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Olympic Swimming vs. Triathlon Swimming

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Olympic Swimming vs. Triathlon Swimming by Kevin Koskella

While watching the swimming events in the Olympics last week, I started thinking about how different the freestyle stroke is (or should be) for Olympic sprinters and amateur triathletes.

Many people in the triathlon world think they need to just emulate Ian Thorpe to have a faster time, or have a similar stroke to Michael Phelps to cruise through the swim. For most amateur triathletes, trying to learn from these swimmers is like trying to learn Portuguese when you really want to learn Spanish. There are similarities, but not enough to get you by.

Don't get me wrong- Thorpe, Phelps and many of their major competitors have some of the best freestyles in the world, and parts of swimming science are based on things these guys do in the water.

The problem is, most of the freestyle events in the Olympics are actually sprints.

The 50 is over before you can blink, the 100 is an all-out sprint, and the 200 and 400 are both controlled sprints. The 800 is more of a middle distance event, while the 1500 (mile) is really the only pure distance swim in the meet. So can we learn from the mile swimmers at the Olympics? Yes, a little. The swimmers generally have lower stroke counts, and aren't relying on their kick as much as the sprinters.

triathletes swimmingBut those swimmers don't have to do a long bike and run after they swim!

So, they can put everything into their swim, and their strokes come out looking a bit different than what we are teaching the beginning level, non-swimmer triathlete. Although we can't use a one-size-fits-all approach to freestyle strokes, there are many aspects I have pointed out that have helped triathletes all over the world that don't come from a swimming background:

Ø Keep a low stroke count

Ø Rotate the hips

Ø Reduce the intensity of your kick

Ø Keep your elbows high

Ø Glide with each stroke

These same tips do not all necessarily apply to Olympic level swimmers. These swimmers have reasons for doing things differently:

Ø They may have a fast turnover rate and a high stroke count for sprinting

Ø Their hip rotation is not as pronounced- they don't have as much of a need to “conserve energy” as a triathlete does

Ø The kick may be very intense and strong, especially for the shorter events

Ø Most of the Olympic swimmers have been practicing for many years, and some have perfected a stroke that is less than ideal for a non-swimmer doing a triathlon (i.e. Janet Evans is considered the best female swimmer of all time, and had a unique straight-arm stroke that very few have been able to master)

So watch and admire these world class athletes, but be careful what you try to emulate and don't feel bad that you're not moving through the water with the same ease and grace they are!

Copyright Kevin Koskella operates the website, a resource for beginning through intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming. The site features a free email newsletter offering tips and articles on triathlon swimming. Kevin has also written an electronic book titled “The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming” which is sold on his website in downloadable form.

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Jane Thurnell-Read. Photograph by: Roger Harvey ABIPP, AMPA

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