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Coaches Blog

Gain Pool Speed with Competitive Swim Skills

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

by Coach (RET) John Murray

When I first started coaching a Masters-based triathlon swimming group I was hesitant to spend much training time on competitive pool swimming skills, such as flip turns. My thinking was that triathletes that did not come from a competitive swimming background had their plates full with just learning the correct technique of efficient freestyle. Over the years, I have slowly changed that opinion. For several reasons, I now work to help swimmers have fast turns as well as great push-offs, breakouts, and finishes. And learning the other strokes can help swimmers improve their freestyle.

For my newer swimmers or those who are in need of significant stroke modifications, I stick to the “low hanging fruit” of better balance or improved catch. But eventually my swimmers will hear those corrections being called out, like "swim all the way to the wall!!" One reason to hone our pool-swimming craft is that triathletes are inherently competitive, whether the rival is the clock or the swimmer in the next lane!

Learning how to use the wall in your favor can drop a second or more from each length of the pool. Push off about 2 feet underwater to avoid the turbulence on the surface. Push-offs should be explosive and “snappy”. Think of a box jump. We are traveling our fastest when leaving the wall so a tight streamline is essential. Squeeze your arms together and “stack” your hands. Your upper arms will be squeezing your head just behind your ears. As you explode off the wall, point your toes and glide until you just start to slow down.

The freestyle breakout starts with the first arm pull. If you are slightly on your side, the lower arm pulls first. Also, you are a bit too deep, that first pull can propel you not only forward but up toward the surface. Practice good push-offs and breakouts on EVERY turn! (See image and video below from

Flip turns are fun to do and can save time. I encourage swimmers to begin to learn this skill. However, while they are still deliberating whether or not to try the flip turn, I will help them learn a better open turn. A very well executed open turn can rival or beat a less-than-stellar flip turn. Swim hard into the wall and only touch the wall/gutter for a brief split second…push off as above.

Learning other strokes can be fun but may take away time from needed improvements in freestyle. Butterfly and breaststroke are short-axis strokes and can be tough on the shoulders (butterfly) and knees (breaststroke). However, backstroke is a short axis stroke and can help improve a swimmer’s freestyle. Attributes like balance and body rotation can translate directly to freestyle. Also, it can be a monotony breaker.

So, in the future, when you are swimming next to someone who is always beating you by a second or two, consider some faster pool techniques and see if you can edge them out!

Examples of strong pushoffs:

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