The Off-Season Part 1

So far I am really enjoying the offseason. I am not training much less than I was in the summer, the only difference is that I don’t have any races in the immediate future. Because there are no races anytime soon I have been able to focus on improving my weaknesses. Here are some of the major aspects of triathlon listed in order of what I believe to be their potential return on time invested for me:

  1. Swimming
  2. Biking
  3. Nutrition
  4. Smarter training
  5. Strength training
  6. Better rehab (e.g. massage)
  7. Sleep
  8. Running

As you can see, swimming tops the list. Swimming has been very frustrating for me. I have done sport all my life and generally catch onto things quickly. Swimming has not worked this way for me. It has been a long, slow and trying journey. Since I’ve been back in Windsor I have been working with several different swim coaches through the Windsor Aquatic Club. For the last few weeks I have been working with Mike McWah, who was a national record holder in the 1500m at one time (15:04 I believe). The first time he watched me swim I think he nearly had a heart attack. When I told him I was a professional triathlete and had finished 4th at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship his response was something very close to “oh wow, I thought you were just some really fit guy who can’t swim.” For ego preserving purposes, I chalked his comment up to having really high swim standards.

Just over a week ago I had a one on one swim session with him. It was long course. He had me swimming some hundreds around lactate threshold and asked me to count my strokes. I was taking about 52-55 strokes per 50m. He pretty much laughed at me. I wasn’t offended though, in fact, I think this is exactly what I needed. Afterwards he showed me a bunch of ways to reduce the stroke count e.g. catch further out, finish the stroke better, hold onto the water better, kick harder, work the turns more, etc. He then said that I was no longer allowed to take any more than 16 strokes to get across the short course 25m pool. My response was, “is that a joke!? When swimming my best I take 22 strokes!” He told me that the vast majority of the swimmers on his national development team take 14 strokes or less. He sympathized with me and said I was allowed to take 18, but absolutely no more.

For the next 24 hours all I could do was wonder how the heck I was going to get across the pool taking only 18 strokes. The next day Erin and I went to the pool and she began coaching me on how I was to accomplish the task. In the beginning I really had to slow the stroke rate down, and kick a lot more. I intended on doing some 50s on 1 minute. I was able to take 17 strokes to get across the pool but it took me 54 seconds to swim the 50 and I felt very taxed. One minute was too fast of a pace time. I thought to myself, “oh great, now I’m getting worse at swimming!” But I trusted that there was a method to McWah’s madness. I kept plugging away at it and Erin kept giving me lots of feedback e.g. your pull is going really wide, you’ve got this weird pause in your stroke now, your recovery is really wide now, your entry is too far out now, etc.

In just two days I began grooving the new stroke. Very quickly I was able to take 15 strokes to get across the pool if really lengthening the stroke out, and 17 was becoming quite relaxed. I also watched the times come down steadily from 54s for 50 meters initially, down to 3:00 for 200m. Three days later the pool went to long course and I was able to hold sub 1:30 for my hundreds on a 1:40 pace time. The part that was really interesting was that the most strokes I took to get across the pool the entire 4500m swim set was 37 (i.e. 18.5/25m, which I assumed was acceptable with less walls). Normally I would make it across the pool in 50 strokes at best. If you do the math using the max and min strokes i.e. 37 strokes max with new stroke and 50 strokes min with old stroke, I took about 1170 less strokes than I normally would. And to be quite honest, I normally would not have swam much faster.

I thought this was very fascinating. For swimming 4500m long course I didn’t feel very taxed, at least not nearly as taxed as usual. So I started thinking about the concept even more. I created this chart to help me visual what was happening:

Stroke Rate (sec/stroke) for Stroke Count x Time (per 100m)


15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
1:30 1.50 1.41 1.32 1.25 1.18 1.13 1.07 1.02 0.98 0.94 0.90
1:25 1.42 1.33 1.25 1.18 1.12 1.06 1.01 0.97 0.92 0.89 0.85
1:20 1.33 1.25 1.18 1.11 1.05 1.00 0.95 0.91 0.87 0.83 0.80
1:15 1.25 1.17 1.10 1.04 0.99 0.94 0.89 0.85 0.82 0.78 0.75
1:10 1.17 1.09 1.03 0.97 0.92 0.88 0.83 0.80 0.76 0.73 0.70

Keep in mind that these numbers do not take into account turning. Regardless, the point is that a lot more energy is required to hold 22 strokes per 25m than is required to hold 18 strokes per 25m. In fact, the stroke rate required to hold 1:30/100m using 22 strokes to get across the pool, is faster than the stroke rate required to swim 1:10/100m using 17 strokes to get across the pool. Of course, it will require more strength to hold a stroke count of 17 at a stroke rate of 1.03s/stroke than to hold 22 strokes at a stroke rate of 1.03s/stroke. But, swimming in my head has never really been a strength game. I’ve always thought of it as a cardiovascular game.

One of the big problems for me with looking at it as a cardiovascular game is that I tense up every muscle in my body trying to get the stroke rate higher and higher. Because my cardiovascular system is good, I am able to achieve the stroke rate necessary taking 22-25 strokes per length, to swim a 1:10 hundred. The problem is that because I am so tense, there is virtually no recovery phase in the stroke and so the stroke is unsustainable for much longer than 100m. Along with trying to attain progressively higher stroke rates, I hold the water less and less, and when I am swimming at my highest stroke rate, it will take me up to 30 strokes to get across a 25m pool.

Long story short, I have had a paradigm shift in my swim training. The best swimmers in the world develop a particular stroke and then that stroke doesn’t vary much. What varies is the stroke rate, not so much the stroke length or count. Don’t believe me, check out this cool video of perhaps one of the smoothest swimmers in the world:

I have been honing my new stroke for exactly 9 days. In that time I am already doing the fastest swimming I have ever done, and taking significantly less strokes to do it. Today for instance I had a piece in my set where I was holding 1:18/100m on a 1:30 pace time, taking at most 18 strokes per 25m. In another piece I was holding 2:38 for 200m on a 3:10 pace time, taking only 18 strokes per 25m. The most interesting part of the whole thing is that the stroke is significantly less taxing. I guess it makes sense as I am taking significantly less strokes than I used to. What I am quickly finding is that it is not my cardiovascular system that is limiting me, but my muscular endurance and strength. This is great though as these are areas that I am certain I can improve in the water, whereas with my old stroke, I couldn’t imagine improving my cardiovascular system by any large amounts.

If you’ve been having trouble with your swimming perhaps this is an aspect of your problem. This new approach has changed my thoughts about swimming completely. My motivation to swim has gone up tenfold as I now feel that I know what the problem is and how to go about fixing it.

In my next post I will talk about my second biggest area for improvement and that is the bike. Thanks for reading.

19 thoughts on “The Off-Season Part 1

  1. Always love your posts, so honest. I’m going to swim classes now and this is the same thing were working on. I’ve gone from 27 down to 22 strokes and still working. Doing a lot of drills and trying to slow down. Best of luck this year, enjoy following you.

    • Thanks man. Great to hear you’re improving. Swam 4300m long course today. Must be starting to recruit the right muscles…I could distinctly feel my lats popping out more than usual when I put my arms at my side, immediately afterwards. I will take this as a good sign! Super super tired muscularly though. Very interesting experience for it to be the muscles giving out and not the mind / cardiovascular system saying “no more!”

      Best of luck to you as well.

  2. Thanks for the post – love to hear how hard you’re working this offseason. I’m going to Hawaii in february for 3 weeks and am looking forward to training my but off in the 28 degree sun instead of the rain here in vancouver (although I guess that’s better than the winter you guys put up with)

  3. wow! It was a pleasure to read, that is like reading about myself. Need to get a swim coach ASAP. Thanks for the update a huge help. All the best for 2015. 🏊

  4. Hey Lionel, quick question regarding strength. I have always had a similar opinion as you do, in that I’m not strong enough in the swim phase. I have a decent engine but felt I must be lacking in strength. Then a young teenager would hop into the lane next to me, no bigger then a broom handle and just fly up and down the pool. That would send me back to the drawing board on strength. I guess it lies with the combo of Endurance + Strength? And without proper technique, it wouldn’t matter either way??

    • I have definitely experienced this as well. First, I would say their strength to weight ratio is probably greater than ours. As well, we may look and be really strong doing large muscle recruitment exercises e.g. squats or bench press, if we could somehow find an exercise other than swimming that isolates the exact muscles required to hold onto the water well, I think we would find that the kids would make us look like weaklings. Additionally, our body position is probably not as good as the kids, nor is our kick, so we will have more drag to overcome and less propulsion from kicking, thus will be required to have more strength than them and will likely need greater muscle mass.

      Equally as important though is the recovery phase. I’m not sure about you, but I can swim 1:15/100m pace for 100m. I could probably do 10 of these on a 2 minute pace time. But because I am such a “muscley” swimmer I contract just about every muscle in my body to do this, and don’t really release them much until I stop swimming. By virtue of having less muscle mass and likely because they are more comfortable in water, the small kids have to be more relaxed. This makes their strokes far more sustainable than ours.

      It’s a complex issue but I am finding that strength applied with the right muscles, in the right direction, coupled with progressively more recovery in the recovery phase of the stroke, is what the best swimmers do best.

  5. This looks like quality analysis and cool to see the stroke rates really analyzed like this, after swimming for a while and continuing to watch stroke rate on many main sets and having a number of 17-18 per 25m consistently , I’ve often wondered the purpose of continuing to do this.

    I’m curious as to how this has translated into “race speed” and if you have done any tests of your all out effort swims such as 400m, 1500m, etc.? I’ve noticed by doing tests like this it helps to put a race into perspective and see if I can hold this same stroke rate without really thinking about it, and it works pretty well. Also kind of interesting, since doing a big swim block over the winter I have held the same stroke rate from the start. Having a 1500m test of 21:42 ( 17-18 strokes per 25m roughly) to now 18:36 with the same stroke rate. With a 3 month development phase to reach these improvements, will now look to lower stroke rate slightly and retest after the now additional 2 month development phase, will be interesting to see if I can lower it to a swimmers stroke rate of around 14 through better streamline!

    Second thing is I was wondering if your coachs swimmers are doing sub 14 stroke rates, as opposed to an “ok” stroke rate of 17-18 due to a quality underwater streamline along with a few dolphin kicks? I’ve noticed swimming varsity that this is a big place where “swimmers” cut down their stroke rate, which hasn’t really made them any faster, they just work the underwaters a little more than I do.

    • Thanks for the comment Loren. That is some amazing improvements you have made. You seem to be a testament to the sort of logic I am discussing above.

      I haven’t done a test yet. I’m still finding the stroke to be very mentally taxing. I’ve been swimming with such a muscley and rushed stroke for so long now that virtually every time I make a turn my muscle memory says something like “turn your arms over as fast as you can!!!” and I have to hold myself back and consciously not rush the stroke. I am definitely starting to groove the new stroke (and it looks and feels very different than the old stroke) but it will take quite a while for it to become automatic. I think in one months time I will do my first test, once I’ve got a good handle on things.

      Your logic is the same as mine. My goal is to develop the strength to hold 18 strokes at a good stroke rate over the course of several months…In a perfect world, something like 18 strokes/25m for 2000m holding a 1:20 pace. Once this is achieve, I would then begin incorporating more sets to hold 16 or 17 strokes /25m, without reducing the stroke rate by much. My theory is that in this way, swim training is much closer to bike training. On the bike I will start the season at say 30 seconds @400w with big recovery. Over time I will increase that to 1 minute, 2 minutes, and even 10 minutes as I did just last week. This really is all “strength” and “power”, similar to being able to hold 17 strokes at progressively faster stroke rates. Once you achieve a duration necessary for your pursuits (400w for 10 minutes for example, for me) you have the choice of continuing to hold for longer durations, or increasing the power. So, just yesterday, I began increasing the power on the bike, and was holding 420w for 3 minute intervals, and will repeat the same process. I think this is a similar logic to what we are talking about in the water.

      I will be interested to hear you progress over the coming months. Best of luck. And thanks for the comment.

      • As for the dolphin kicks, yes, the young kids who are doing 14 or less strokes are utilizing dolphin kicks. And I would agree that the kids who are taking around the 14 stroke count probably would take 17-18 without the kicks. Many of the swimmers are taking 10-12 strokes though, and they would more likely be in the 12-14 range even without the dolphin kicks. For my purposes, these have virtually no value, other than trying to teach the body and mind to stay relaxed off the wall i.e. while in a state of oxygen deprivation. I do a glide off the wall, but no dolphin kicks. In my opinion, whatever method you use, as long as you don’t change that method, your improvement will be real. If you reduce your stroke count because you took 10 dolphin kicks off the wall, and previously you did none, than that likely isn’t real improvement. I’ve controlled for the issue just by not doing any dolphin kicks.

      • Really appreciate the awesome responses to these! I’m sure if I made these improvements so quickly, you will be able to do the same with your work ethic, seems like a far fetched goal of getting to top level swimming, but I’ve come to realize it’s easier than many think, with the right mindset!

        I can see how rushing your stroke comes naturally as the reaction when swimming, during this block of swimming I’ve really noticed swimming is really about keeping calm, smooth and relaxed in the water, and on the turns, as you noted, staying underwater for a little longer will really help air deprivation and translate well into triathlon when you feel the need to enter “panic mode”. Something I like to keep in my folder of thoughts while swimming which you may find beneficial is thinking “Easy speed” when the going gets tough in a race/workout, very fast, but very relaxed stroke does wonders to maintaining speed and endurance.

        Sounds like a cool way to do progressive bike workouts and truly gain strength in cycling, will have to give it a try, bike/run will be my next project!

        I will do a summary of my progress to get to this level once OUA swimming is complete, this will show my complete winter block of swimming 1500m improvement, with training time logged and things I have learned!

        Looking forward to seeing the swim progress you achieve, you sitting in the 1st or 2nd pack of swimmers will surely scare competition early!

  6. Lionel, swimming has always been my weakest of disciplines and there was a time where I thought that Total Immersion and long strokes were for me. That is until I read this:
    So first, I wonder if you ended up kicking more with these longer strokes. It may be great for a swimmer, but too taxing for a triathlete? I would be curious how this translates in OWS for you and if you feel any impact on your bike/run.
    Second, I wonder what was the rationale for your coach to ask you to take lesser strokes. I mean, knowing how the stroke rate affects people of different heights and builds differently, did he have a stroke of genius with you or is this a proved method with all the people he coached, including triathletes?

    • Hey Irina. This is definitely something to be conscious of. I think the key word on the Swim Smooth page is “overly long.” Taking 25 strokes to get across a 25m pool for someone my height would be the exact opposite of the problem they are pointing out. If I were to strive to take 12 strokes to get across the pool I would definitely fall into the “overly long” category, as my wingspan is not very long, nor is my feel for the water that great. 16-18 strokes seems to be an efficient stroke count for me without the addition of the negative features talked about on that page. Everyone’s “problem” will be different. My problem was / is swimming with a “muscley” stroke, rushing the catch phase and pulling my hand out prematurely, without finishing the stroke completely. This has lead me to take 22-25 strokes, and for those strokes to be very taxing because of all the tension in the muscles. In just 11 days of swimming with my new stroke I am already holding sub 1:20/100m continuously and it not feel very taxing. I can’t say this has ever been true in the past. I am swimming nearly 5000m per swim, and have the desire to keep swimming, as I am not feeling very taxed, at least not like I used to. But, even by triathlon swimming standards, 1:20/100m is pedestrian. I averaged 1:22/100m at 70.3 Worlds and I was dead last out of the water by nearly a minute! Thus, if you ever want to make second swim pack, 1:20/100m should not feel very taxing. For me, reducing my stroke count seems to really be putting my stroke in the right direction. Not everyone will have the same “problem” as me though.

      • I appreciate your answer, Lionel. Can’t wait to see what kind of damage you’ll do in the field, especially if you manage to get out of the water less fatigued than before. I can’t possibly compare myself to you as I swim 2:20/100m and take 30 strokes per 25m, but it’s definitely something to try. Improving stroke length is probably a must for everyone who has a “muscly” style as you say. Mine must be plainly too inefficient to count. I’d be curious to see a swim coach who can give me a “baseline” number of strokes that may be suited for me. I may have to pay a visit to your coach because I’ve been plateau-ing for a while. Have a great season and I will be interested to read more about your swim progress in the future.

  7. Very nice work Lionel. Funny thing is I struggle with the same issue. My glide is to long so we have been working on trying to get a quicker turnover. Im at the point now that my turnover is so quick that Im not finishing my stroke on the pull. I’ve only been doing this for 3 years but I have seen some good gains. Started at a 2:10 pace and am down to 1:43 pace. Would be happy around a 1:20-1:30 pace. Like you I have always been a natural at all sports growing up and can pick up on things very easily, but the technique to swimming has come slowly to me. Doesn’t help that being Canadian and playing hockey all my life has left little flexibility in my ankles.
    Congrats on all your success and it has been a pleasure to watch your journey from your dark days to where you are now. You are a product of your own success with hard work as no one else is going to do it for you. Bigger and better things are in your grasp. Enjoy the pleasures of your hard work and take the time to stop now and then to enjoy the moment as life goes by way to fast at times.
    Continued success and take care.

    • Nice improvements man. It’s tough to get the muscle memory of the old stroke out. I’ve been grooving the longer stroke for about 3 weeks, and saw some big improvements. I started to really enjoy the speed gains and kept reducing pace times because I was able to make them. But…old muscle memory slowly started to take over and actually regressed a bit. Taking it slower now and not allowing the pace times to drop much until the new stroke is deeply ingrained in the muscle memory. Best of luck this year. Hopefully I’ll see you around.

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