Getting the most from your swim stroke


Going for gold ?
Going for gold ?

If you're gearing up for that next - or fist - triathlon you may find yourself more aquatically inclined than usual. Sure, avid swimmers abound but what're competitive runners and cyclists to do with a kilometer or two of water between the start and finish lines? Swim instructor Greg Watson knows and people are starting to pay attention.

In the past year and a half, word has spread among budding triathletes about the former competitive swimmer and water polo sportsman's no-nonsense approach to getting in touch with one's inner amphibian. Certified by Canada's National Coaching Certification Program, the Ottawa-born former university club head and coach of the Ernestown Barracudas swim club teaches private and group classes at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and the National Athletic stadium. Why the growing interest in his services by ex-pat triathlon aspirants?

In addition to English-language classes that cater to executive-level camaraderie, Watson, 29, seems to know what makes his students tick: "A lot of these guys are doing (triathlons) for the first or second time," he says. "They haven't gotten a lot of (swim) training and have used books and videos to learn drills. But they are not sure what they should be feeling when they do those drills." Which, he adds, includes feeling constant pressure on the hands then - and only then - increasing that pressure for speed.

Many end-results-orientated triathletes, however, can shortchange their own ambitions when it comes swim training. Like training for cycling and running, Watson says that they prioritize swimming in the same way - according to distance. "When I ask them about what they've done they talk about distance," he says of typical new students, "a lot of long distances. They're not sure apart from distance what they should be focusing on" Therein lies the weakness of many triathletes when it comes time to take the plunge.

"I don't just focus on distance but getting them to think about every stroke, to be efficient," Watson says. "We do a lot of drills. But I focus on what the drill is about and how to carry that over to what they do. To be aware of their body and what they are doing." He adds that this includes getting the most out of kicks when doing catch-up drills and using the full rang of shoulder rotation when doing gallops. He's also a big fan of grasping the importance of reducing your par when comparing time and stroke counts in the "golf" drill. This, he notes, touches on another oft-held misconception athletes not trained in swimming tend to take to the water - speed over form.

"Swimming is the first part of a triathlon so you don't want to go out and use most you're energy," Watson explains. Yet, as common as such knowledge may be nouveau triathletes can leave it poolside with their towels. He draws on one of his promising students as an example: "He's got it in his head that he has to go real fast and work really hard. So I got him to swim his way one time and swim my way next. Then, we counted the strokes and the time." Using his normal swimming method, Watson says the student swam 48 seconds using 60 strokes. When he followed the instructors directions of focusing more on even, long strokes and making each one count he completed the same distance in 50 seconds but with only 42 strokes. "He might be able to do that for few hundred meters, Watson says of the student's former method but adds that in a long distance race, "he's going to die!"

For those training for their first triathlon Watson says the first and most important thing is to be prepared to cover the distance: "Make sure you can finish." Next he says is to focus on how that distance is covered: "I'd have to say really going long is important," he says of those strokes, "long and easy and focus on what you're doing under the water."

For those who have been at for a while, he suggests, "balancing their strokes out," so their strong arm doesn't do most of the work and catch the rhythm by breathing on both sides as the head turns. "It's a good thing to practice getting the maximum stretch with the weaker arm." He also cautions to pay attention to other problem areas such as kicks, catches and flexibility. "Make sure you have a good grasp of what you're supposed to do for drills. Get someone who knows - a friend - to show you. Work on getting as long and efficient strokes as possible and then speed up."

If you're interested in streamlining your stroke for competition or camaraderie e-mail Greg Watson at: or give him a call at: 080 5481 0695.

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