Developing a great swim start is not easy. But getting off the block quickly can shave whole seconds off your time.
It’ll take you a while before your start is as snappy as Michael Phelps, but practice is vital to get this right.
Even if you’re already a fantastic swimmer, this guide should help you get your swim start up to the gold standard.
Positioning on the Block
There are a few ways to position yourself on the diving block.
When your weight is forward, over your feet to start with, you can lean down into the dive. It’s easier than the other approach (weight back) from a technical point of view.
But we recommend keeping your weight back instead. This lets you hurl your whole body into the flight phase, rather than ‘falling’ forwards into the pool.
When taking your mark, position your feet comfortably on the block. Bend down a bit with your arms hanging forwards and towards the front of the block.
At the same time, shift your weight backward – you should feel the weight of your body on your arms and back foot. The exact position varies from swimmer to swimmer, as people’s bodies are different shapes.
Keep your head low and in alignment with the rest of your spine – and don’t be tempted to raise it as you dive.
The Best Diving Flight for Your Swim Start
Getting further in the flight phase is all about power from the ‘cocked’ position assumed on ‘take your marks’ and streamlining in the air.
Keep your back and neck straight. As you jump forwards, close your hands together one on top of the other to form a triangle in line with your neck. Your biceps should be pressed up against your ears to minimize water resistance as you hit the water.
Reaction time can be worked on with time, but you should also pay attention to the races in front of you. By listening to the gap between the ‘take your marks’ command and whistle or gunshot, you’ll be prepared to react to it.
Entering the Water
You need to cut a perfect angle into the water as you enter. The less splash, the better. This shows that there has been less resistance to your entry – indicating that you are highly streamlined.
When you watch a professional do a swim start, you’ll notice that there’s only a ripple. That signifies perfect technique, which only comes with repetition.
With enough practice, your muscle memory will kick in so that you enter the water perfectly each time. It’s also worth getting someone to record you, so you can see if there are any parts of your body out of line which are causing resistance on entry.
Once you’re in the water, immediately start your dolphin kicking (also known as fly kicking).
As anyone who has ever swum butterfly will know, dolphin kicks are probably the most exhausting part of any stroke.
But it’s also an extremely powerful kicking technique. You’re allowed to dolphin kick until you reach the surface again after diving. And you can gain a tactical advantage by using dolphin kicks to get as far as possible.
That doesn’t mean doing a whole length underwater! But it means getting out about 10 meters from the edge. If you’re completely out of breath when you come up, you’ve been down for far too long.
Your hips and legs should work together to act in a ‘whipping’ or ‘rolling’ motion. As the legs rise, the hips fall, and vice versa.
Drills for Your Training
There are many drills you can do to improve your swim start.
One is having an experienced swimmer or instructor watch your technique and feeding back advice until your position is perfect and flight is good. Think hard about your motions each time – don’t see it as a rote physical exercise, but an exercise in controlling your body in precise movements.
One way to get better at entering the water with clean technique is to have a teammate hold a hoop in the water for you to aim towards. This can help you visualize the best entry angle and get it right each time. You must try to not touch the sides of the hoop as you enter.
To build up dolphin kick strength, swim butterfly stroke laps – but without arms. You might want to use a float, but many people it easier to keep their arms outstretched.
Keep yourself motivated during your swimming sessions by recording your personal best distances achieved. Measure from the block to the end of your dolphin kicks using a chart. Or you can use visual landmarks in the pool like flags, lifeguard chairs, or whatever else is around.
Avoiding False Starts
Are you swimming as part of a relay team, rather than a triathlon? If so, you’ll know that leaving the block too soon can result in some very unhappy teammates.
If the teammate in front of you hasn’t touched the wall and you leave the block, your whole team will be disqualified.
To avoid this, when your teammate is about halfway down the pool, lay one hand on top of the other and raise your arms in a line to point at your teammate. Move your arms to follow them as they approach.
Once your hands have tapped the front of the diving block, immediately dive. This neat trick should eliminate your false start concerns.
What About the Other Parts of Triathlon Training?
If you’re gearing up for a triathlon, you need to absolutely nail running and cycling as well as your swim start. And you need to build up the endurance to cope with the event.
Learn more about how to build an effective training regime here. And more about mastering open water swims here.
There is loads more information about creating a better lifestyle and pushing your training as hard as you can on our site. We hope it’s helpful for your progress, and wish you the best of luck in your next race!