Power push-offs

Get your push-off right and not only will you save up to 2mins in a 1.5km pool-based tri, but it’ll improve your stroke, too.  Robin Brew tells you how…

The push-off is one of the easiest ways to improve your speed in the water without all the extra hours of effort and training. And though not quite as efficient as a tumble turn, it’s still possible to knock up to 2mins off a pool-based 1.5km simply by developing a better push-off both at the start and during every turn.

In general, we don’t appreciate the value of streamlining and the use of the walls in training; the common school of thought is that we race in open water, so the need to be effective off the walls isn’t a priority. But if you look at the UK race calendar, there are actually more pool-based triathlons than open-water races.

An effective push-off adds momentum to the stroke between the walls, giving you greater consistency of speed that ultimately develops a better rhythm and flow to the stroke.

Another advantage of improving push-offs is that, as the overall efficiency of turns improves, the energy cost of turning is reduced, allowing the energy saved to be used when swimming.

Common mistakes

For most, a push-off is simply a means to get going. The biggest mistake athletes make is trying to rush the skill and get swimming too soon. Most novice swimmers tend to start with a push over the surface, which actually stops the body before swimming can commence.

A push-off level with the surface or just under the water will also result in a massive loss in speed, because the body disrupts the surface tension and produces a high level of resistance.

The third main disadvantage of an incorrect push-off is that the body is left in too poor a position – either head too high or hips too low – to begin an effective front-crawl stroke.

Eight steps to success

The eight-step process involves the timing and organisation for developing an effective push-off. When practising, the key is not to rush the skill, but to go through the steps slowly and deliberately.

Firstly, target distance off the wall as a way of monitoring your success. Can you get past 5m, 6m and 7m using a glide only without using your legs? Once you’re successful at this distance, start to improve the speed of the push-off by driving hard and accelerating into the extended position.

Your next target will be to get someone to time you to 5m, 7.5m and 10m off the wall. World-record pace over 100m is just slightly in excess of 2m/sec. If you’re able to emulate this from a push-off you know you’re doing well. Ultimately, your target must be to get close to or less than 5secs for 10m from a push-start.

Timing of the break-out

The break-out is the point at which your head breaks through the water’s surface. It’s important to establish a set pattern or timing sequence to the push-off and streamlining actions, in order to maximise momentum and avoid any deceleration caused by breaking the water’s surface. The first stroke is taken just as the head is about to break through the surface.

Here are the sequence of events:

  1. Lift, breathe.
  2.  Drop and sink, hands together, then drive with the legs.
  3. Stretch and streamline the body. Hold for a count of ‘1,000, 2,000’.
  4. Begin leg kick and, at the same time, take first stroke underwater with your strongest arm.
  5. Head breaks the surface of the water.

The sequence of events should take between 3-4secs in practice and 2.5-3secs when working at speed.

The starting position

Facing the side of the pool, keep one hand in contact with the wall. The feet are placed just above each other at a depth of 2ft below the surface; the knees are bent to approximately 90°. The shoulders must be close to the water line; the leading hand is sculling gently for support.

The breath

Pull up gently on the hand holding the wall, take a big breath and then
simply release the hand. After your breath you should feel like you are
sinking. Maintain the body position – the movement is pivoted around
the foot contact with the wall.

The drop

The underwater hand assists the downward movement by gently pulling upwards. Just let the body drop. Remain on your side. The hand above the surface begins its controlled movement forward in time with the downward movement of the body. The head at this stage is still looking slightly back.

The submerge

This is the vital part of the push-off. The hand that has been travelling over the surface now enters the water cleanly and joins the other hand. The whole body must submerge to the same level as the feet. No attempt should be made to push-off until the hands join together. The head is now in line with the central axis of the body.

The push-off

Now the body is underwater the legs can drive off the wall. It’s essential to avoid any surface disturbance – it increases drag and, at this stage, will almost stop you dead in your tracks. The push-off must be at least 2ft
below the surface. The body is still on its side. The head remains in line with the central axis of the body.

The extension

The body is now fully extended. The hands are overlapped, the head is just below the arms and the feet are pointed. Try practising this position on dry land to appreciate the streamlining required. The body is still on its side. Do not kick yet.

Sub-surface travel

Perform a mental count of ‘1,000, 2,000’ before starting the kick action. During this time you’re slowly rolling onto your front and maximising the underwater acceleration. If you get this right you will be passing the 5m mark (solid red area on lane lines) in under 2secs. The head should now be facing toward the bottom of the pool.

Holding the streamlined position

With a good push-off, the speed that can be achieved below the surface is almost double to the speed that can be achieved above the surface. Holding the streamlined position for a little longer will help to develop the leg drive. Improved feel for the extended streamlined position is needed to improve your underwater push-off.