicking. Brenton adds, “Basically it takes care of the balance [lifting your legs to horizontal] so you don't feel like you actually need to kick as much.”
Kicking should be more about timing than effort if you want to preserve your strength. (Read our article about how to improve your swim kick timing and efficiency.)
Maintain a Balanced Body Position
Your body needs to stay in a horizontal position in the water for you to conserve energy. If your hips and legs are angled down instead of parallel with the water, they create drag and you’ll need to increase the amount of effort to combat this. (Learn to lift your sinking legs in the water.)
Brenton suggests maintaining a “proud posture” when swimming. Chest out, draw your belly button into your spine and lightly engage your glutes to promote this posture. “If you let your glutes go, then there's a good chance that you're going to bend through the waist and you've basically got no option then except for your legs to be dropping down and for your quads to be creating a lot of drag.”
He also names another swim error that causes you to lose proper body alignment. If your hand entry is too slow, it can cause your legs to drop. “If you think of holding two or three kilos above the water [the weight of your arm], the balance of your body, your legs will always drop there.”
Brenton recommends, “Instead of coming over and being very slow and being very gentle and just placing your hand on the water, you need to be somewhat assertive with that hand entry and get it into the starting catch position with the fingertips a little bit deeper than the rest of your shoulder.”
Watch Your Head (Position)
The way you position and move your head while swimming can also affect your body position. Brenton notes, “If you are lifting your head up and it's just your face in the water, that's holding too much weight up above the surface of the water which will again cause your legs to drop.”
To help your head stay parallel to the water, try to press your chest into the water and feel the water break at the crown of your head. Also, always be breathing out when your face is underwater; holding your breath creates too much buoyancy in your lungs and will consequently cause your legs to sink.
Lifting your head to breathe is another one of the most common mistakes that Brenton sees, affecting how much effort you exert in the swim. When you lift your head above the water to breathe, you inadvertently push your legs downward, making it harder for you to kick and gain forward speed.
Brenton says you can visualise your body on a lengthwise skewer, just rotating to the side to breathe. “What we want to try and aim for there is looking straight to the side when you're breathing. You may have part of that bottom goggle in the water but as long as you're getting that breath as low as you comfortably can and you're looking to the side and you're not lifting the head too high up above the water, that's also going to help you keep your legs up near the surface.”
If you’re having difficulty correcting body position while still breathing properly, Brenton sees no problem with using a front snorkel to take the breathing out of the equation.