I swam masters at UCSD - a very serious program - for a semester. It was a lot more swimming than I was used to - 3000 meters or more 3x a week. Thanks to coach Sickie I certainly improved my swimming, including learning to breast stroke and backstroke, but I didn't really ever get faster. One thing Sickie told me stuck in my head, he said I suffered from "classic limp elbow". He showed me how I pulled, which was by bending my elbow and dragging my forearm through the water. Essentially I had no catch. He showed me how I wanted to keep my elbow high, and turn my arm into a scoop. I tried to do what he told me, but I just didn't have the strength - after a few strokes my weak elbow returned. He reminded me every day, and although I kept trying, I never really got it right.
The next spring I returned to the TCSD group swims. My old coach had moved on, and so I was starting from scratch. My swimming picked up where it always had been, swimming 2:00 100's. That went on for a month or two, until one night something changed. I didn't know what it was - I wish I could take credit for it. For whatever reason my arms felt strong. I was pulling hard, elbows high, arm scooping water. For some reason this arm strength didn't die after a few strokes - it lasted all night long! And I was swimming 1:45 100 meter sprints. That's a hell of a difference! This was my breakthrough for 2008. One of my friends who had been swimming in the same lane with me for months asked me what I had eaten that day, because I looked fast! I tried to imagine what tongue-in-cheek sarcasm my old coach would have had for me had she seen me that night! From that day on, I have been swimming at the 1:45 pace - and sprinting much faster.
At first I thought my unusual arm strength was the result of being well rested. But that wasn't it - that might explain one night, but not every night. My arms hadn't gotten stronger - I barely have any muscle in them. Plus, this improvement was not gradual. After a year of swimming the same speed, one day I woke up and was 12% faster. Something else changed. I believe I started rotating my body more correctly, resulting in my arms doing less work and being more efficient. That's my best guess anyway.
The important thing about both of the breakthroughs I've experienced in my brief swimming career is that they had the same root cause. Technique. Sure, improving your fitness will improve your swimming and you should do so. But that improvement will be gradual, and relatively small in magnitude. But fix a hitch in your stroke technique and you'll instantly see dramatic improvement. And here's the great news for new swimmers like me - our technique sucks! We've got huge improvements to make!
After all that long winded tale, I'll leave you with some basics that I've picked up in my brief swimming career. Remember I've only been swimming for two seasons - so basically I swim at an 7th grade level. It's entirely possible that I'm giving you terrible advice.
- body position is critical. Wearing a wetsuit will help feet draggers by floating the legs - but it's better to do it right in the pool as well.
- Kicking makes big difference - yes even for wetsuit wearing triathletes. Many triathletes don't kick efficiently and get almost no locomotion while doing kickboard drills. I think this is because they are doing a bicycle kick, bending the knees, and just moving water up and down. You want to push water horizontally. Do this by generating the power at your hips, and keeping your knees relatively straight. Think of your legs like long swimming fins, they should be pushing water out behind you - not just pushing it down towards the floor. Of course many triathletes deliberately don't kick in an attempt to save their legs for cycling and running - I guess that's a strategic decision each of us makes for ourselves.
- Catch water and pull! Don't limp elbow your arms during the pull. Keep your elbow high and think of your arm as a scoop. Remember to pull the water along the horizontal direction, don't waste energy pulling it towards the bottom of the pool. Use your hip/body rotation to help your pull - otherwise you're going to have some back/shoulder pain.
- I don't know why - but for me calmer is faster. My fastest laps are the ones where I stay smooth and in control. I think that for beginners like me efficiency trumps power.