Monday, April 11, 2011

The Secret to Fast Triathlon Swimming

This weekend, in my flu induced haze of Vick's Vapo Rub I watched a lot of swimming.  In the haze of vaporizer mist and between checking my diastolic I realized I have the secret of great swimming.

Shhhh... the kick.

The femoral artery is one of the largest in your body.  When you kick, a lot of blood is flowing to the legs to keep up with the work load.  The bad news is that good kicking hurts - a lot.  The good news is that like everything else - it can be trained.

Triathletes are usually getting in the water with completely fried legs.  Go to any masters workout from California to New York and you see all the pool toys; Zoomers, pull buoys - you name it, its been used as a crutch.  The "trick" to swimming (and triathlon racing) better is to have stronger legs.  So, though your legs may be burning like a hot blast furnace (used to make iron- no shortage of irony there) you need to work through it.

I've always worked hard at kicking and have seen my results vary based on my swimming kicking work.  The more kicking I've done - the better the season.  Interesting.  Should be an interesting year given how much kicking I've done this winter.  Measured in miles.  Do you suppose it is a coincidence that my swimming times have dropped significantly since last fall as my kicking fitness has increased?  Me either.

This weekend I watched the Men's NCAA Division I swimming championships.  Race after race I saw the same pattern.  They guy with the strongest, sustained kick won.  Go ahead.  Watch it.  You'll come to the same conclusion.  What was interesting is that this carried over to the Michigan Grand Prix.  EVERY race - male and female - where the kick was strongest - boom shaka-laka = win.  When Michael Phelps lost to someone else - his massive, underwater kick off the walls was missing = loss.

When my kick was strongest I had my best Ironman swim.  Coincidence?  I think not.  My Ironman PR (on a full course) was Lake Placid.  **I did a 46:09 at Great Floridian, but there was low water level that year and we probably ran 400 yards in 18" of water on each loop. ** At Lake Placid, I had the ability to hold a four beat kick the entire way and be completely aerobic.  On the first loop, I had three people on my back; that is how strong my kick was.  Here is a video clip of Grant Hackett of Austrailia in the 1500m free.  Watch his kick...

Arms and form do make a difference too.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm just saying that the tipping point of good to great swims was the strength of the kick.

Watch any triathlon or elite swimming competition.  You'll see the same thing over and over.  Here are Ian Thorpe of Austrailia and Michael Phelps.

Now that you know the secret - what are you going to do about it?


  1. Bob, is it true that the fastest swim time at that Great Floridian you mentioned was in the 35:00-36:00 range?

  2. Hi Chris - No, one person claimed to have swum a 36:30, but he only did one loop of the swim course. I remember hearing him argue that he swam the "whole course" and was trying to get to his bike, but the course officials stopped him by saying "how many times did you swim the whole course?" When he answered "one" they directed him back in the water. He made a huge stink about it at the awards. I remember that pretty vividly. His cursing was something special - especially around all the kids. I was swimming with the pro men. Back in those days the pros started with the amateurs. I always used to line up right behind them and sit in their draft. I think the fastest swim that day was 42 and change - I could see the guy who won the swim about 100-200 yards in front of me but he was a faster runner - even in 18" of water. I believe it was Peter Kotland, but I'd have to pull out the race results. I know I was either 46:09 or 46:10. I have a picture with me at 46:09, but my time I think was 46:10- timing mat was after the clock.