Faster Swimming - Part 1 - Put Stroke Mechanics First

I find it somewhat unbelievable how long it's been since Scott or I have written on this blog. Lately, while not much training has been done on my part (mostly strength training and swimming), I have been doing quite a bit of coaching. I don't coach triathlon. I honestly don't think I know enough. But I do coach swimming, with a knowledge base of which I owe a great deal to Dave Tanner and from what he learned through Doc Counsilman, 40 years of coaching, and his personal experiences and research. Whether it's been one on one with other local swimmers, delivering practices and dryland workouts to 25 high school boys, or battling with the waves of culture at master's practice, I've had plenty of time and happenings to gather my thoughts and share them with those that care to read.

I'll get right to it.

Swimming is swimming. I promise. Triathlon swimming is no different than pool swimming. The stroke is the same. IF you have a two beat (straight or crossover), turnover is what you will thrive on. Otherwise its the same. And no, you aren't going to be able to learn a two beat crossover. Here are some interesting assertions (and how I feel about them) for how a triathlon freestyle stroke is different than pool swimming stroke:

  • Triathlon swimmers need higher stroke rating than pool swimmers - One of my high school swimmers once told me that the more strokes they took the faster they would go. That's what this is saying. Except, what happens when you can't take any more strokes in a given time? That's what this is insinuating, that you can always move your arms faster. The relationship between stroke rating and speed is a bell curve, provided that your technique remains the same. At a certain point, moving your arms too damn fast will cause you to make a less effective catch, and subsequently, a less(squared) effective finish. Losses upfront at the catch are magnified losses at the finish. And you will lose water at the catch because we've seen it on film. Elites don't really lose a whole lot of water, or if they do, are strong enough to compensate. For the average or even above average age grouper, it's just not worth it. Anecdotally, our best swimmer on our high school team - 45.2 for 100 free and well under 5mins for 500, has the lowest stroke rating on the team. He is wicked fast open water, too.

  • Straight arm recovery is helpful in triathlon - Yeah, physics doesn't agree with this. Your shoulder bears those forces. Besides, if you subscribe to the high stroke rating, this only makes it harder!

  • Techniques/drills are not all that important in triathlon swim training - Wow. Take a look at the best swimmer in triathlon - Andy Potts. His technique is picture perfect, which gives him fitness bonus points in that he can go the same distance with less energy. Factor in his true fitness and he should win every swim leg of every race he competes in. Which....he does.

  • Distance per stroke is not important in triathlon - several coaches claim this. Training as though it IS important will only benefit you. You'll teach yourself a better catch, pull phase, and finish. Is it a little harder? Yes. What about if you find the right stroke rating (bell curve), and try to maintain most of your best distance per stroke? It's faster. Why? Because you are then working off the maxims of both variables. Its an equation. Efficiency, which translates to greater distance per stroke given the same effort is worth more in the long run. Here is an older article which highlights this.

Amazingly, some coaches take one look at the video of Yang Sun setting the 1500m world record, and think that there are better ways to go about it, strokewise. I'm sorry, but the fitness of his heat in that race is likely the same across the board. He simply is the better swimmer with picture perfect technique.

As a assistant coach for a local high school swimming team, I can tell you that we definitely swim less yards than the other teams who accompany us in the team top 10 rankings statewide. But I don't think other teams pay near as much attention to technique. Its how we make improvements all through the season. When a swimmer comes to me after his race and asks me what to work on, would it make sense to say conditioning? Rarely. As long as they've been coming to practice or you've been tripping it to the pool regularly, you probably have some decent fitness. So, no, I say, we have to work on your entry, your finish, your rhythm, your technique.........

You can swim 4-5 grand per session - just hammering out the yards without the needed attention to technique, OR you can swim less, swim faster, and swim better, and have more time for life, or for biking and running if that's your thing. Think about it.