Is Swim Stroke Technique Key for Triathlon Training

Is Swim Stroke Technique Key for Triathlon Training

Just with any other sport (say running or biking) the technique of your movements is important. Proper technique allows you to cover ground more efficiently, use less effort, and not wear yourself out too soon.

Would you run 5+ miles with long, fast strides or would you rather take shorter, smoother strides for a more efficient and sustainable run?

With triathlon swimming, if you have poor technique you will exhaust yourself in the first swim leg of your race. You could also burn out your legs before even getting on your bike ride. Great swimming technique will have you gliding through the water and pulling ahead in the race right from the start.

Now that you know a little bit of why it’s important, let’s discuss how you can improve your technique before your next race.

We will cover three main areas of Freestyle. These techniques to improve your swim sessions are best practiced in a pool. Once mastered take them to the open water swim. As you practice, you will be able to modify the technique to better suit water conditions and swimmers around you.

High Elbows

First is the concept of “High Elbows”

As you can see in the first image, the swimmer’s elbow is high above the water and the fingers are below the elbow. This is quite the opposite of the second image where the elbow is high above the surface of the water but the hand is too high.

Keeping your elbow high and your fingers low allows for several benefits:

  1. A better torso rotation and better breath
  2. Controls the movement of the hand forward to avoid a sloppy recovery
  3. Helps control the glide with the opposite arm

To practice this technique use the Finger Tip Drag Drill.

To preform this drill:

  1. Swim short distances to focus on the drill
  2. While swimming, extend your arm back as you would normally
  3. On the recovery, only lift your elbow out of the water, drag your thumb across the surface of the water
  4. Even as your elbow reaches it’s highest point and your hand begins to move in front of your face and forward, continue to drag your thumb until your arm is fully extended in front of you and you being the glide.

Keep your thumb or fingertips in the water at all times. No exceptions.

The Catch

Next let’s look at the catch. In the four main strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle) you will find the catch.

The catch is the part of your stroke where you arm is transitioning from a straight position into a bent 90° position with you arm. This is the part of the stroke where you literally “catch” the water and then pull yourself through the water and begin to push yourself forward.

Without a proper and efficient catch:

  1. You will take a higher number of strokes to get across the pool
  2. Feel exhausted without swimming very far
  3. Lead to possibly injuries from poor form

Time to practice. Here are two swimming workout drills to get started.

Drill “Look for Thumb”

Are you are swimming, look at your hand position under the water. When you pull your arm under your body your elbow should be coming into approximately a 90° position.

Look at your thumb. Where is it? Is your thumb coming under your nose? Under your shoulder/armpit? Or is is pulling back and outside of your shoulder?

Your thumb should be pulling about 12” under water and moving under your shoulder.

Count strokes

Once you have mastered the stroke pattern, count your strokes. This drill is best done in a pool.

Swim a length of the pool and count each stroke. The more efficient your catch is, the lower your number will be. As a reference, I am 5’7” and to swim across the pool (with a decent streamline) it takes me 12.5-13 strokes.

If your count is in the 20’s that’s ok! You now know your baseline and can work on taking less strokes.

PS: Other factors will affect your stroke count, but for right now let’s just focus on the catch.

The Glide.

This. Is. So. Important! Mastering the glide is essential. Also knowing how to modify your glide based on where you are swimming (pool or open water), water conditions like the current, and swimmers around you is very important.

The glide is the point in your stroke after the recovery when your hand enters the water. From here your arm is straight and your hand is no more than 2” below the surface. Then the glide begins. Your arm should not move for 3 WHOLE seconds. After three seconds, then you being your stroke.

While gliding, the opposite is finishing the stroke and into the recovery phase.

Gliding helps you swim smoother, faster and gives you a better recovery.

While swimming, with the arm that is recovering think about extending your arms to the wrist, once here you can pull with the arm that was gliding.

A good drill for this is the “Catch Up Drill”

It is very challenging because it is difficult to swim well, keep breathing, and rotate. So for this, only focus on the drill. Try not to get caught up in other parts of the stroke right now.

To preform this drill:

  1. Begin swimming
  2. Extend one arm into the glide, keep it there
  3. With the other arm continue through the recovery, and touch the hand that is gliding.
  4. Once the back arm has fully “caught up” pull the arm that was gliding.
  5. Repeat across the pool.
  6. Now swim normally. Are you able to fully glide for three seconds?

Partner with a Swim Coach.

These are the basic principles of freestyle. Depending on where you are with your swimming you may have mastered these techniques. However, there is always another step to improve your stroke. Once you have the basics down you will need to learn how to adjust your stroke based on factors of the race (distance of swim, waves, current, size of your heat, number of swimmers around you.)

Swimming is a marathon, not a sprint.

Coaches are able to see pieces of your stroke that can be improved that you may have not considered. Working with a coach in your off season is a great way to continue swim training and develop your technique without the pressure to train before that race next weekend.

Practice practice practice. Practice these drills in a pool and in open water until you feel more comfortable. Even as an advanced swimmer, it is important to revisit these drills and not get lazy with your stroke.

Questions? Let us know! Ready to book a swimming coach and see improvement before your next race? Our triathlon swim coaches are here for you!

Written by: Amanda Girton

Swim Instructor in Tampa, FL

Hi! I’m Amanda. I’ve been teaching swim lessons for over 7 years now. I teach infants and up, including adults who are experienced triathletes. I have experience teaching children with a wide variety of experiences. It brings me so much joy to see my students accomplish their swim goals.


Sunsational Swim School is the 🥇 #1 rated provider of private, at-home swimming lessons in America. We have specialized swim instructors for students ages 6 months to adult, beginner to advanced. Featured on ABC, CBS, Impact 100, The List and others, Sunsational instructors have a minimum of 2 years of teaching experience, are CPR certified and insured, and have collectively taught over 302,223 lessons for more than 74,415 students nationwide!

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