Spring training tips

Swim coach and marathon swimmer Colin Hill shares his advice

Colin Hill

Daffodils and longer days mean one thing: it’s time to prepare for the swimming season. If you have a longer summer swim in your sights, here are four things to do as the seasons transition.

Swimming technique can be tricky. If you think about riding a bike, your legs are pumping in set motion, you’re breathing in a regular breathing pattern, generally you are in a fixed position and the harder you cycle the more you breathe. Swimming is more complicated. This is why very fit triathletes are baffled as to why they can be so good at running and cycling, and yet the swim element is so difficult. It’s not down to their fitness – swimming is simply a highly technique driven sport. What happens with one part of the body affects something else and something is happening all the time to all parts of the body. Legs fluttering, body rolling, one arm recovering, the other arm pulling and breathing out underwater – and in at the right moment. Talk about tapping your head and rubbing your belly, this is next level stuff! It’s therefore no wonder new swimmers can marvel at anyone who was a club swimmer for a child as they smoothly streamline through the water. Everything is in balance and all the energy is only being used to propel them through the water. So, how can someone wanting to improve their swimming make some significant gains if they weren’t brought up on early mornings in the pool?

…swimming is simply a highly technique driven sport. What happens with one part of the body affects something else and something is happening all the time to all parts of the body

1. Take a swimming lesson (it’s never too late)

All those triathletes who wanted to improve their swimming stroke (most starting as older competitors) have helped to drive the popularity of swim coaching sessions. Instead of swimming lessons in the pool for purely non- or beginner swimmers, swim coaching has become commonplace for wishing to improving their technique. From Masters Swimming sessions, triathlon swim clubs, open water coaching sessions and endless pool sessions (with video feedback), you now have several options if you think that you need to step back and get some advice tailored to your own stroke (you can only watch so many YouTube videos to really confuse yourself). 

Whether you want to develop a more efficient stroke for your social swims or to improve your pace over a long-distance swim, then spring is a great time to sharpen technique which will lead to improved speed and endurance in the open water.

Colin Hill

Whether you want to develop a more efficient stroke for your social swims or to improve your pace over a long-distance swim, then spring is a great time to sharpen technique which will lead to improved speed and endurance in the open water.

2. Do some pool training (it has a place)

Although you may be a passionate open water swimmer, training in a heated pool is still a great way to improve both fitness and technique. Most elite marathon swimmers spend almost all of their time training in a pool.  

While you may want to do long steady state endurance training in a lake or the sea, the fitness, speed and technique elements of training plans such as the Swim Couch to 5k and OSS 10k Training Plan are ideal for pools where you can: 

  • follow a set consisting of faster pace swims with short rests of varying distances to help increase speed and fitness. (These sort of sessions are very hard to replicate in the open water.)  
  • Try accelerating off the wall and breath holding on the turns. 
  • Measure your times. Also, if you are being coached, then you will be stopping regularly to get stroke advice or just being encouraged to pick up the pace. 

Some swimmers like to shun the pools once they have discovered the great outdoors, but you don’t have to face the public sessions. Instead, you may want to look at joining a ‘Masters’ (code for older – usually aged 18 and above) swimming club session. These are normally welcoming sessions where you are put into lanes of swim ability and the sessions reflect the average speed of each lane. Having a coach on poolside and being in with other swimmers will improve your pace, rather than plodding along in a daydream. Also, Masters swimming sessions are often around 90 minutes long, which in itself will develop stamina and endurance. 

Although we have spoken about the actual training side, it is better to improve your swimming style as much as possible before you start training hard.


3. Overhaul your front crawl (with these easy wins)

When I’m looking at making swimmers more efficient, one of the main issues that I come across is front crawl breathing issues, where the swimmer is craning their neck (often coming out of the water) and breathing is slightly panicked.  

As I mentioned earlier, what happens in one part of the stroke can affect something else: if the stroke is sending the swimmer’s energy in the wrong direction, then this will cause some issues. For example, if the swimmer is pushing down on their lead arm as they breath (breathing to the left, the right arm is the lead arm), then the arm will send the energy to the bottom of the pool and will make the arm go straight below the swimmer. If you lean on that lead arm as you breath, then you won’t have an efficient pull; the legs often kick out to try and help balance you in the water and you will struggle to roll smoothly for the breath. This means that every time you breathe you are losing at least half a pull as well as losing your streamline. 

To fix something in your stroke, it is good to do a drill – this is simply exaggerating one part of the stroke to help implement a change. ‘Catch-up’ drill can help to keep the lead arm out in front while you breathe. Catch up is where you always have one hand out in front of you and that hand doesn’t move until the other and enters the water alongside the hand out in front. So, one hand is catching up to the other out in front of you. 

If you are breathing to your right, then make sure you don’t let the left arm drop, but keep the shoulder near your ear as you roll your body to catch the breath. This can take away any strain on your shoulder (as you are rolling around your shoulder and not putting any pressure onto it). Once you have taken your breath, you should find it easier to achieve an ideal pull action, now that the arm isn’t straight down below you, and breathing should become easier as you can keep the head ‘resting’ in the water.

Once you have practised the catch-up drill, the arm is only stretching out in front of you (with a body roll) as you start your breath; once the head is coming back into the water then the lead arm can pull through. Think of this as a fluid catch-up, so instead of stopping at the front of the stroke, you are changing just before the hands are beside each other.

This is just one small drill to help one part of the stroke, but it is better to just think about one thing at a time. During a long swim you can focus on one part of your stroke for a length of the pool or a few minutes in the open water and then focus on another part and keep working through the various parts of your body to make sure you are keeping as streamlined and efficient as possible.

4. Take it outside: acclimatisation

The percentage of pool v open water training also depends on the time of year. In the summer months it is easier to find a lake, where at least once a week where you can swim around to achieve a longer swim either by time (1 hour to 2 hours of continuous swimming) or based on distance 3k – 6km. For a 5km or 10km goal the pool training will help with overall speed and the open water will help with acclimatisation and steady endurance. I don’t start my coaching up properly until May as the water temperature needs to be over 11 degrees to have something like a meaningful 1:1 session. That’s still very cold for some. My weekly training swims are at 13 degrees and over, otherwise people are only in for 20 mins and it’s supposed to be a hour training swim. Obviously you have the hard core swimmers who can swim in any temperature, but this guideline is based on coaching relativity new or less experienced swimmers.

Colin Hill is the Director of Ullswater Swim Place, where he offers Endless Pool and open water coaching and guiding. He has been inducted into the Marathon Swimming & Ice Swimming Halls of Fame. Follow him on Instagram.

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