Swimming faster – Arm Turnover

While competing at the pro level, one of the biggest differences between racing at the age group level and the pro level is the importance of the swim.  I’m far from the best swimmer out there, but with the help of Lakeside Seahawks and their coach, Nate, I’ve made some big improvements in my swim in the last year and half.  One of the things they really worked with me on is developing a good catch.  Something I would argue that most triathletes don’t actually have (I am still trying to make mine better too).  What is a good catch?  Basically, it’s anchoring your forearm and hand in the water and moving your body past it it.  Getting a good catch takes time, drills, practice, more time, more practice, and more time! Breaking those bad habits can be rough. (I speak from experience!)

What I find interesting among triathletes and most triathlon coaches is how much they stress a good catch (and body position).  This is a great place to start, but I rarely see people get past this.  The stroke seems to be stuck at a very rigid, almost robotic, movement.  In a sense, they have all the steps correct, but the smoothness and quickness of their arms is lacking.  The rate at which your arms move through the water is called arm turnover.  This is very important to efficient swimming, especially in open water.

To help make the connection to how important arm turnover is, let’s compare it cycling and the RPM of your legs.  Pretty much everyone knows that the ideal cadence for people is somewhere around 90-100.  Why is that?  At higher RPM’s, you rely less on muscular endurance and glycogen stores and tax your cardiovascular system and fat stores more.  A lower cadence, such as one in the low to mid 80’s, starts using more muscular strength and glycogen stores.  (Those glycogen stores are crucial to a good run after biking.)  The same holds true with with swimming.  A faster arm turnover means you are using less muscular strength and relying more on cardiovascular fitness.

The second reason I believe a higher turnover in the swim is important is more crucial to open water swim success than pool swimming.  Open water naturally has more chop in it from the waves and other athletes thrashing around you.  If you have a larger time between strokes, the water slows you down and you have to accelerate back to your speed with each stroke.  Just as it is with driving a car, the more you slow down and accelerate, the less miles per gallon you get due wasted energy.  The human body is no different.

The next big question within this question is, “how do I know what my arm turnover should be?”  Obviously someone swimming 1:10/100 meters is going to have a different arm turnover than someone swimming 2:00/100 meters.  There are also other variables involved, such as the height of the athlete, arm length, and how efficient their stroke is, etc., but here is a graph to give you a range to shoot for:

arm turnover

Your goal should be to be somewhere in the white area based on your 100 meter time.  If you only have a 25 yard pool at your disposal, the easiest way to convert to meters is to add about 10% of your time (convert to seconds and multiply by 1.1 to get your 100 meter time).

Faster arm turnover doesn’t mean you are allowed to start thrashing in the water again with no regard to form or technique.  It just means that you need to cut out pauses in the stroke and have a faster recovery portion of your stroke (as in when your hand exits the water by your waist and re-enters past your head).

Here is a great example of fast arm turnover from some of the best swimming triathletes out there in the ITU circuit.

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slow down and get faster

You know that old sayings: “Work smarter, not harder” and “changing is hard”?  I think these saying ring especially true in the winter season for triathletes.  I think that most triathletes would agree that changing is hard and would like to work smarter not harder, but unfortunately I don’t think many triathletes believe it enough to influence their actions/training in the off season.

Humans are creatures of habit.  We love getting into our routine and getting comfortable.  Triathletes take that to the extreme by making certain days of the week swim days, or bike days, or cross training days.  Or, even worse, triathletes get stuck doing the same old workouts day after day, week after week, and year after year, and then expect better results.  Aimlessly logging miles for the sake of logging miles (which I think the club challenge by USAT triathlon over the winter months encourages to do.  Ironically, at the same time, USAT sends out several emails to work on form, strength/conditioning etc. over the winter season).  This is not only asking for injuries, but it also the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).  So, I’m challenging all my readers to stop repeating the same routine as years past, but slow down and get faster this winter, like the Lakeside Seahawks have done with me last month.


About a month ago, the coaches at Lakeside Seahawks Senior group (Nate, Gord, and Lee) stopped us from doing 100’s and 200’s for about 30 minutes and worked with us on form.  The drill they had us do was to body balance in the water and then hang our arms at the elbows over the lane lines then pull the water to bring our body to the other side of the lane.  Sounds silly, right?  I thought so too.  But at this point, I’ve learned to trust that everything we do in practice (whether I know why we are doing it or not) has a good reason behind it.  That drill… that simple drill, finally made things click that we have done in several over drills in the last year I’ve swam with them.  Everything clicked and I was instantly faster because I slowed down, worked on technique and listened to the coach’s advice and guidance.

Then just last week, they were doing underwater video taping for kids.  The kids were doing starts from the block and analyzing their entry into the water and efficiency of their dolphin kick.  I approached Nate and asked him to video my stroke from under water at the end of practice and give me a couple pointers.  I waited around for about 15 minutes, and then it was my turn.

Nate saw things I would have never seen to improve my stroke even more.  He told me I was over rotating in the hips and shoulders.  He told me the hips should only rock back and forth every so slightly like in running (he has found that comparing things to running for me helps me understand better) and that my shoulder rotation should only be about 30 degrees.  This would allow everything from the shoulders down the core and into the hips to act as one and provide a lot more power.

The next swim I completed I had to do on my own because I couldn’t make it to swim practice with the Seahawks due to plans that evening.  I focused on what Nate told me to work on.  Swimming slow at first getting the feel for the change.  Then slowly increasing the effort.  I eventually worked down to what felt like race pace and did several 100’s.  Just a few months ago, I would average about 1:18-1:19/100 meters. Now, with a little tweak in my stroke, I’m holding 1:15/100 meters at the same effort.  Those 3-4 seconds will really add up over the course of a 1.2 or 2.4 mile swim.  Plus with drafting off faster guys in open water, I could probably hold 1:12-1:13.

I’m really looking forward the 2015 season.  This change will definitely make a different.  I think this will be a game changer not only for the swim, but also for the bike.  I will now be able to get out of the water with the faster swimmers and bikers and be able to pace off them.



2014 triathlon season in review

My first attempt at a video blog.  Hope you all enjoy it.  Thanks to everyone that had a part to play in this last season… already looking forward to 2015!

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Swim Testing for Triathletes

The days are getting shorter and colder in my home state of Kentucky.  But there is one place that I can count on to always be sunny and temps in the 80’s:  Mary T Meagher Aquatic Center.  It’s  about the only place I consistently get myself out of bed when needing to do an early morning workout before heading to work at my real job.  I don’t mind when its dark, or when its cold… but when its both, the sum of the two is much greater than the separate parts!

I don’t think I’m alone in the world with this mental problem of getting outside in the early morning for a run workout.  The winter also presents other challenges with slick road conditions and crazy drivers heading to Wal-mart to save money on buying all the things people don’t need for Christmas to only mention a few.  So why not spend more time in the pool perfecting your stroke, give your legs a break for a few months from the high mileage we abuse them with during the spring through fall, and getting a little faster for the first leg of the race that is often disregarded since it is typically such a small percentage of the race.  People will say you can’t win the race in the water (which is probably true), but the race can definitely be lost in the water.

But how does someone get faster in the water?  Aside from swimming more consistently and becoming more efficiently, the most important thing you can do is figure out what your limiter is in the water.  Are you more aerobic or do you lean toward the anaerobic side of spectrum?  There are several tests out there to help determine this, but my favorite is the following:


Test Set – 200/800

After doing an adequate warm up of about 700-1000 meters/yards with a few 50’s at race pace effort swim a 200 all out from the wall for time.  Get you 200 time and rest for one minute.  At the end of that minute, do an 800 swim at all out effort for time.

The 200 simulates that start of the race where you start out fast to find your place in the pack and hopefully find someone’s feet to swim behind.  The 800 simulates the remainder of the swim.

The 200 x 4 shouldn’t be equal to your 800 time.  The difference between the 200 x 4 and the 800 is what you are looking for to determine your strength/weakness.



Interpreting the Data:

Less than 8% Gap
If the swimmers estimated 800 split and actual 800 splits have a gap of less than 8%, this indicates the 200 segment of this test is weaker than the 800 segment. This points towards a lower anaerobic capacity, anaerobic power and/or low swim-specific strength
If the stroke rate is close, within 2-3 strokes from the first 50 and the last 50, it is an indication of low anaerobic capacity and/or power. If the stroke count drops off by 4-5 or more stokes, that points more towards a lower level of swim-specific strength.

Greater than 8% Gap
If the swimmers estimated 800 split and actual 800 splits have a gap of greater than 8%, this indicates the 200 segment of this test is stronger than the 800 segment. This points towards low aerobic conditioning, muscular endurance and/or a poor pacing strategy.
Looking at the stroke count again for more insight. If the stroke count is close, within 2-3 strokes, it could be an indication of muscular endurance (the ability to hold a pace for a long period of time) or possibly a poor pacing strategy.


Once you know what your limiter is, it should be relatively simple to do figure out workouts you need to do to work on your limiter in the water.  At the end of the day, however, triathlon is an aerobic sport and we shouldn’t neglect the aerobic side of training if that is your limiter.  By focusing on one side of the spectrum (anaerobic or aerobic) it will negatively effect the other… so balance is key.