This article covers everything about dolphin dives, in much detail. For those who don’t know, dolphin diving is the act of pushing forward off the lake bottom. It is commonly done by the elite amateurs and pros at the start and finish of a triathlon swim. It may look as simple as pushing off and letting your arms fly in the air, but there’s a lot more to it. Included is a discussion on when dolphin dives are appropriate, how many to do, the techniques involved and the benefits.
Why would you bother learning how to dolphin dive? Because it’s faster of course! Good dolphin dives may provide a 5 to 10 second improvement over your total swim time in the average triathlon swim with a run-in start. The time gained might be small, but it doesn’t cost you anything! There are other benefits. When you are diving, you aren’t slinging it out with your competitors on the surface. Thus, you are able to start out fast and ahead of your competitors. Likewise, you can dive by someone at the swim finish so you don’t have to pass them early in the bike and risk drafting penalties.
Lake Bottom Considerations and Planning
Dolphin dives require a firm, smooth and shallow lake bottom. Sand works best. Rocks are okay provided they are smooth. Mud is no good; you just push into it and go nowhere. How do you know what the bottom is like or how deep it is? By testing it during the warm-up! If it is a sand bottom, you can determine if it’s smooth or full of clamshells. Be careful, broken clamshells can slice through you like a knife.
You can determine how the depth will change as you move out from shore and if/when the bottom transitions from sand to mud. It is important to do this planning at the start and at the finishing area of the race. By the time you get to the swim finish, the bottom is torn up and clouded by everyone around you. Thus, it is usually impossible to see how deep it really is and where you should be dolphin diving.
How far out should you dolphin dive? This all depends on your abilities and the race venue. Most triathletes start swimming after the bottom becomes about 3 feet deep. For most races you only have room for about 4 dolphin dives. But some races venues have a long and shallow beach front, which allows you to dive 12 times or more, both at the start and finish.
Step 1: the Dive
Once you have run into the lake as far as you can, you will do your first dive. For most people, this is a water depth that is a few inches higher than the length of the lower leg (foot to knee height). Plant both feet into the ground, and leap up and forward at a 45 degree angle to the water surface. During this motion, thrust your arms up and above your head as if you were swimming butterfly. You want your hands to be together (or slightly apart) as gravity takes hold and you enter the water. As you enter the water, tuck your head into your chin and arch your back upwards. It is analogous to performing the worm technique in break dancing.
Step 2: to the bottom we go!
You should enter the water at the same 45 degree angle as you leapt in the air. As you move through, move your hands slightly apart and flat to the water surface. For shallow water dives, you want to keep your legs together and still. For deep water dives, you want to flick your feet in a dolphin kick motion just as the feet enter the water. When you reach the bottom, your hands should have moved about shoulder width apart. Spread your fingers apart and grab the lake bottom, digging your fingers into the sand. You are doing this in order to anchor yourself to the bottom so you can pull yourself forward.
Step 3: Plant those feet!
Now you’re on the bottom. Your fingers are dug into the sand. Now pull forward using your arms with as much strength as you can muster. You may not move very far, but it will be fast. Once you have pulled your chest past your hands, you want to plant your feet on the bottom. Position yourself so you push off at 45 degrees to the water surface and push off with a 90 degree bend at the knee. The knee bend is important because this angle provides the most power out of your quadriceps.
Step 4: Up, up and away!
Immediately after your feet are planted, you will push up towards the surface. Move your arms to the side. You exit the water head-first, with your arms at your waist. In a shallow water dive, you will exit the water with your legs still and together. However, if you are doing a deeper dive, you can get an extra burst of speed if you flick your feet in a dolphin kicking motion as you near the surface. As the hands clear the water, you want to drive them forward with the same butterfly-recovery motion as the first dive. At this point, you will repeat the steps above until you reach the point where you either need to swim (after the start) or start running (at the finish).
Step 5: Start swimming
The worst thing you can do at the end of the dolphin dive sequence is stand up and just start swimming. In this fashion, you lose all the momentum and speed you gained. So follow the steps below to convert your dolphin diving speed into your swim start.
On that last dive before you will start swimming, you want to push off the bottom like a normal dive. However, you will enter the water more flat to the surface (much less than 45 degrees). Instead of kicking towards the bottom, you will hold your hands together in a streamline and kick back toward the surface.
If you are wearing a wetsuit, you will want to reach the surface quickly. Underwater kicking in a wetsuit causes it to fill with water. If you aren’t wearing a wetsuit, it is ok to kick underwater for a few meters. Some elite swimmers will kick in excess of 20 meters. Kicking underwater keeps you away from the crowds, so do it if you are a fast kicker. Otherwise, you only need a few kicks to retain most of the momentum you had while dolphin diving.
Step 6: The finish
As you get close to shore at the finish, you want to re-do the steps above. Remember that it is unlikely you will see bottom. You will have to know when it gets shallow enough and when the bottom gets solid enough to stop swimming and start dolphin diving. Then follow the exact steps above until it gets shallow enough to stand up and start running for shore. Again, this is a water depth roughly equal to your lower leg length. Now you have all the steps needed to dolphin dive. Until next time, happy training!