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Swimming Training Tips For The Triathlon
By Dr. Joel A. Bloom, Ph. D., MSE, Biomechanist/Sport Therapist

Triathlon is the ultimate challenge in endurance athletics. Because you have chosen to participate in this demanding sport, the precision of the training must be of the best quality and highest efficiency. Understanding the 'fitness triad' of training - nutrition and rest is a perfect blueprint for success. Most people who get interested in the sport are great runners and/or cyclists, but swimming excellence is another story. Others are great swimmers and/or cyclists and running is their challenge. Regardless of the strengths, the weakest skill must be developed to create balance.

Swimming demands the combination of cardiovascular fitness, musculoskeletal strength and neurological coordination in addition to the physiological changes created by the hydrostatic pressure of water. The elements of the kick, pull and breathing sequences are unique to the skill and are learned individually to create a package. Latest research in swimming [at the United States Olympic Academy] have changed the patterns which were learned as children and these hints are designed to incorporate them into the training.

SWIM TRAINING FOR THE TRIATHLON
The preparation period for the swimming and biking phases of a triathlon is considered by experts as four months. Running should be an ongoing event which enhances strength and the physiological muscle interaction and tones for all three components. Dr. Patricia Bragg, whose father Dr. Paul Bragg - a triathlon pioneer, states that the fourth month of consistent running is the best time to blend all three sports into the athlete's routine. She emphasizes that this is the appropriate time, skill and strength wise to start the combination training routine. She points to an early morning swim followed by a late afternoon bike ride and run as a break-in to this blend. As the event nears the time between the swim and the afternoon events should be decreased and finally performed continuously. This effort requires an adjustment to a maintenance of a maximum aerobic effort, an optimum training heart rate, establishment of a comfortable breathing rate and an awareness of pace. She cites her father's philosophy of "pushing, but never entering the breathless, lactic acid pain build-up that signals the anaerobic effort", as the key to triathlon success. [Bragg, P. & B. Johnson - The Complete Triathlon, 1985]

STREAMLINING THE BODY
The mechanics of swimming are divided into the arm pull, hand pitch, high elbow position, breathing sequences, body roll and the kick. Although there are variations to the stroke mechanics, the essential concept is to efficiently utilize the arms and hands to 'pull water past the body' thereby moving the levers of the appendicular skeleton as close to the parallel position of the body's midline as possible. In non-biomechanical terms this refers to arm and leg movement patterns which do not 'throw' water against the body's surface but push it past the body in a consistent direction and flow. The imagery of swimming inside of a giant glass tube is most helpful in creating this efficiency.

THE ARM PULL, HAND PITCH, FINGER EFFENC AND ENTRY
The momentum of the arm and hand, developed during the pull phase stroke, continues without interruption into recovery phase, but at the end of the arm pull, the palm of the hand is positioned facing directly backward (toward the feet). At the point when the pull feels dissipated, the transition from the pull to recovery begins. During the transition, the palm of the hand turns inward so that it faces toward the thigh. As the hand lifts upward, the little finger leaves the water first and the hand 'knifes' out of the water creating minimal resistance. At this point the hand pitch and finger position become important. Contrary to the theories of the past decades of swim instruction, the fingers are not held together and the palm cupped to create pull. This position has proven to create hand and arm fatigue rather than efficiency. Studies in the 'flume' - a water treadmill at the United States Swimming Training Center confirmed that a hand posture with the fingers relaxed and open, not spread, is most efficient for water movement. The hand is pitched so that the palm is facing diagonally outward with the forearm and wrist rotated inward. If the palm is held flat, in a horizontal position as it enters the water surface, it will drag air bubbles with it and decrease the effectiveness of the arm pull. Positioning the hand's entry into the water, with the thumb leading, at approximately 45-degrees to the surface, the hand becomes submerged without dragging the surface air with it. Once the hand and arm are completely submerged, the palm of the hand is turned from the diagonal position into a mid-position and the concentration of force is focused in the elbow. As the arm is pulled down and back, the bend of the elbow increases until it reaches a point where the hand is directly under the body and the upper arm is at a 90-degree angle with the body. From this point backward, the hand is pushed by the extension of the elbow to a point just approaching full elbow extension.

HIGH ELBOW ALLOWS FOR THE SWIMMER TO CONTROL THE WATER
The propulsion created by the alternating arms is dependent upon this lift-drag relationship. This means that the pitch of the swimmer's hand must be continuously adjusted to the constant changing directions of the pull. The elbow should be carried in a high position during the first half of the pull permitting the hand to be in excellent position to push the water backward at an efficient angle. This action is accomplished through two separate motions of the upper arm and the elbow. The upper arm is rotated inward and the elbow is simultaneously bent. The mistake most commonly seeing in training swimmers is dropping the elbow during the pull. The dropped elbow pull does not direct a good application of force. Due to poor positioning of the hand, the direction becomes downward, rather than backward and results in very weak forward thrust of the entire body.

BREATHING AND SEQUENCING OF THE STROKE
Initially, the head will control the body's attitude in the water. If the head is lifted too high, the legs will drop creating excessive drag. Conversely, if the head is buried in the water, the legs will ride too high and the effects of the leg kick will be decreased. This decreased will be caused by the effect of moving more air than water; a non-desirable state with regard to constant stability and forward motion. By replacing the head in the water so that it is immersed to eyebrow level, the proper breathing motion and sequence may be better attained. With the head immersed to eyebrow level, it is necessary to turn the head at the neck only instead of raising the shoulder or excessively rotating away from the breathing side. The mouth is pulled to the side as if one were trying to speak out of the corner lips. This is done when the head turns to take a breath. The head turns just as the arm/hand on the breathing side is passing the face, thus causing an air trough in the water surface in which the swimmer can breathe. As the hand passes the face, and the breath is taken it is imperative that the head is turned forward again as the arm/hand continues through to its lifting/recovery phase. For more efficient respiration, this sequence should occur on one side only.

BODY ROLL
The most common default in breathing efficiency concerns the timing of the head movement with relation to the arm stroke pattern. The inhalation should be taken as the body rolls to the breathing side at the point of completed arm/hand press. This is best described by a roll which is 35-45 degrees from center and when the swimmer completes an arm cycle. For effectiveness, the swimmer should roll more on the side on which they breathe than on the non-breathing side. The roll should not be intentional, but allowed as a natural reaction to the other sequences of the stroke. It is important that the swimmer does not inhibit the roll by swimming flat, thus creating shoulder resistance rather than flow.

KICKING
Today's freestyle is a balance between dominant arm stroke pattern and a stabilizing kick. The kicking pattern is referred to as the flutter kick. It is so named because of the fluid up and down and undulating, altering action of the legs. To initiate the kick, the body is in a prone glide position. The legs separate as if taking a step and are then brought together and past each other as in walking. The difference, of course, is that this striding motion is also moving the water. Specific anatomical attitudes of the lower extremities enhance the effectiveness of the kick. The first of these is toeing-in; just enough in order to create a turbulence or eddy between the ankles. This motion overcomes water resistance and drives the swimmer's body forward. The second is a non-rigid extension of the legs at the knee and thirdly, a relaxed, yet controlled, flexion of the ankle. The alternating flexion and extension of the legs emanates from the upper leg and is the direct result of contractions of the quadriceps and hamstring muscle groups.

Initially, the kick begins with the toes-in and the knees and ankles relaxed. There is a quick forceful contraction of the hamstrings of the other. As all these components contract together, the body should begin to move forward. Accelerating the alternate leg exchange will also accelerate the swimmer with speed proportional to the effort.

SUMMARY
A triathlete swims more efficiently by moving a larger amount of water back more slowly than by moving a smaller amount back more rapidly. Champion triathletes move their hands in elliptical patterns and change the pitch of their hands in elliptical patterns and change the pitch of their hands so the flow of the water over knuckle side of their hands is at a faster speed than that of the water on the palm side. The propeller action (toeing-in) of the feet is the most efficient means of propulsion in water currently known. The effectiveness of the lift force of the kick and the press/lift/recovery action of the arms in sequence, combine to create a dynamic performance and permit a smoother muskuloskeletal transition to the cycling phase of the event.

The focus in triathlon is balance not total all-out each event. Where you are weak, you must be efficient and where you are strong you can GO FOR THE GOLD!! Triathlon training develops calmness, confidence, a high fighting spirit and an intelligent appreciation of the benefits derived from the whole preparation. Be diligent, be smart, eat right, train hard and rest adequately.

Dr. Joel Bloom is an Associate Professor for the Department of Health & Human Performance at The University of Houston. His teaching areas include Kinesiology, Sports Therapy, Athletic Injuries, Facilities Planning and Aquatics. He is also co-owner of Cyclistics, a company specializing in Indoor Cycling Certification Programs and continuing education for fitness professionals. Dr. Bloom can be reached in Houston at 713-743-9847 or e-mail him at jbloom@uh.edu.

View Dr. Bloom's Bio




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Lat Pulldowns
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Running
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Do you have lower leg pain or shin splints from running? Running on hard surfaces, worn out running shoes and weak calf muscles could be the culprit. Try running on soft trails, buying a new pair of running shoes or adding calf exercises to your weight training routine.
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The Talk Test
A great way to make sure you are staying in your aerobic fat-burning range is the talk test. If you cannot comfortably carry on a conversation with your walking partner you probably need to bring down the intensity to assure yourself that you are burning fat.
Fat Burning
Your Anaerobic Threshold
A great way to make sure you are burning fat during cardio sessions is knowing your anaerobic threshold or where your heart rate zone needs to be to burn fat stores. Find a gym or fitness center that offers anaerobic/VO2 testing. Merlino Fitness offers anaerobic threshold testing every month. Check out the link below for more details.
Merlino Fitness Metabolic Testing
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The weight loss/energy supplement is in the news again. Supplement companies that market this controversial supplement claim it is safe although many have died from this dangerous supplement. Make sure you check the labels of your nutritional supplements as many are laced with ephedra, also known as ephedrine or ma huang (the actual herbal).
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