Fix that Timing Issue in Your Swim Stroke

Recently I’ve worked with multiple triathletes that have faced a timing issue with their stroke and rotation of the hips.  So for those that might not have a natural “feel” for the water, how can you tweak your timing to gain more efficiency and power in the water?

First, the good news: YES, this issue can be fixed. Now, the tough love news: like all technique changes, this will take work on your part to identify the problem and then implement the incremental changes over and over.

Let’s break this down because swim technique fixes are notoriously tricky! To start, how do you know if a stroke timing issue is slowing you down? The most typical symptom I see is a lack of propulsion from the stroke even though the athlete is trying VERY hard, without another obvious cause such as dropped hips/feet. A simple way to diagnose it is to get a quick video and take a look at the position of your hip midway through the pull phase. I’ll give you an example!

The image below is from a recent swim analysis I did for one of our female athletes.  She has good body balance and positioning in the water but complained of being slow and really struggling in the open water when sighting.  That tells me to look at the relationship of her hip and stroke.  Notice that when she is midway through her pull, her hip is clearly out of the water.  Instead though, at this phase in the stroke, her hip should be at least level with water or even rotated downward. This picture demonstrates that the hip is about 45-60 degrees out of place: To compensate and provide counter rotation, she is forced her to sweep her hand directly beneath her body, another no-no. All of this means she’s not able to use her core and hips to power through the water. And that is why she’s not feeling a propulsion through the water.

Any of this sounding familiar to you? Ok, let’s fix it. We’ll start with your mental cues while you’re working on swim technique – of all the work I do with athletes, I see the most personal frustration here!

1.      Swim easy:  Don’t pull hard.  Your goal is to improve your timing.  Go easy on your shoulders and your ego.

2.      Consistent cadence: You want to swim with a constant stroke rate.  As you improve, you can graduate to a higher stroke rate.  If you want to speed up your stroke rate, rotate your hips, don’t think about speeding up your arms.  Your arms follow your hips.

3.      Find your groove: If you start to feel a rhythm in the water, then you’re onto something.  It might feel like dancing!

How it should look:


1.      The arm should be out and you should feel like you’re riding your hip

2.      Once that hand catches the water and initiates the pull, the opposite hip should begin to rotate

3. Once the arm, which has a high elbow catch (finger tips pointing down), is at a 90 degree angle, your hips should be propelling your body to rotate onto the other hip.  This motion will be driving you forward in the water

Here are some drills to incorporate into your swim sets:

1.      Hands at the side with fins on (Video).  Your goal is to feel good rotation on both sides without taking a stroke.  Use fins to keep your body up so you can center your attention on body balance and consistent rotation.

2.      One arm free style with fins (Video).  We add a stroke into the mix.  You will want to begin each stroke on your side and the start of the stroke should be with your hip rotating, not your hand/arm moving.  That is the key mental trigger:  If you want to take a stroke, rotate your hip first!  This is a key drill because it helps to create that muscle memory.  You have to connect the neural pathways between your arm and hips.

3.      Freestyle with pull buoy.  Using what you learned in #1 and #2, swim only 1-2 lengths and see if you are leading with your hip – that is, evaluate if your hip is driving and leading your stroke rather than your arm!  If you find yourself not picking it up, start back with the first drill.

4.      Freestyle.  Put it all together for 1-2 lengths.  Did you mentally feel yourself in a groove with the hip and arm in unison?  If so, slowly begin to increase the distance.  Once you hit a blocker, start back with drills #1 and #2.

Got a triathlon question? We’ve got #triathlonanswers. Leave a comment or triathlon question below!

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