Swimming is the most technical of the 3 sports. It is also very individualized, or at least should be. Your perfect stroke is going to be very different than that of your friends'. Several factors like experience and background, flexibility/mobility, body shape/size, and fitness level become major components that drive your "perfect" stroke. I use perfect lightly because I think we have this ideal that we should be beautifully gliding through the water like the swimmers we see on tv. While there should be rhythm to our stroke, being pretty isn't really what we are striving for. Open water swimming is a full contact sport. You won't be gracefully gliding through the water out there. With that in mind, these basics should give you a very good idea of what we are looking for. Having video analysis or a coach's eyes on you become very important in order to troubleshoot what aspects need to be fixed for your specific stroke.
Head Position. This is where it all starts. Look down at the bottom of the pool. Keep a small part of the back of your head at the surface. Don’t be tempted to look up in front of you. If you do this, your hips will sink, and you will have to kick really hard to stay on top of the water- and you'll waste a lot of energy.
Breathing. This is what many beginner triathletes and swimmers consider the hardest part of swimming. It is natural to want to look up when you breathe, take a long deep breath, and then try to continue your stroke. Don't do it! This causes many problems: opposite arm dropping in the water, over rotation, legs splitting, major deceleration of speed, and causes you to sink.
Ideally, breathe with no head lift, 1 goggle out of the water, and your mouth just above the water. Think about breathing back and down, like breathing into your armpit. Make sure you exhale completely while your head is looking straight down, then roll to the air (think of breathing with your belly button or your core), and "sneak" a breath while you extend your arm out in front. This will be difficult at first! Focus on and practice breathing mainly in warm up and warm down, as well as longer, slower swims.
Breathing never stops, you're either exhaling into the water as soon as you head turns back down toward the bottom of the pool, or you’re inhaling after you have rotated your head and body. You should never be holding your breath.
I highly suggest breathing “every stroke,” meaning if you like to breathe to your right, then every right hand stroke you should be breathing, again never holding your breath.
I also highly recommend you learn to breathe on both sides for a number of reasons. To practice this, swim down breathing on one side and swim back breathing on the other side, still every stroke.
Being able to breathe on both sides helps even/balance out your stroke and fixes any weakness. We are always going to be more dominate on one side, but we don’t want to be over dominate.
Being able to breathe on both sides is extremely helpful in open water swimming, in the event that waves or other swimmers are splashing or taking the air away from the side you like to breathe on. If you can easily switch to the other side without having to stop or lift your head up, you will excel in open water.
Special Note: If you're brand new to swimming, then you should stick with your more dominate side first until you master that to some level before working on both sides.
Arm Cycle (Catch, pull, and recovery)
The arm cycle in freestyle should go like this:
1. Entry- Finger tips enter first and wrist always higher than finger, and elbow always higher than wrist. Extend hand forward and make a straight arm. The arm should extend straight out in front of your shoulders; think super man. Hands should never be in front of your head.
2. Bend Elbow- Often called the "catch", prepares you for propulsion. Here you will aim to keep your elbow high, almost near the top of the water. But, you never pull your elbows up. You're looking to rotate around the axis of your elbow height. Notice in the picture, the swimmer's elbow didn’t get higher, it started relatively high and stayed there as the lower arm dropped straight down below it.
3. Pull- Here is where your power kicks in and propels you forward. While the pull is an important aspect of freestyle, especially when it comes to getting faster in the water, let's save the focus on pulling later. Let's focus on these 2 basic points about the pull: The pull should start with an immediate bend of the elbow. You should be pushing the water behind you, or towards your feet, and not towards the bottom of the pool. Keep in mind that you always want to push the water back to move forward. Not down or side to side.
4. Finish- Palm flat as it pushes past your hips to
finish off the stroke before starting the recovery. Everything in swimming is either going straight forward (arm drive) or straight back, as we pull and push.
5. Recovery- Keep your arm relaxed and bend your elbow on recovery.
Kick. Keep a narrow kick. Legs straight and kick from your hips, think of pushing down on the water with your quads and up on the water with your hamstrings, keeping your feet pointed straight back. Remember that as a triathlete, you do not need to have a strong kick! As an open water swimmer or triathlete, the kick is there mostly to help you rotate, keep balance, and keep your legs in line with your body so it doesn’t cause extra drag.
Many triathletes have a “runner’s kick”: their ankles are inflexible and their kick gets them nowhere. Some even go backwards if they are strictly kicking without arm strokes! Little to no kick is better, then a heavy kick.
Rotation. Good swimming is about using the core of your body- hips, stomach, lower back, and chest. Rotate the core of the body from one side to the other to drive the stroke, while keeping the head fixed looking downward towards the bottom of the pool. When you rotate in this way, you move through the water more like a fish or a boat, reaching further forward on each stroke, and maximizing your efficiency. Hips are turned but not fully on your side like some literature might suggest.
A great way to think about this is that your hand and hip are connected. You're not just reaching with your hand, you're throwing it forward while also driving your hip on that same side forward at the same time. Right hand, right hip all driving forward together. Swimming isn’t just a pulling effort. It should be a drive forward while simultaneously pulling/pushing backward. If you're only pulling, you really limit your ability to gain and maintain speed.
Stroke Rate. This is the single biggest difference between pool swimming and great open water swimming. Pool swimmers have long gliding strokes, a low total number of strokes, with their distance covered per stroke becoming pretty long. While that is great in a pool, this doesn’t work well in open water. You're going from near perfect water conditions in a pool to water moving in every direction and moving obstacles in other competitors to deal with. Smooth gliding strokes simply aren’t possible in an effective, consistent manner.
What’s the solution then? Faster stroke rate. The easiest way to think about this is that your arms never stop moving. There is no pause or glide. Continuous arm cycles to keep continued forward movement. As soon as your recovering arm is coming out of the water on the back of your stroke, your lead arm should have entered and begun catching and pulling. Basically always changing spots with no pause.
This is going to be hard for new swimmers. If you are new, then you need the basics of a balanced stroke first, which will require you to slow things down and not rush or thrash all over the place. But once you're able to move down the pool in a rhythmic motion, it is time to start progressing your stroke rate.
Stroke rate is counted in terms of strokes per minute. There isn’t an absolute ideal, everyone will differ to some degree. Most will be in the low to mid 20’s if counting 1 arm. I believe a minimum is 30 or better. The best swimmers are closer to 38-40. Wherever you are, the key is to progress slowly. Use your watch to count yourself to figure out where you are, and then work to add 1-1 beats a minute over the course of several weeks or even months. Don’t try to jump to the high range.
Drills. Doing drills in the pool can useful if done correctly, but I do not advise just doing a bunch of random drills because you saw it online or your buddy says he/she does it. We need to get some basics down first, then either get video of you swimming, or my eyes on you personally so we can prescribe the correct drills for you. I personally believe the best drill is actually swimming. If you can determine the weakness, and then work to correct it in the actual environment of a full swim stroke, it tends to be more effective. However, breaking the stroke down is warranted and needed for some athletes at times.