Secret Swimming Weapon for Triathletes: Train in the Four Competitive Strokes

By Kristen Turner – April 7, 2014
Tom Marek


At most swim practices you can identify triathletes by the gear they schlep onto the pool deck. Swim toys accessorize their tri-shorts and cycling tans, as they slide their sleek bodies into the water. Always hungry for ways to improve their swimming, triathletes are quick to invest in the latest paddles, kick boards, ankle bands, and wetronomes. Yet, the elusive swim tool they’re searching for can be found within their own body. The secret to becoming a better swimmer for triathlons is as simple as learning and practicing all four of the competitive strokes.

Learning to “Feel” the Water

Developing a “feel” for the water is one of those catch phrases that swimmers use to describe the experience of moving powerfully through the water. Like the “endorphin high” runners achieve, swimmers will know they have a “feel” for the water when they experience it. By learning different stokes, a swimmer moves the water along multiple planes, thus enhancing the sense of touch and power in the water. Moving your arms through the four competitive strokes increases the way swimmers are able to “feel” the water and propel themselves forward.

Butterfly: The most challenging stroke

The first stroke I would encourage triathletes to tackle is the butterfly. Though considered by some the most difficult stroke, the power of the butterfly builds strength and endurance more than any of the others. Triathletes who swim big open water events will especially benefit from this stroke. The fluidity it requires offers power for diving over and under waves. Being lithe and agile in a dynamic aquatic environment is a tremendous advantage over the mechanical movements of a freestyle-only swimmer. 

Another transferable skill for the open water swimmer is the dolphin dive technique, used at the entry and exit of an event. Repeatedly launching off a shallow bottom and diving forward with arms extended, will move a swimmer more quickly in shallow water than simply swimming. Swimming butterfly in the pool, trains an athlete to become comfortable and fluid in this dolphin motion.

In addition, the power of the butterfly stroke comes from the powerhouse muscle of the shoulder girdle, the latissimus dorsi, as well as all the core muscles of the abdomen and the back. Freestyle-only swimmers often fatigue quickly because they rely on their arm and shoulder muscles alone, failing to engage the larger and more powerful back muscles. Training butterfly will build a well-balanced upper body, allowing athletes to power through the waves in the open water.

Sample Butterfly Set:

A helpful drill to simulate the heart rate spike usually experienced in the start of an open water swim is as follows:

8 x100-yard repeats, with the first three strokes off the wall butterfly, followed by freestyle. Pick an interval that provides about 15 seconds rest.

Backstroke: The Stroke that Might Just Save Your Backside

The backstroke has the most in common with freestyle, more or less flipping the arm cycle movements of the stroke onto the back. Like strengthening opposing muscle groups in a weight room, swimming backstroke allows a freestyler to develop better balance in the upper body musculature. Most notably, the shoulders are opened up (rather than rounded), which helps to improve mobility at the shoulder joint and to relax and lengthen the pectoral muscles of the chest. The hand/forearm rotation mechanism common to backstroke and freestyle also gives the swimmer a chance to develop that important “feel” for the water, but from a different direction.  Additionally, swimming backstroke in practice will emphasize the hip snap action of the long-axis strokes (freestyle and backstroke) and improve body position. For the stereotypical lean but muscular-legged male triathlete, whose bottom half tends to sink rather than float, moving through the freestyle and backstroke will increase body awareness and ability to keep the hips in a more streamlined position.

From a practical perspective, it is not ideal to swim any significant distance of a triathlon on the back because of the lack of ability to sight the course. However, there are many occasions when swimming backstroke in a triathlon gives an athlete a chance to catch their breath in the case of panic, injury, or fatigue. Even the most experienced swimmers can have the unexpected happen in an open water swim. I had a friend and former Division I swimmer who was stung by a jellyfish competing in the Hawaii Ironman.  He had a strong anaphylactic reaction to the sting, but was able to flip on his back and breathe while he summoned a race volunteer on a nearby kayak. It is also not unusual for swimmers to turn over to adjust goggles, stroke around another swimmer, or dance around a course-marking buoy.

Sample Backstroke Set:

8 x 100 yards – Swim seven strokes freestyle, then flip on back for six strokes backstroke.  Repeat continuously throughout the 100.
*Emphasize hip snap, body position, and body rotation.

Breaststroke: Not just for Grandma

Breaststroke is the most difficult to master of all the strokes but offers practical advantages to triathletes in training and competition. Called a “short-axis” stroke, the arm movements of a proper breaststroke are all underwater, training a swimmer in the continuous “feel” for the water in both the catch and recovery phase of the stroke. While many triathletes view breaststroke as a “recovery” stroke, if done correctly in training, it can also be very strenuous. 

Even elite triathletes have the breaststroke in their toolbox for use in open water swims. If a swim course is exceptionally choppy, I often resort to a few yards of breaststroke, while continuously scanning the horizon for course markers.  For more novice swimmers, breaststroke can also help manage panic, as well as provide a steady breathing pattern.  One woman I coach even swims her Ironman distance races using a breaststroke. She finds the sacrifice she makes in speed trumps the fatigue and endurance challenges of her freestyle stroke.

Finally, breaststroke offers an improvement in flexibility for the triathlete. The breaststroke kick stretches out the adductor muscles after miles of running and riding. In addition, moving the ankle joint through a plantar and dorsiflexion position also gently stretches and strengthens the tendons of the ankle.

Sample Breaststroke Set:

8 x 50’s 1 stroke breaststroke/1 stroke butterfly (only breathe on the breaststroke) – This drill emphasizes the press of the chest that is common to both strokes, and helps with timing and rhythm of the strokes. 

Diversify your workouts

Mastering proficient competitive strokes, bolsters open water swim power, and develops muscular balance.  A triathlete incorporating competitive strokes into their training will quickly experience the dividends of faster swims, less fatigue coming out of the water, and more confidence as a swimmer. 

About the author
Kristen Turner is a former Division I swimmer from Pepperdine University.  A former age group World Champion in the international distance of triathlon, she has competed in triathlons for 30 years.  Her family was the first family of four to ever finish the Hawaii Ironman together.  Kristen current coaches masters swimmers at the Western Hills Athletic Club, and runs youth sport programs through her business, Sport Speed Austin.

Her own foray into multisport training came as a competitive collegiate swimmer. Early season training often involved a jog down to the beach, a 1-mile open water swim through the waves and current, and a run back to the pool. Turner quickly learned that her pool technique was not particularly transferable to the open water. Tossed by the waves, she had to rebalance her stroke, recalibrate cadence, and use feel for the water to maintain power.  This knowledge came in handy when competing in triathlons.  Rather than adding freestyle yardage to training, she went in search of the absolute best way to develop more power for the open water.  She diversified her swim training by practicing all four competitive strokes (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle), knowing that many triathletes were missing out on some of the best cross-training available to make them swim faster.


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