Learning to Swim for Triathlons: Stroke

When I was born, my grandpa asked my parents where I was going to learn how to swim.

“Um, I don’t know. How do we teach her how to talk, how to walk, how to become a decent person when she grows up?” was probably the answer.

And so, my kind grandfather built a pool in his backyard (which, he obviously got just a little bit of use out of, too) and I took swimming lessons there growing up. Both the informal ones, from him, and formal ones, from an instructor with all of my little friends.

I did half a season of swim team in high school…until I got into a car accident with my friend and temporarily jacked up my shoulder.

All of this is to say I thought I knew how to swim, until I started swimming as an adult a few years ago at Equinox. The lifeguard kept asking if I wanted pointers on my stroke, which was both embarrassing and helpful. A kind reader, Allie, read about this and asked if I wanted her to give me some swim tips. YES! 

That was three years ago, and now I am training to swim 1.2 miles.

As luck would have it, I got a lovely email from Wendy, who does PR for NYHRC, asking if I wanted a swim lesson.

YES PLEASE! My coach has been giving me some drills and form tips, but she’s in Maine and I’m in NYC.

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I met up with the lovely Sam Cardona, who is an Ironman and the director of corporate wellness at NYHRC. Pretty sure he’s also going to be my triathlon angel. He gave me this NYHRC swim cap and said it would magically make me faster. DEAL.

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I jumped in, and he filmed me swimming down and back. Which wasn’t at all stressful, of course.

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We sat and watched the footage, and it was BAD, Y’ALL. Which just gave me hope that I have plenty of room to improve before my HIM.

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To say Sam was hands-on was an understatement. He literally hopped in the pool with me to help me work on my stroke.

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This is me trying to wiggle my way out of the pool and back to running, which is so much easier.

Sam demonstrated thinking of my arm like a zipper. Extend the arm straight out, he said, catch the water, then pull alongside your body. Use a high elbow as you bring your arm out of the water. As you can see above, he’s basically using his arm as a lever as he brings it out of the water. I’m not quite sure what I was doing before, but it sure as hell wasn’t that. We also used those swim paddles to practice really cupping my hand to go through the water faster.

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We also used pull buoys so that I could get a feel for what it was like to really rotate properly from my hips.

Honestly, even one of these changes would have really helped my form, but everything together makes me feel so much faster already.

I told him how I’d felt panicky in open water and how I was frequently out of breath despite thinking I was in pretty good shape. I’d been breathing every four strokes, and we changed to every two strokes, focusing on really just turning my head rather than picking my head up and then turning and breathing. 

The one phrase that got me giggling and has stuck with me since is “Swim with the fishies.” By this, he means to look at the bottom of the pool, which prevents your feet from lowering.

Check it out! (This is with pull buoy.)


Any more swim tips for me, or anything else you’d like to know? I have another lesson with Sam tomorrow and can pass on any of your questions! 

16 comments on “Learning to Swim for Triathlons: Stroke

  1. Victoria

    Very cool! You have a good steady rhythm and a pretty decent rotation and body position, which is a HUGE start. See if you can get Sam to work with you on your catch and hand entry position, those will be small refinements, but it looks like you have the basic technique fundamentals down pretty well.

  2. Laura@SneakersandSpatulas

    That pool looks so tiny! How long is it?

    A few things to work on: bi-lateral breathing if you don’t do it already. I forced myself to do this of my HIM and I’m so glad I did. It really only took one or two sessions for it to feel normal. Work on your hand entry to make sure it slices smoothly into the water.

  3. Katie

    I would like all the tips! I spent june avoiding the water thinking that it wasn’t a big deal….oh man. I finally got in the lake on sunday, and I’ve got a long way to go in 2 weeks…the first sprint tri doesn’t count right!?

  4. Amanda - RunToTheFinish

    That’s awesome you are getting such great coaching! I feel really lucky to have done swim team in high school, so that part of training comes pretty naturally…it’s still the darn bike that’s getting me!

  5. Gianna @ Run, Lift, Repeat

    Oh how I love swimming! Growing up at the shore and having water in our back yard I was “swimming” at 6 months – but years of swim camp and team have me very at home in the water. But I still stink at breast and fly, never really got those mechanics down. If it wasn’t for the whole needing a bike thing I really want to start doing tri’s!

  6. Laura

    Have you read Total Immersion? That book completely changed my swim stroke for the better and had a lot of amazing pointers to improve efficiency and increase speed.

  7. Susan

    Hi! I’ve never commented before, but I’ve been reading your blog forever, and given all the great running advice I’ve taken from you, I felt the least I could do was pass along three stroke drills from my hours and hours in the pool that I learned while growing up a swimmer:

    1) Catch-Up Freestyle: Holding your arms straight in front of you in a streamline position, take a stroke with one arm (the other remains straight in front of you). Complete a full stroke with one arm, then bring it back to the front streamline, and repeat with the other arm. This drill really helps your body alignment in the water (especially that chin down “swim with the fishies part!) while giving you the chance to focus on the mechanics of your stroke.

    2) Zipper Drill: Doing a regular freestyle stroke, drag your thumb along your body all the way from your hip through your armpit for each stroke. This will help you get used to the feeling of keeping your arms close to your body and keeping your elbow up high instead of sweeping wide in your stroke, making it more efficient.

    3) Fingertip Drag: Sort of the same basics as the zipper drill, except instead of dragging your hand up your side at the bottom of your stroke, you’re dragging your fingertips across the surface of the water during the recovery part of each stroke. This drill again helps with the high elbows, and it will also help you get a good “catch” on the water at the top of your stroke.

    Hope that’s a little helpful! Good luck in the pool!


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