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More Than Marginal Gains: Swim Technique

  • By Dan Bullock
  • Published February 13, 2013

The notion of marginal gains has been a major part of the success of the Great Britain cycling team and an area that the brilliant David Brailsford has focused on. His team of cyclists, like so many other athletes who delivered top performances at the Olympics back in the summer, never left a stone unturned believing if you focus on lots of small things they will add to something significant. This month Triathlete Europe swim coach, Dan Bullock, looks at how some slight technical revisions or changes to how you go about your swim sessions could produce not only marginal gains, but possibly more significant improvements. Whether it’s within the biomechanics of your stroke or as part of your winter fitness campaign, Bullock, shares some of the key points to utilise and what avoid to get the most out of your training this winter.

Improve Technique
When it comes to swim efficiency I often refer to elite swimmers of average height and how they can travel through 25 metres in just 1 3 strokes. Most of the triathletes I teach work at around 20-25 stokes per 25 metres. I think triathletes of average height should be aiming to swim in the 1 9-21 strokes per 25 metres range if they are to stand a chance of lowering their resistance enough to keep the stroke rate relaxed and repeatable.

What is it that chips away at the stroke efficiency to make it possible to reduce the distance to 1 .2 metres per stroke rather than 1 .6 metres? If we follow all the negatives that are possible within your front crawl it is easy to see how they add up. If you are trying to pull the body over the hand and your hand is pushing water down to the bottom of the pool then you are not going forwards. If the fingers are wide apart, not the 3mm ideally recommended, then the hands are going to slip under the body without the body moving forwards. If you are facing forwards then more drag occurs. If through a lack of rotation both shoulders remain submerged then you will not move forwards as easily. Swinging the arms wide of the body and building momentum so that they cross the centre line means you are moving sideways, not forwards. If a strong two-way pivot at the knee hampers your kick you will send yourself backwards, or at the least you will remain in equilibrium as the hands try to pull you forwards. Any of the negative movements make it easy to see how you would limit your forward movement to well under 1.6 metres per stroke. Even the toes pointing to the bottom of the pool are going to hold you back and slow your progress.

At times it may look like power and strength can beat technique in the short term. A good example of this is that most people can only hold the pace needed to swim a 25-minute pace for 1 500 metres for a few lengths before they start to slow. Eventually the drag increases as the body loses its streamline, water is pushed in the wrong direction, more surface area than is necessary is exposed and stroke length decreases. This all adds up to a slowing of pace. So how do you maintain an efficient stroke and keep the drag numbers low?

As I swim I am always thinking about taking the smallest body profile through the water, and about moving every drop of water possible backwards towards the feet, while using as little effort as possible. This way I know I will be able to repeat the movement over and over again. I try to get my whole body to contribute to the stroke movement, not just my arms. If I do a strong pull set for 400 metres and then repeat the 400 metres while using full stroke front crawl my heart rate will be much lower as the whole body contributes, and no one area seems to be working overly hard as when I’m pulling alone with my arms.

To work on the marginal gains it’s important to think about streamlining your stroke, ironing out as many flaws as possible and trying ingrain as many of these good habits as possible. The only way to achieve this is through continually repeating accurate front crawl to ensure the good habits remain as you overwrite the old unhelpful poor movements. Be sure to think about how the full body contributes to your stroke to keep it as relaxed as possible. As I have mentioned in previous features a good kick is important. This will help with an efficient stroke and also help to distribute the load so your arms aren’t doing all the work and causing your heart rate to spike. If you overly use just your arms you will come out of the water feeling more fatigued than with an efficient kick.

A good way to keep an eye on how efficient you are in the water is to keep an eye on your stroke count, especially during main sets when you are working hardest. Think of your stroke count as a minimum to strive for. Use it as an alarm bell or warning if it goes too high during the session. If you work too hard at keeping stroke length down you can end up going slowing by trying to over glide. Use your rate as a constant guide to check your efficiency.

We’ll have Part Two of this article tomorrow.

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