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Swimming Technique  Outdoor sports > Swimming > Swimming Technique > 4 Steps to a Smooth 1.5K Swim

4 Steps to a Smooth 1.5K Swim

2016/7/21 10:46:19

The first leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon is a 1500M (0.9mi) swim. This thrashing, white-water, washing machine start is often the most intimidating and off-putting leg of any triathlon. On the bike you can put your foot down; on the run you can rest; but on the swim, you have to swim.

The saying about a triathlon swim is that you can't win a race there, but you can lose one. Let the lead pack get too far away, burn too much energy fighting the water, or simply get caught in a bad starting position, and the leaders are out of T1 before your feet hit sand.

So, how can you have a good, fast 1.5K swim? Before we really get into technique it should be noted that any technique work needs to be done slowly. It will not work if you are swimming fast. Changes should be done with a long-term mindset. Don't worry if your times rise; that isn't the point at the start. Times will fall again as you become more comfortable with the stroke.

More: 10 Elements of a Perfect Freestyle Stroke

This advice works just as well for beginners as it can for experienced triathletes struggling on their swim, a notoriously weak discipline for most strong cyclists and runners. I've included a drill or set with most of the tips to help put the advice to practice. Let's get started.

The keys to a faster 1.5K swim can be summed up in four S's:

  • Smooth
  • Strong
  • Sustainable
  • Smart

This column will address the smooth.


A good stroke is the most important aspect of swimming fast over distance. That's why smooth comes first. It is also going to be the longest section, as I believe it is the most important. You should do one smooth workout a week. Beginning swimmers should do more like one and a half smooth workouts.

Smooth swimming is fast swimming. The natural reaction of anyone who wants to swim faster is to swim harder. Harder, however, often translates to thrashing, splashing, and gasping. This surely does make it harder to swim, but it is in no way faster. Great amounts of splashing water in every direction mean energy is being expended in futile places instead of being focused back behind the swimmer where it should be. A fast swim is a smooth swim. And a smooth swim is all about good technique.

More: How to Streamline Your Stroke

When you think about good technique you shouldn't think so much about Michael Phelps as you should Sun Yang, the 1500m gold medalist and world record holder from London. This is not to take away from Phelps, he just might be the greatest swimmer in history, but Yang's stroke is very different than that of a 200m swimmer, and much more similar to the stroke of a triathlete.

Smooth Stroke 

A smooth stroke comes in four parts:

? Reach
? Pull
? Finish
? Recovery


A triathlete wants to cover as much distance as possible per stroke without sacrificing speed to an overlong glide. To lengthen your stroke you want to reach at the top.

Stand up and raise your hand like a student reluctantly volunteering. Now raise your hand like the kid who knows the answer and needs to be called on. Oh, oh, Mr. Kotter! Feel what your body did? You probably rotated and raise that hand as high into the air as you could. In the water that means rotating your shoulder to your chin and reaching your fingertips towards to opposite wall, the far buoy or the swim exit.

Now you're taller. Now your stroke is 6 to 8 inches longer than it was before you reached. Six to 8 inches more stroke at the front means you are traveling farther per stroke. Traveling farther per stroke means your stroke count drops. A low stroke count means less energy expended in the water, which means more energy you can use to gap the runners on the bike.

More: Why a Long Stroke Helps in Triathlon Swimming

When reaching do not let your hips drop. A level body is a fast body. Hips that drop in the water cause drag. Drag slows you down and makes you work harder.

Imagine swimming downhill. Picture a line across your chest from shoulder to shoulder. Then picture a line from throat straight down the midline of your torso. Where those two lines intersect is called the T-spot. Lean down on the T-spot while swimming. Your body is a seesaw in the water and lowering one end will raise the other.

When rotating, you should be as tough as if on a spit. No side-to-side movement at all. Imagine a line from the top of your head to inside the tips of your big toes and you may only rotate on that center line. That rotation should be driven from your hips. Much like a boxer can get a snap on his or her punch with a twist of the torso and a batter can drive the ball farther by opening up their hips to the pitch, an open-water distance swimmer should be driving their strokes with hip rotation. Your reach is dictated by the power of your hip twist (to not quite 90 degrees). You will feel this focus in your obliques.

Swim Stroke

Reach Drills

Stroke Count: Swim 25 yards normally counting each stroke. One full stroke goes from the front of the reach to front of reach with same hand. Begin trying to drop the count by one or two strokes each 25 by lengthening your reach. Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter in history, takes 41 steps over 100m. Everyone else takes 44. Same concept.

Catch-up Drill: Swim normally, but do not start the next pull phase until the previous pull phase is finished. Which means pull, wait for the recovery to finish, touch the leading hand with the recovering hand, and begin the next pull. You'll feel like you're sinking at first but you'll get better. Remember to press down on the T-spot.

Sideline Kick: Lay on your side in the water as though you are mid-stroke—one arm straight out in front, one at your side, shoulders perpendicular to the pool bottom, head looking down, neck relaxed. Basically, the position you're in right before the recovery phase of the stroke. Kick across the pool with short, quick flutter kicks. This isolates the kick, is better for you than using a kick board, and teaches your body to balance in the water in the reach position. Do 5 sets of 50 yards. Be sure you are always facing the same wall no matter which direction you are going so that you work both sides.

More: Try the Side-Aligned Balance Drill


The pull begins with the catch. Doubling up on the above picture, look at Yang's pulling arm. Notice how high his elbow is. The elbow should always be higher than the hand during the catch phase of a stroke. Reach. Anchor your hand vertically, grabbing the water. Lever your body over your hand, digging deeply into the water with your elbow high, thus allowing you to pull using your whole forearm and hand. Allow your hand to make a small S under the water. It should not cross your body's center line. Be sure your hand is cupped, as though holding water to drink. Open fingers let water through.

The key to the pull is the high elbow. Many swimmers let the elbow drop, which makes the whole arm slip through the water. Try one of these visualization techniques:

A) You are climbing through the water. The water is solid and you anchor your hand and pull yourself over your hand as though climbing a wall.

B) There is a barrel underneath you so your elbow has to be high because you are wrapping your arm around the barrel, swimming over it.

There should be force in the pull; do not let yourself slip through the water. You are grabbing water and pushing it towards your feet. Mr. Newton says that pushing water behind you will move you in the opposite direction. Splashing side to side means you are moving laterally rather than forward, wasting energy. As you pull, use your hips to power the rotation into your reach.

More: Developing the Catch and Roll in Freestyle

Pull Drill

1, 2, 3, Swim: Swim 100 yards, or four laps of the pool. The first lap, make a fist and extend only one finger on each hand. This will force you to grab more water with your forearm. The second lap, extend two fingers. The third lap three. And the fourth lap swim normally, but not you should be able to really feel all the water that is there to grab.

Note: Do not allow your hand to wiggle side-to-side in front of you. It will want to. Keep it steady in the water.


The pull phase ends with the finish. The finish is where swimmers get lazy. Your thumb should brush past your hip, extending your triceps. When swimmers get tired this is the first place the stroke suffers. Swimmers will pull their hand straight out of the water at their waist. Ending the stroke at your waist is a waste! You have ten more inches of pulling to do, at least.

This is where the pain starts first, you wear out the end of the triceps muscle with a good finish. Without locking your elbow you should contract the muscle fully, flexing it. Those last few inches of pull are very valuable and will mean serious differences in times once you are strong enough to maintain a good finish for an entire swim. And in triathlon, why not? When are you going to use your upper body again? Might as well wear those muscles out now, when you get the chance.

More: Become More Efficient By Finishing Your Stroke

Finish Drills

Flick drill: At the end of every stroke, flick water behind you and over your butt. Focus on getting a decent splash towards your feet. Then you will know you're finishing hard. This over-emphasis on the movement will translate into better regular finishing.

Thumb to Thigh: Stand up, let your arms fall to your side, extend your thumbs into your thighs. Every stroke, try to whack your thumb against your thigh. Try and leave a bruise in the same spot every time.


The recovery phase of freestyle begins at the finish and ends at the reach. Your goal is to be controlled; don't just flop your arms forward. Too much splashing is slow and ugly. Swimming should be smooth and pretty. Lift your arm from the elbow, allowing the bottom half of your arm to be relaxed. Relaxed, efficient movements are important because you want to use as little energy as possible in this phase. Breathing takes place from the finish to when your arm crosses just past your head. The hand enters the water a few degrees past your head and you begin the rotation/reach.

Recovery Stroke

Recovery Drills

Thumb Drag: Plant your thumb in your thigh at the finish and drag it up your body to your armpit during the recovery. This will force you to keep your elbow high.

Fingertip Drag/Piano: This is the same concept as the thumb drag. Let the tips of your fingers graze the surface of the water during recovery, lightly as though you were playing piano.

Half Stroke/Full Stroke: Reach to the front of the stroke and with the finishing hand go from your hip to your armpit and then back to your hip, then a complete recovery. This will force you to roll on to the side you should be on completely and balance. Do not rush the movement. Each one should be controlled and smooth. Be sure the elbow stays ever high.

More: How to Keep Your Stroke Balanced

A note on breath: Breathing should take place half underwater, half above water. Be sure you are blowing bubbles so that when you turn your head all you are doing is inhaling. You don't need a lungful of air; you only need enough to get to the next breath two or three strokes away.

Also, do not pull your head out of the water. Your head floats; allow it to float. When you need to breathe simply turn your head with your body until half your face breaks the surface. No need to look left or right. Breathe with the natural motion of the stroke. Watch for a detailed breathing drill in the Sustainable section.

There was not much mention of kicking in this section either but your kick should be smooth and regular—not hard. Look for more on kicking in the Smart section.

Note that all of these drills can be included in the workouts in the other sections, especially the Sustainability section. They will not work as well in the Strong sets because the goals for Strong are different. Examples will be given.

Just remember, technique will make the biggest difference in your times, especially if you are a beginning swimmer. You can't muscle your way through 1650 yards. You must fix your stroke first. Fast is not a worry until smooth is taken care of. It's an ongoing effort, and there are always small things to fix, but you've got to move the big rocks before worrying about speed.

More: 3 Swimming Sets for a Faster 1500 Meters

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