My swimming journey, as you know from the article on me in the September issue of Tri Europe, didn’t start well. I am not a natural swimmer and that is OK. The nature of triathlon swimming, with the drafting and choppy waters, levels the playing field somewhat and enables the likes of me to be able to make it to the required level. As mentioned briefly, swim speed is a factor of how far you go with every stroke, (stroke length) and how quickly it takes you to do a stroke, (stroke rate measured in strokes per minute).
My coach looked at the data on the stroke distance of the elite triathletes and gave a rough prediction of how long a person stroke should be in relation to their height. It is then only a matter of arithmetic to work out how many strokes per length taking off 5 meters to account for the push off. In the real world this ball park figure would only really be off by a stroke either way at the most in a 25 meter pool. I train in a 33m pool and at 185cm I should be swimming 26-27 strokes a length (my ideal falls around 26.5 SPL).
Obviously there is a little more to it than swimming that stroke length. It has to be swum so it feels short, for me this means when I try and swim ‘long’ in my warm ups I’m swimming around 23-24SPL, and if I really try I can swim 33m in 19 strokes. It took me a long time to get to this point, the swim smooth website came along at the right time and at one point I knew the entire website word for word by rote.
For me the most important thing I learnt was to think like a pencil. If you push a pencil across a body of water it sits high and flat, and goes in a straight line, it doesn’t wiggle around it just goes. While we have a wonderful spine enabling us to flex in all sorts of directions; keeping everything in a straight line is fundamental. When it comes to moving the arms, there is all sorts of over complication. The only thing I think of is getting my hand in the right place as quickly as possible, rather than all this reaching forward open water swimming requires getting your arm down, I go into a vertical forearm position as soon as possible, my hand enters the water in front of my shoulder and goes straight down, this helps for a quicker turnover, once my hand is in that position I pull straight back with a long strong stroke. No ‘S’ bends, no feel for the water, I just grab a chunk of water and shove it backwards. With my body in the right position I move forward.
One thing I found which made a difference, that few people talk about, is that pushing yourself through the water requires you to push. It isn’t all feel for the water and technique, it requires a bit of grunt. It is grunt placed correctly which is the aim.
While this is simple and I don’t really think about technique when I’m swimming other than concentrating on pulling back hard, it has taken me a while to get to this position. I count my strokes pretty much every length and worked towards hitting that magic number and then trying to go under it when swimming with rate. I kept focusing until this magic number became short. Now while this number isn’t easy to hit, if I can’t maintain that length, it is a sign of fatigue.
Rate is both a factor of strength and fitness. To progress slow the rate down till you can hit the right length, then build back up. I focussed on length for two years, holding rate at a comfortable 55SPM. Now it is a case of building up the rate while holding the length. Swimming for me is about swimming the whole set well, then worrying about getting quicker. For the majority of the season, I don’t time myself, I hold the right length, and slowly increase the rate, if I hold a particular rate for an entire set (while maintaining length) I’ll try the end part of the next session with a slightly higher rate, and add more and more of the faster rate as I progress. I take enough rest for me to catch my breath and relax, if the last two lengths of an interval were a struggle to maintain length I have a proper rest. It is only in the three or four months before a race I’d do traditional sets working off a ‘base’. I’m still working hard when I’m not counting time, and I still do sets, but I won’t focus on doing it in a particular time, I’d swim as well as I can and do the distance (or as much as I can do before technique breaks down to the point where I can’t maintain stroke length for 100m). This helps me chill out in the pool without putting pressure on me to achieve, it also helps me keep my mojo for when I really need it, later in the season when I am trying to hit hard sessions.
All this couldn’t be done without the aid of a wetronome, and I value this above all swim aids. A wetronome gives the same level of feedback as a run GPS or a power meter and was essential in my development. Enjoy your swimming!