How do you find your “feel for the water”, especially wearing a wetsuit in triathlon?  Discover your “feel” and speed happens.

This is a very popular topic and is almost a swimming cliche’ or mantra – you hear and read it everywhere.  Just do a Google search and you will find hundreds of articles, dozens of videos – each seem to hold the secret sauce to finding your “feel for the water”.  Whatever feeling you may have acquired training in the pool is largely masked when wearing a wetsuit racing in triathlon.

Websites and swim articles discussing “feel for the water” –  most or all refer to the feeling or finding the feeling for the water from only the pulling hand or palm moving back, little regarding the forearm, and nothing about the feeling in areas of the body that move forward.  It’s as if no other area or limb can have or should have a feel for the water even when most of the body is submerged IN the water – go figure.

                                    Above Surface View

There are plenty of conventional sculling drills found on the web, each emphasize the feeling of pressure on the palm, twisting the wrist hinging about the elbow.  And more often than not, the sculling drills are executed with the swimmer in a position that is nowhere near what they would experience in freestyle, or any other stroke.

There are so many areas of body to acquire a feel for the water – head, face, shoulders, top and bottom of forearm, chest, legs and feet – not just the palm.  Areas of the body that move forward and not necessarily back.   Do you feel the recovery arm slice in fingertips first, wrist then elbow; or do you feel more of a flop on the bottom of forearm when the arm lays flat and/or crosses over in front of the head?  Do you feel the water pressure on the crown of your head or on the side of your face and low ear when rolling to breathe?  Can you distinguish pressure differences on either the inside or outside of arm, as well as the palm and top of hand at the “catch” phase of your stroke? 

Regardless of the area or part of the body for the swimmer to get a feel for the water, it’s all very subtle whether it’s from different pressures around the body moving forward or the arm catching and pressing back.  Each take razor sharp focus and certainly a swimmer must have good balance and solid foundation to feel these subtle pressures.  If arms are spinning and busy legs kicking to remain stable, feel for the water and its pressure are masked by staying afloat,  surviving the set or the swim leg in a triathlon. 

On the streamline side, reducing drag profile: 

A great aid to feel the water and feel the flow is with the aid of long fins.  Long fins will increase speed and magnify pressure/drag areas — areas that may or could be reduced through correcting body position and/or stroke timing.  But most importantly you will discover these pressure zones that you might not be aware of swimming without fins.  Work on one area at a time, i.e. pressure on the crown of the head, slice in vs flopping arm, pressures on top and bottom of arm at forward extension sliding into the “catch”, pressure on shin and top of foot as you kick down, etc.  Reducing drag profile = faster swimming and decreased effort.  That’s no secret, just laws of physics.

On the catch side

1. Start your feel for the water by gently closing your hands (like you’re holding a butterfly), aka “the fist drill”.  This removes the pulling palm that wants to take over, and allows you to feel the water on the (palm side of) forearm.  The more vertical your forearm, the more pressure you will feel – pressure on forearm should remain constant to the belly button.  An excellent set is to do is 4×50 (closed to open hand): 1st 50 closed hand, 2nd 50 open (point) index finger, 3rd open index and pinky fingers, 4th open hand using palm but still feeling constant pressure on forearm.  Don’t let the palm take over and allow elbow to drop. 

2. Swim sets of 3 x 50’s feeling feather-light, medium, and firm pressures on forearm and palm pressing back.  Swim the 1st 50 with feather-light pressure, 2nd 50 medium pressure, and 3rd 50 firm pressure.  When you get this right SPL (strokes per length) should be slightly higher with light pressure than with firm pressure.  For example: A swimmer may swim the first 50 at 18 SPL with feather light pressure, 2nd 50 at 17 SPL with medium pressure, and the 3rd 50 at 16 SPL with firm pressure.  If you swam the same SPL with light, medium and firm pressures – then you haven’t discovered this feel for the water yet.  Keep trying, you will eventually feel how subtle the differences between light, medium and firm pressures really are.  But when you discover/feel feather-light, medium and firm pressures – you will have a whole new sensation of “feel for the water” than you ever had, or thought you had before.  Feeling consistent pressure on the arm pressing back = traction and grip, less slipping.

Wearing a wetsuit?

Unless water temps rise above 78 degrees, most or all triathletes wear wetsuits in triathlon. If you wear a wetsuit, how do you maintain your feel for the water when most of your body is wrapped in neoprene? Neoprene over the shoulders/arms and below the knees doesn’t keep you any warmer, but only restrict movement and buffer any feel for the water you may have acquired without. I opt for the sleeveless suits and cut the legs at mid calve or above. However, some wetsuit manufacturers are now making sleeveless shorty suits (cut above the knees). These are excellent, 1/3 the buoyancy of a full suit – shoulders, arms and legs are free to feel the water and move naturally allowing you to swim with the stroke you’ve honed in pool sessions, not a modified stroke adjusting to a ‘corky’ and restrictive wetsuit.  Also, no more wasting energy trying to strip off the ‘neoprene octopus’ in transition.  Refer to a previous blog –  Wetsuits: Friend or Foe?

There is so much to flow and ‘feel for the water’ that is not limited to the hand/arm moving back.  You will yield much greater results discovering the feeling of flow and feel for the water improving the 95% of your body that moves forward than you will from the 5% that presses back.  Remove neoprene where it is not needed, buffers feel and restricts movement.

Coach Stuart