When I first began the endeavor to be a triathlete, I knew one of the most daunting tasks was to become a proficient swimmer. In my first swim workout, I was in a lane at my local YMCA. There was a young girl that literally made me look like a slug of molasses in water. She raced up and down the lane with ease. I looked at that moment and realized that while I liked to swim, I had better get better at swimming to be competitive in any way.
As I began my training I concentrated only on the freestyle swim stroke. This is the stroke that you commonly see open water swimmers Lifeguard courses near me and triathletes use. There really is no need for any of the other swim strokes to be used in triathlon unless you need a rest and aren’t that competitive anyway. Seeing that this is the case I only did freestyle swimming to improve this particular stroke. I wanted to make sure that I refined my swim stroke and I indeed did get a little faster.
I then join a Master Swim Club team for a short time. The coach for this squad began me out with the freestyle stroke, but then every workout included the butterfly, backstroke, and breast stroke. I was not used to doing these strokes and thought it was a waste of time. She would have me do yards and yards of each of these other strokes. She even had one workout where I didn’t do a freestyle stroke until the very end of the workout. I thought to myself that this was madness and I was wasting my time. I was about to approach the coach about this issue and ultimately quit, but I had heard about good results from these groups. I also thought that soon we would concentrate just on the freestyle stroke as I had a race approaching and wanted to get back to the stroke that was important. The coach then had a particular night where she was going to time our freestyle swims compared to the first time we swam with her. I got into the water and knew that I was going to really struggle because we had not focused on the freestyle stroke for the previous weeks. I finished the swim feeling like I had exerted less energy and just knew that I had more work to do and that this truly was a waste of time, but when the coach announced the time I had improved a bunch. I looked at the time and then the coach and realized I needed all four swim strokes to improve in my triathlon training.
I soon moved from that city and thus left the Master Swim club. Where I moved, I didn’t have easy access to a swim facility and sparingly went. I got back into the old habit of just doing the freestyle swim stroke. I didn’t even work on the other strokes. I then entered the year of training for my ironman distance race. I found a particular training plan that included swim workouts with all four swim strokes included. I worked with this plan all of this last year and felt the improvement in my strength and endurance each time I completed a workout. I worked just as hard during the workouts with the different swim strokes as I did in the freestyle. This work paid off in faster swim times in my races all of last year. I am looking forward to this year where I can improve even more. Remember that in swimming, form is everything because we are not aquatic creatures. I know that if I have better form, strength, and endurance that my swim times will continue to improve.
I want to describe to you what I think each stroke besides freestyle does for the amateur triathlon swimmer as far as improving in strength, form, and endurance.
The Breast Stroke is all about rhythm. The process of moving your arms and legs at the precise time they need to move in the breast stroke is vital. This is also vital in the butterfly. I think what this teaches me is patience in the freestyle stroke and to work the arms and legs together. I notice that in my freestyle sometimes my legs lag behind my arms in the water. I then do several lengths of breast stroke and the rhythm is back to where it needs to be so that I can be in sync with my legs and arms in the freestyle strokes.
I feel like the breast stroke helps me with flexibility too. So often in the freestyle stroke, I am trying to keep my leg movement to a minimum and use my thighs for kicks and not my calves and ankles. This sometimes causes me to become stiff. I think the breast stroke with its frog like kick helps to loosen up the legs and to provide some flexibility.
I also believe that the arm stroke moving through the water is important. Many times in freestyle you are moving your arm through the water, but you may not be thinking about the greatest width of surface of your arms making contact with the water and propelling you forward. The breast stroke causes you to think about the way you arms move through the water.
The breast stroke can be used during a race to get easily around buoys, if you are tired and still be fast, or if your goggles fog up and you need to fix them. This is a valuable stroke to master.
This particular stroke also keys in on some critical factors in the swim stroke and helps with the freestyle stroke. This stroke also is important for getting the right rhythm. You have to concentrate on moving your legs and arms in unison to maximize your propulsion through the water. This concentration is necessary to also in the freestyle stroke, but is not often adhered to. I think the butterfly forces you to think about the movement of your legs and arms together.
The butterfly also produces endurance. The backstroke and breast stroke, to me, are easier strokes in terms of holding my breath and of energy expelled. I am not as good at these strokes so this may be why. The butterfly causes me to take a huge breath out of the water because I am under water longer. The butterfly also expels more energy per stroke. These two attributes together grows endurance in me for the freestyle stroke. I have found that when I am getting better at the butterfly then I am getting better at freestyle.
Muscle confusion is possibly the greatest benefit of all of these strokes, but is most pronounced in the butterfly. I learned muscle confusion from my days or working out with P90X. If all you ever do is the same repetitive lift or stroke then you will only work those muscles that are needed for that lift or stroke and you will have to increase the weight for these lifts more and more to make any difference at all. As opposed to confusing your muscles and they begin to grow. If you only do freestyle then you are not working other muscles that could help out in the swim stroke. The butterfly probably works my other muscles more than any other stroke. You have to work your shoulders and traps. You also work different leg muscles with the dolphin kick. I feel stronger after having completed several butterfly workouts.
The back stroke is probably the hardest stroke for me to master. In this stroke you have to sneak your hand from your side and place it in the air, you then move it into and through the water the opposite direction of all of these other strokes.
I have found the this particular stroke improves my hip swivel more than any other. In the back stroke, you naturally feel the change during each stroke from side to side as opposed to directly in front of you with the butterfly and the breast stroke. You have to rock your hips and your torso from side to side as you completer each stroke. This process is on your back, but it does transfer to the rock of the hips while in the freestyle position.
The back stroke also helps with the kick sequence and strength. The back stroke mimics the freestyle kick just in the opposite direction. Instead of kicking down toward the bottom of the pool, you are kicking toward the ceiling. I find that the back stroke helps me to learn the repetitive nature of the kick I need in the freestyle stroke. While this stroke is most difficult for me, I find that it is the most helpful because it does mirror the freestyle stroke and helps me to get more powerful in the water. The movement of my shoulders in the opposite direction of the freestyle does increase me overall power in the water.