Perfecting Your Swim Stroke For Efficiency & Economy

Racing season is upon us. My athletes are - just after this past weekend - into full racing mode. With that, the demand from triathletes to hone and enhance their swim strokes is going up.

Swimming is perhaps the most mechanically dependent discipline in triathlon. Not that running and cycling aren’t without their mechanics and efficiency, but nowhere do you find such a direct relation to economy of stroke, mechanical efficiency, and speed. That being said, having a clean, efficient, and strong pull phase of the swim stroke is one of the most important things to focus on in the swim. Now, I'm certainly not discounting body position, head position, and other aspects of the stroke. But for now, let's just focus on the pull phase of the stroke as this is where the majority of the propulsion is derived. Maximizing the energy spent in this phase of the stroke is critical to the economy we can build into the swim.

What do I look for? First and foremost, a quick catch phase. This is the phase of the stroke, immediately after your hand enters the water, that you’re starting the stroke and “grabbing” water. The catch needs to happen quickly – removing a long glide phase from the stroke cycle. Why? In open water, there's too much cavitation of water from other swimmers around you. The goal is to catch water that isn't moving (or at least not moving as quickly as you) to help provide maximum propulsion. 

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Stroke Rate, Distance Per Stroke, and Why You're Probably Doing It Wrong

I've heard many a coach tell their athletes that targeting a low stroke rate in their swim is one of the benchmarks of improvement and efficiency. Yes, a swim stroke with a low stroke rate looks smooth and efficient, but you can't talk about stroke rate without looking at pace, and distance per stroke as well. Why do we need to look at all of these metrics?

A low stroke rate is usually indicative of a long glide phase in the front-quadrant of the stroke.  Having a low stroke rate and a long glide phase isn't always beneficial, especially in the sport of triathlon, when you're in the open water.

Before I continue further, let's define - simply - distance per stroke, and stroke rate:
  • Distance Per Stroke:  How far you go, or have gone, every time your hand enters the water.
  • Stroke Rate:  How fast you turn your arms over and have a hand enter the water.
So, this isn't to say that having a front-quadrant focused swim means you're going to be slow. You can be a very fast swimmer with a lower stroke rate and a front quadrant based stroke.  You'll just have shoulders as wide as Sun Yang - and you'll have to carry that extra muscle weight on the bike, and more importantly, on the run.  (As an aside, it's worth the time to watch the 1,500 meter finals from the 2012 Olympics if you didn't see it live.  It's an amazing swim, and you'll see what I mean by front-quadrant, glide phase, and wide shoulders.)

I recently participated in a course for USA Swimming coaches, and there was a section where coach Jonty Skinner discussed distance per stroke and stroke rate (which moving forward I'll refer to as DPS, and SR).  Mr. Skinner is a wealth of information, and he really summed up how you need to look at the relationship between DPS and SR. So how can we look at these two factors in an easy to understand context?
  • In regards to SR:  A .03 second increase, per stroke cycle, over 50 meters and you can potentially see up to a .4 second improvement.  Over 200 meters this could yield up to 1.5 seconds depending on your number of strokes.
  • In regards to DPS:  A 1 inch improvement (one more inch in your DPS) and you can expect almost the same relative impact.   That is to say, potentially, up to a .4 second gain per 50 meters or up to 1.5 seconds over 200 meters depending on how many strokes you're taking.
Another way to look at DPS and SR:  A really fast SR - where the swimmer is just thrashing their way though the water - almost always yields a minimal DPS.  And, a really slow SR almost always yields a slow swim.

There's a huge potential of time savings waiting to be tapped here.  And on paper this looks to be a very simple, and easy, improvement to make.  But these changes don't come easily.  Muscle memory, cardio load, form and mechanics - they all come into play here.

To that point, I am fortunate to be friends with an athlete here in Colorado Springs who, now retired, was a pro triathlete and a resident at the Olympic Training Center as a member of the national team.  He and I were chatting the other day and this topic came up (in a round-about way) as he was telling me about his arrival at the OTC and his jump to being a professional triathlete.  He was a great swimmer in high school, and was leading most sets in the pool, and was easily one of the fastest swimmers at the OTC. However, he'd get to an ITU triathlon event and he would be in the back-half of the swimmers coming out of the water.  He became so frustrated - and didn't understand how he could be swimming so poorly - that he was soon seeing the team Psychologist thinking it was a mental block.

What was going on?  He had a long glide phase, and in the open water the early part of his stroke was caught up in air bubbles and cavitation in the water from the swimmers ahead of him.  By shortening the glide phase of his stroke, and increasing his stroke rate, he was catching water - the anchor phase the stroke - much quicker, and his open water swim improved.  This didn't happen overnight.  It took time, and a lot of work.

A great example of a high stroke rate being a key factor in open water triathlon swimming success is Sara Haskins.  She has one of the highest SR's around in regards to pro women triathletes.  She might not be the fastest in a pool, but she's dangerous, and very quick, in the open water.

So how does one look at, and measure stroke rates, with an athlete?  The easiest way is to time it.  Time 10 stroke cycles, starting the stopwatch on the first right arm entry.  Count 10 strokes and stop timing.  Do that for every lap in a longer set.  Now you have your baseline stroke rate for your athlete, and you can take that information and measure it for comparison over time to gauge improvements. Additionally, so long as the data is readily available, you can also measure that data against other athletes.

Looking at distance per stroke isn't difficult either, but it takes a bit more time.  Video of your athlete swimming is the best way to gather this data.  Using your favorite video tool, Silicon Coach for example, you can mark the hand entry point of the left or right hand on the screen.  Then, as the video progresses, you can mark the next entry point of that same hand.  By using the measuring tool in your software to identify the width of each float on the lane line, you can then measure and determine the distance traveled during each full stroke cycle.  

How does this equate with the targeted swimming goals and individual metrics of your athlete?  You can look at it as simply as targeting a 50 meter swim at “X” stroke rate with “Y” distance per stroke.  Working on technique and efficiency is critical to improvements here.  Over time, by working on form and mechanics, a similar stroke rate can then yield a larger distance per stroke.  Then, by working on turnover, mechanics, and reducing the glide phase, you can increase stroke rate - thus finding improvements all around.

I'll be presenting a webinar on this topic on Thursday the 30th of January.  Announcements, and links to sign up for the webinar, will be coming soon from Vanguard Endurance.  This webinar will carry USA Triathlon CEU credit for all you coaches out there.  I'll be covering, in-depth, topics on stroke rate, distance per stroke, and the importance of form and stroke mechanics.

By the way - here's a link to the Mens 1,500 meter final from the 2012 Olympics.  You'll have to click the link to watch it on YouTube (content from the IOC and all) Enjoy!

Triathlon Swimming – Revisited

I wrote a blog post way back in 2010 about swimming techniques and mechanics to improve your speed and efficiency in the water.  And while those techniques and topics are indeed helpful, there was one topic of discussion where – I hate to say it – I was off base.

I talked about “front-quadrant” swimming and linked to an article on where it was discussed as well.  Let’s just say that while swimming techniques such as this (and some others) are massively helpful in a pool, specifically for swimmers, they’re not as helpful as you think for open-water swimming or in the sport of triathlon.

Triathlon is an interesting and complex sport.  Each leg of the race is tied to the others more than you realize.  And that relationship is never more apparent than between the swim and the run.

Things that make you faster in the pool aren’t always as helpful as you think for triathlon as a whole.  Utilizing stroke techniques and mechanics that are born and bred for pool-based swimming builds up muscle in your lats, back, and arms.  While you’ll surely become quicker in the water, you’ve added muscle mass to your body.

Muscle mass = weight.

This new muscle you’ve added to aid your swim is now weight you have to carry on the run (and the bike).  While you can potentially improve your 1,500 meter swim time, you very well might add that time back on your 10K run.

To get an improvement in one leg (the swim, bike, or run) you sometimes have to give up some time elsewhere.  Or, more importantly, do you find efficiencies in one discipline – maintain the time in a particular leg – yet do so without as much effort?  This leaves one less fatigued for the other legs of the race.

It’s complicated.  Finding that balance between disciplines is what coaches spend a lot of time doing.  The education in coaching never stops.  This is one of the reasons that I love triathlon coaching – I never stop learning.

To that point, Vanguard Endurance – the high-performance coaching group I’m now a part of – has regular Webinars on any and all topics relating to triathlon training, coaching, and racing.  In the upcoming month, I’ll be presenting a Webinar specifically covering the topic of triathlon specific swimming mechanics and techniques.  I’ll keep you posted.

Expect The Unexpected

One of the numerous things that I enjoy about being a triathlon coach is speaking with multisport and endurance groups.  I recently spoke with a small group of my own athletes who have a target race coming up in a few weeks – it was a casual, laid back Q&A session.  The purpose of this meet-up was to discuss their final training preparation and how to approach race day itself.  These athletes range from first-time / novice triathletes to competitive age-groupers.  My hope was to calm some nerves while finalizing last minute training plan changes and strategy
The most interesting and vibrant conversation occurred when the questions focused on what happens on race-day.  And by “what happens” I’m referring to questions that started with “What do I do if…”
·      What do I do if I lose my goggles during the swim?  (Um, keep swimming.)
·      It’s an Olympic distance tri – what if I get a flat? (Fix it! You might not place in your age group, but you’ll still finish strong.)
·      What if I have a serious mechanical issue? (Your day might be done – wait for the sag wagon or start walking.)
·      What if the weather is terrible?  What if there are three-foot swells in the swim?  (Pack your arm warmers, and sight early and sight often.)
LA Triathlon Swim Start - Source
There were many more questions but you get the point.  Eventually, as the queries continued, my answers shifted from being specific to more of a “don’t worry about what you can’t control” vibe.  There were some first time triathletes that I could tell were now stressing about the “what ifs?”  So I countered: “Did you enjoy your last training ride?  Did you have a good run last week?  If so, then excellent” 
Yes, your training is targeted towards, and culminates with, your “A” race.  And it will, well, suck if something happens and you can’t finish your race.  Truth be told, you’ll find another one to do.
If you’re not enjoying the training – the process – then why do it?  You have to enjoy the time spent on the long rides, at the track, the long hours in the pool.  To quote someone much smarter than I: The journey is the destination.  Yes, we all want to perform well. But focusing on what is beyond our control is a fruitless endeavor. Did you become a better athlete over the past six months of training?  Most likely, yes.  You’re a better triathlete even if your race doesn’t go well. 
As a coach, I have many such discussions with my athletes.  Eventually we dial things in and focus on what is needed for the particular, targeted race and what the plan is for varying distance races.  But we don’t talk about “what ifs” anymore.  Why worry about what we can’t control?  Enjoy the process.

Training Camp Week Wraps Up

The week in Connecticut - in the foothills of the Berkshires - is coming to an end.  The bikes got a lot of mileage put on them, and the open water swimming was great.  We couldn't have asked for better weather either.  Every day was clear, sunny, and temperatures for the morning rides were in the high 60's (ending in the high 70's). 

Five days of good mileage on the bikes (again, with a couple of good open water swims thrown in for good measure) along with lots of climbing.  Each ride had about an average of 1,200 to 1,500 feet of elevation gain.  Not a lot when compared to the Tour de France - which is being viewed every morning after workouts are wrapped up - but these were still some good leg burning climbs that got the heart rate up near 170 on occasion. 

Personally, on a bright note, I was able to get a couple of running workouts in.  I'm still building up strength in my ankle and while certainly not up to distance and intensity standards that I'd like to be doing, I was able to get a couple of "brick" workouts in.  I pulled off 3 X 4 minutes jogging / 2 minutes walking after wrapping up the morning training ride on a couple of days.  Certainly not where I'd like to be, but I was just happy to be able to jog/run at a reasonable pace and not have my ankle act up on me. 

We're headed back home later today, and I'll most likely head off to the pool first thing tomorrow morning to keep some of the momentum going through the weekend.  It's really nice to be able to sleep in a little bit, and by that I mean sleeping until 5:30-6:00 am, go ride or swim and return back and not be rushed to get to work.  We're able to sit, stretch, relax, and recover through the rest of the day.  Well, and consume a few glasses of wine or beers in the afternoon by the lake!