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There are two primary skills that all triathletes and swimmers need in order to maximize their efficiency, power, and speed in open water, especially in the challenging conditions of a race. Wind, waves, currents, and crowds of athletes bumping, kicking and swimming over you are all good reasons to fully prepare for your best freestyle swimming in competition.

Competitors swimming out into open water at the beginning of triathlon

In his excellent book, The Working Triathlete, coach & athlete Conrad Goeringer points out the two traits that most strong swimmers have and that deserve the highest priority in your planning.

Optimize body position

The first key point is having an optimized body position while swimming in the open water.  It’s essential to learn how to develop a long, taut, strong bodyline and to maintain that while swimming.  This is especially important when swimming in a crowd and rough water conditions with chop, wind, waves, and currents.  It is also very beneficial for eliminating “sinking legs”, which creates a lot of drag and slows you down.

In the video below, coach Tim Crowley demonstrates various exercises ideal for developing a strong, long, taut core and bodyline.


Develop a powerful, propulsive catch

The second point is developing a powerful, propulsive catch.  Learn how to pull with acceleration from the catch to the finish of the stroke. Train your muscles to sustain a powerful pull for the duration of the race or a challenging workout.

Start by learning how to set up the high-elbow catch properly. Look at the image of the swimmer reaching over the imaginary red ball.

Notice the arm, fingertips to elbow (or “paddle blade”), is only slightly curved and operates as a fairly straight, rigid blade.  However, do not put much downward pressure on the water between entry and catch (the position is shown in the photo), since pushing down on the water will lift the upper body, sinks the legs, and creates the frontal drag, which slows down the swimmer.

Instead, the swimmer reaches over the red ball, sets up the catch, and then starts pulling.  To do this well, imagine you’ve got an “Eyeball” on the boney part of each elbow (green dots in photo). As you set up a proper high-elbow catch, that Eyeball should “look out to the side” in a direction perpendicular to the direction of travel.  

Also, imagine having another “Eyeball” in the middle of the palm of each hand.  At a high-elbow catch, that “Eyeball” needs to be “looking” straight back in a direction parallel to the direction of travel.

Keep your “paddle blade” (i.e. fingertips to elbow) slightly curved while reaching over the imaginary red physioball.  Push the ball straight backward with acceleration from catch to finish (green arrow).

Developing swim power & speed on the Vasa SwimErg

If you do this while training on a Vasa SwimErg, keep your stroke rate steady & allow your body to figure out how to increase your average sustained power (watts).  If you accelerate the pull from catch to finishing the stroke, you’ll actually hear the sound of the SwimErg fan wheel change pitch and the power numbers on the Power Meter will increase in concert.

When swimming, focus on feeling the pressure on the water between the heel of your hand to mid-forearm.  (Note: if training on the Vasa SwimErg, the power paddles are designed to help you get that correct feeling, too.)

To swim efficiently for an entire race requires consistent swim training to build your sustained power.  Fortunately, you can mix up your swimming venues to gain consistency by using a pool, the open water, or a Vasa SwimErg with Power Meter to measure progress.

Here are some other resources to develop your best freestyle swimming:

  1. Check out our VasaBlog: Overcoming a “monospeed” pull in Freestyle
  2. Improve quickly using our FREE 5-part Freestyle course.  You’ll receive 5 lessons to get you swimming stronger, better, faster than ever before!