Usually, around this time of year we get a lot of inquires from athletes about whether they should start our program because they have a race coming up. “Is it even worth trying to change my bad habit?” He might say. “I know I am a bad swimmer but I am afraid to change anything too much.” It is an interesting dilemma.
Obviously, I have to give the disclaimer, “it depends.” It depends on how close the athlete is to the race, how much improvement the athlete’s form needs, and of course the race’s distance.
You cannot change your swim stroke overnight nor are you going to become Andy Potts after watching a few videos and doing a few drills, so trying to change your strokes when you have five to four weeks or less before your race, would be foolish.
That is not to say that you cannot focus on things meaning as you swim, you are thinking about pulling with a higher elbow, keeping a neutral neck, or widening your pull. However, I would not divert your time in the pool away from your regular training plan to do exclusively drills; it will only hurt your fitness, which is the primary focus in the final weeks leading up to a race.
Instead, I would add in supplemental sets of drills into a warm up and add in a mental focus while you are swimming main sets but do not rework your whole entire training or try to reinvent your stroke in that short a period of time. Then after your race, focus on your stroke mechanics during the transition and build phase, which is the ideal time to rework your stroke. If you are still in the base phase (weeks 1-12 out of 24+ of a program) of your training, then you can make some good change after that you should focus more on sticking with the training plan that you are on and supplement with form correction drills and sets.
To be brutally honest, some people’s swim form really needs work and for them to get through a race — in particular a half or full Ironman — they will require a lot of change. In which case, I would advise spending more time correcting the form than on training. For example, if a swimmer cannot swim more than 500m without resting and he/she has an Ironman in 6 weeks, then trying to improve his/her efficiency will help him/her more than telling them to grunt out increasingly harder sets and distances. We might also discuss transferring races to a later race but that is a discussion for another time….
Lastly, swimmers who have a sprint race with a 500-700m swim coming up do not necessarily need all that training to finish so can spend more time working on adjusting their position in the water and how they pull and still get in critical swim sets during the same practice, so for them I would definitely say try to change their stroke.
Overall, weigh the cost and benefits of trying to rework your stroke. If you have the time to prepare and can still get in quality training with intensity then do so, but if it’s crunch time and you need all the swim fitness you can get, then focus on the plan and call us up after your race.
Good luck in your training!
Coach Chris and Kev