Swimming Part 2

This post is a continuation of a post I wrote a few weeks back called “My Swim Perspective.” In that post my intention was to show you how difficult and disheartening a journey swim improvement can be; particularly, if you have started trying to swim FAST later on in life (i.e. post high school). That is not to say that some people who start later on in life don’t see rapid improvement (I know of someone who swam 26s for 50m long course in only their second time ever swimming!!; then was immediately invited to swim with the likes of Ryan Cochrane and others). Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us “late bloomers” we can only hope to become good swimmers in 5-10 years, and there certainly is no guarantee (and by good swimmers I mean sub 19 minutes for 1500m).

I should preface this post with the fact that I have been trying to solve the puzzle of why I suck at swimming for about 3.5 years now. For only about 1.5 of that have I came to the conclusion that it is a technical flaw and not a systemic flaw. I have had many ideas reverberating around in my head as to why I am so slow, but it wasn’t until I read a book written by someone with some clout that it sealed the deal for me. The book I read is called “Swim Speed Secrets” by Sheila Taormina (Olympic swimming gold medallist and triathlon world champion). It has some great pictures in it of what good swimming looks like (the important elements), but most importantly it gives a sound logic as to how good swimmers swim fast. If you are late to swimming, or are flabbergasted by how much faster good swimmers are than you, I would highly recommend this book.

The biggest difficulty I have experienced with regards to swimming is that there is an overwhelming amount of information out there. Some people claim that good body position allows you to swim fast. Others argue it is a nice supple recovery phase that allows you to swim fast. Back in the day, you needed a nice S-pull in order to swim fast. Still others claim you need to increase your distance per stroke. More hip roll. Lower head position. Swim down-hill. Higher turnover. Lead with the elbow during the recovery. Stronger kick. Less breathing. Don’t break the wrist. Stop crossing the midline. Enter the water further out. Finish the stroke. Better fitness. Stronger lats. More flexibility. These are all comments that have been made as to what I need to do in order to swim faster. If you go to five different coaches, you will get five different explanations as to what you need to do to become a better swimmer.

Often times this leads to information overload. You have ten different elements of the stroke reverberating around in your mind when you get to the pool. You then spend a tiny bit of time trying to improve each one, which is not enough time to groove any of them, and so ultimately it is just time wasted and you are no further ahead. Additionally, you may become overwhelmed and say to heck with technical improvements I am just going to swim a ton and my body will be forced to adopt more efficient ways of swimming (I have taken this route as well). To this group I say: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent,” as well as, “you often get really good at swimming bad.” The first key principle of swim improvement that I have realized, is that you must choose one thing to improve. Not for today, not for this week, I’m talking one thing to focus on over the next 2-3 months, perhaps even an entire season. That’s it.

But what is that one element? Should I just randomly choose one of the comments mentioned above and then go about trying to correct it? In Sheila’s book she applies an economic principal to swimming, namely, the 80-20 rule. She claims (and I agree) that 80 percent of your forward propulsion is coming from 20 percent of the elements of the stroke. Said another way, 80 percent of the elements of the stroke only contribute to 20 percent of your forward propulsion. Of course, these are generalizations, but you get the point. Most people (myself included up until fairly recently) are working on improving the 80 percent of elements that only contribute to 20 percent of their forward propulsion. Thus, after years of practice, they see very little gains in speed.

Unfortunately, I do not have 20-30 years to spend working on improving my stroke. I am 25 and it appears the window of opportunity to be competitive on the international scale in long-course triathlon is about 18-40. In other words, I’ve got about 14 years left to be competitive. I need to see improvement as fast as I possibly can. Of course, I would love to master every little nuance of the stroke, but I don’t have time for that. I need the most bang for my buck! So where do you get the most bang for your buck? Once again, ask five different coaches and you will get five different answers. The most recent answer I was given to that question was “more body roll.” I am swimming too flat apparently. I don’t doubt that this is true, but is more body roll going to propel me forward faster?

Sheila gives a good analogy in her book and I will apply it to body roll here. Get into the pool and lie face down in the water. Roll your hips only slightly from side to side. Do you move forward? Okay, now roll your hips with a bit more force from side to side. Do you move forward? Now really crank your hips from side to side. How much faster did you move forward? I am assuming that most of you did not move forward in any of those instances. Rolling your hips from side to side does not create forward propulsion. It may aid in forward propulsion, but the key piece here is that you are already propelling yourself forward!

Since this is a triathlon blog, I will give another analogy. If you are driving your bike at 10 kilometers per hour a time-trial bike, spandex suit and aero-helmet are not going to improve your times much. You are not moving very fast. On the other hand, if you are moving at 50 kilometers per hour, you are going to see massive improvements with these more aerodynamic pieces of equipment. In this example, exertion (or wattage output) is going to go down for someone riding at 50 kilometers per hour with all the aerodynamic equipment, in comparison to someone riding in the upright position with a road helmet and loose clothing on. This same example can be applied to swimming. If you are not moving very fast, certain technical improvements are not going to increase your speed very much. If you are moving really slow and roll your hips more, it is not going to make you much faster. On the other hand, as you move progressively faster, those minor technical elements become progressively more important, because everything is being amplified due to your speed.

The take home message is that you need to be moving fast for many of the elements of the stroke to have much effect. You can have the most relaxed, beautiful recovery phase in the entire world, but that will not translate into fast swimming. So then, what causes you to move forward in swimming? The UNDERWATER PULL! If you are a pure swimmer, your kick may also contribute to forward propulsion, but for the vast majority of triathlon swimmers, kicking contributes minimally to forward propulsion.

There you have it, the secret to swimming. I challenge you to look at pictures, watch videos, and analyse the fast swimmers at the pool. What do they all have in common? Check out this video, do you notice anything all of the swimmers have in common?:

As I was getting passed repeatedly in swim practice I noticed this same phenomenon. They all had this really weird thing they were doing with their arm. It almost looked unnatural (and it is, hence why so many people struggle with swimming!!! Particularly, “late bloomers” who lack flexibility!). Before they really started to exert backwards against the water they would let their hand and forearm drop down below their elbow until it was perpendicular to the bottom of the pool. Once they got to this point they then started to accelerate the hand, forearm and elbow backwards as a single unit. I noticed that for the most part, the degree to which a swimmer was able to do this, was directly related to how fast they could swim.

I challenge you to find a good swimmer (sub 19 minutes for 1500m) who is not relatively proficient at this. I am certain that you can find good swimmers of various heights and builds, with various stroke rates, recoveries, kick patterns, breathing patterns, strength of kick, hip roll, etc. But I have yet to encounter a good swimmer who does not to some extent have what is known as an “early vertical forearm” or “high elbow pull through.”

The motivating part here is that water is about 1000 times more dense than air. Thus, if you can improve your pull even slightly, it will greatly improve your speed. In my next post I will present how I am going about improving my underwater pull. Hopefully that is enough food for thought.

2 thoughts on “Swimming Part 2

  1. Lionel, I agree with you and share in your frustration with swimming. I, too, do not come from a swimming background and my swim progression pretty much parallels yours. I have tried to improve my flexibility and range of motion to try to get into a better high elbow pull position but I have a feeling that I am reaching my limits with this. Something tells me this position would have been much more easily learned at the age of 6 when my tendons and neuromuscular system were more easily altered.

    One thing I have been experimenting with is my kick. The 2 commonalities amongst high level swimmers are 1. A high elbow pull and 2. a very strong kick. I figured if I can’t get into a better pull position, why not try and work on my weak triathlete kick. I swim with Keith Beavers, who is an ex Olympian that can throw down a 55s 100m free any day of the week. I can pull with him fairly easily but his kick kills mine. He laps me on 300’s kick. So I decided to dedicate 1 day a week to just improving my kick……and, it seems to be making me faster. I’ve been tracking my progress with a 1k kick time trial once a month. I’ve improved from 20:00 down to 18:30 over 3 months and my 800m free time has improved 20s over the same time period. My thinking is that my kick was not only hurting me aerobically before but was also leading me to have a poor body position (ie increasing drag). I feel like I am sitting higher in the water now, almost hydroplaning. Anyways, keep up the hard work and let me know how the stretching works out for you. Plan B may be to work on your kick:o)

  2. Thanks for the comment Nick. As for flexibility, I think this is only part of the equation. The necessary movements (internal rotation of the humerus inside the shoulder joint for instance, allowing the forearm to drop down perpendicular to the bottom of the pool) is extremely difficult to execute with poor flexibility. Once you have a decent amount of flexibility you are then better able to execute the appropriate movements. The problem is that these are not natural movements for most. For instance, if I stand in front of a mirror and rotate the humerus inside the shoulder joint, and then drop the forearm and hand down towards the bicep, this is extremely taxing. Now, suspend me in water, and turn the exertion knob up substantially, and the movement is nearly impossible. Add poor flexibility…and then the movement is impossible. This is my theory anyway. Flexibility + dryland training to strengthen mind-muscle connection = possibility of executing a high-elbow pull once suspended in water (with the help of drills in the water to slow the stroke down and practice the movement in the new medium).

    As for the kicking, admittedly, this is one element of the stroke that I have neglected to work on. I would say this is mainly because I have witnessed some very good swimmers, who could swim fast with minimal kicking. But, this is definitely something I will have to tinker around with in the future. Thanks for the input!

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