Category Archives: Technique

bloody swimming. 10 years to become good. Most of the time you feel you are getting worse.

Perfect is the enemy of good

When I started back swimming for the first time since I was a kid, it came a huge but only slowly realised shock that I was the not the excellent swimmer I’d been as a young teenager, when I swam front crawl and butterfly in club for a year or two. I really don’t recall how long it was but it wasn’t club as we’d now know it with six a.m. training, five says a week.

I’d been away from swimming for decades and surfing didn’t really count. As soon as I started back I was breathing bilaterally naturally. After only a few weeks in the pool, not really knowing what I was doing, I swam two miles at Baile Na Gaul on my first open water swim, from the gritty and bleak tiny beach to Helvick Harbour and back. As a surfer, the sea didn’t frighten me and some time later, not knowing anyone there, I double-lapped Sandycove Island by myself, without realising that was a big target for many people. All I recall is that I had no idea of the shape of the island and at one point worrying I’d missed the turn back inside. (You need to swim Sandycove and realise that from outside the coast everything looks flat and similar and inlets disappear) to appreciate this.

So it was fairly reasonable that I thought I wasn’t a bad swimmer. It was another two years before I met Coach Eils, who rapidly disabused me of the notion. Her damning criticisms included “mechanical” and “substituting fitness for flow“.

I have over the years since changed my swimming style quite substantially. Most of it has by necessity been done by myself. But the more you know, often the less you are satisfied. I torture myself endlessly about my stroke and my speed, trying to improve, to get a smidgen more speed that I’ll never find. Is the angle of my arm correct? Are my hands parallel to the surface? What’s my streamline profile? And on and on.

Swimming technique requires constant work just for maintenance, let alone improvement. One effect of this endless treadmill is to sometimes, or in my case more often than not, lose sight of a simple fact.

I don’t have to be a perfect swimmer, to be a good swimmer. The twenty percent time and effort and work that got me eighty per cent of the way, that made me a good swimmer, is far eclipsed by the eighty percent I’ve spent in a seemingly fruitless quest to improve that final twenty percent of technique.

Sometimes you just need to remember how far you have come, rather than fretting over the remaining possible improvements you might never achieve. Not getting faster isn’t necessarily a failure. Maybe you are more relaxed instead, less likely to get injured, or maintaining fitness or speed as you get older.

So much of swimming literature and gurus and advice is aimed at perfection. But chasing perfection is Xeno’s Dichotomy. It’s often more fruitful to look how far you come.

Good enough (donal)

Can you swim comfortably? Are you relaxed in the water? Can you maintain a consistent stroke and stroke rate? Can you adapt to changing open water conditions?  Are you in control? Are you enjoying swimming?

You don’t have to be the best open water swimmer, you just have to be good enough.

 

Checking my Stroke Rate during a swim (including poll)

We’ve spoken before about the importance of stroke rate in open water swimming, especially in cold water to maintain body temperature through thermogenesis and to help in rough water, where a slower stroke rate can be overwhelmed.

It’s also the case that realising that stroke rate was important was something that didn’t happen immediately for me, and though I had been swimming open water for four years, the first time I became aware of it was during my participation in a two-way English channel relay in 2008. Even then I only realised because the Official Observer was checking stroke rates. (As an aside, we had two Official Observer’s, being a two-way. For one of them it was her first Channel trip in choppy water and she was utterly debilitated for the entire twenty-four hours, leaving the other to carry out all Observing duty).

My solo English Channel reports shows I was 70 strokes per minute., +/- , with most right on 70. Consistent. I sometimes check my rate, but usually only after about an hour. So I decided to do a three-hour swim for a more comprehensive check as those occasional observations had led me to believe it may have changed this year, especially as two recent two-hour swims hadn’t gone well and I needed to regain a bit of confidence.

The conditions for the day were cloudy, with very light Force Two breeze, mixed water surface and swim direction, both against and with the small swell, and water temperature of 14.5 Celsius. Good conditions for requiring a consistent stroke. The route was the Guillamene to the Beach to 300 metres outside Newtown Head. I had one feed at two hours at the Guillamene, then swim to under Doneraile Head and back to the Guillamene.  I planned to check stroke approximately every 30 minutes.

Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming club.
Billy Kehoe, President of the Newtown & Guillamene Swimming club.

Stroke rate at 10 mins: 74. I waited until I’d settled down before the first check.

At 30 mins: Just after turning back into waves from Tramore beach; 72

At 60 mins: Passing Comolees, in almost glassy water for next fifteen minutes; 72

At 85 mins: Three hundred metres past Newtown head, just before turning back; 72. Swell had risen from half a metre to two metres and gotten choppy also.

At 90 mins: Swimming back with 2 metre swell behind; 72

At 115 mins: Just before feed; 72

At 130 mins: 10 mins after feed, swell dropping while swimming across waves to out int he bay; 74

At 150: Doneraile Head, heading back out, one metre choppy; 74

At 180: Swimming across swell to Guillamene, just before end of swim; 76. I nearly always up my rate at the end of a swim.

Newtown head from the sea
Newtown Head from the sea

So this did seem to confirm my suspicion that my stroke rate has shifted up by two strokes per minute. A point that may arise is my observational bias or confidence in the readings, but I before each measurement (full 60 second count on my watch, rather than ten second count multiplied by six) I would become more aware of my stroke, and make sure I wasn’t adjusting tempo.

The relevant question would be as to why it has shifted upwards.

Seeing my stroke on video during the SwimSmooth clinic back in February was a shocking. I hadn’t seen any video of myself in a couple of years, and there are speed and technique downsides to swimming by yourself most of the time. My stroke looked terrible. For the next two weeks I reintroduced a lot of technique work and after that I went back to basic principles and make sure to that one day most weeks is mostly technique and drill work. There has been an improvement.

When having my stroke filmed I asked Paul Newsome to shoot both my cruising stroke and my faster stroke. My cruising or open water stroke is a bilateral-breathing stroke and it was fine. But the most significant discovery was just how much technique I was sacrificing in the faster stroke for not a lot of time benefit. A crossover had crept into my left arm, and I was losing a lot of pull in my catch and pull phase on both arms. I’d also developed a slight thumb-first entry on my right hand. And all this was only gaining me maybe one to two seconds per one hundred metres. All surprising and disheartening developments when I didn’t think I exhibited any of these problems. I made a common swimmer’s mistake of being sure I was in tune with my stroke.

So I began working on all these problems with various drills, the toolbox of all swimmers. I might go over the drills I have been using just for general interest in a follow-up post. Along with drills I have stayed in the pool this summer, whereas in 2010 to 2012 I abandoned it for almost four months for open water, (not just for this reason). This has led to me retaining a higher anaerobic capability or threshold capacity.

Finally, within my pool work I have reduced the number of repeat 100s, so common to distance swimmers, and I am instead doing more repeat 200s and 400s (well, every distance swimmer loves 400s anyway, so that’s no sacrifice). And I’ve been doing more timed 1000’s. Not so much 1500s. All this has led to a (currently) improved stroke. The biggest change has been that I am retaining my bilateral stroke while swimming closer to my threshold.

Following all this, I need to reiterate that 70 or 72 strokes per minute is my rate. It’s not a target. We all have our own rate and you should seek to establish that rate and determine from there whether it is your normal rate, or whether you may wish to increase it. It’s even possible that if your are just wind-milling your arms with a poor stroke, if you address stroke issue you may actually even decrease your rate.

What’s your stroke rate?

Returning to Swimming

I recently came across this fantastic and simple chart that an experienced swimmer wrote about returning to swimming after a few year’s hiatus.

As swimmers we actually often forget or don’t realise how fit we are, or at least how well adjusted we are to the requirements of regular swimming.

This simple chart explains better than anything I have ever seen. Thanks to Mister Siren for this.

As one commenter in the original location said:

“to think there was a time when I couldn’t understand how swimming made people tired…”

Cool dynamic apnea video

This is great. It falls into the category of dynamic apnea, (holding your breath while moving). Most freediving falls into the same category (I think one event, dropping on a weighted sled, might not).

Static apnea would be just holding your breath.

It’s the pool setting of this that will resonate for most of us. The same guy is one the two joint holders of the “with fins” category, which is 265 metres.

Almost nine 25 metre pool lengths.

Swimming breathing patterns

I just did a 5k session of alternate breathing rhythms. Part of that was 1k straight breathing on my wrong side. I remember the first time I tried to do that 3 or 4 years ago, I couldn’t make it past 400 metres and my neck got really stiff and sore.

When I started swimming I was naturally (and luckily), breathing every 3 strokes bi-laterally. (Breathing to each side). Eilís introduced me to hypoxic training for the Channel double-relay. Hypoxic training essentially means reducing your body’s oxygen delivery ability and is a standard in swim training. It increases cardio-vascular capability which improves swimming, but it also useful for open water swimmers, allowing you to develop a greater range of breathing patterns.

If you are out swimming and the wind changes such that chop or waves are coming from the side you breathe on, you may encounter significant difficulties.

Also, at least as important, if it an accompanied swim and you have a boat on the side of you that you can’t look toward, you will both collide with and veer away from the boat, and end up swimming further or swimming into obstructions. And the boat can’t always changes sides. In rough weather the boat may have to be between you and the wind.

It’s not essential to be able to breathe on both sides, but it is highly recommended. If I hadn’t seen Ned’s ability to only breathe to his right, and still do well, I would have said essential.

So today I did:

1500 bi-lateral
3 x 500 breathing every 3,4l,5,4r,5,7
1000 breathing 4l
2 x 500 3,5,4l,4r, on 8mins.

Adjust as required.
Maybe do some 100s of 3,5,7,9,5,7,3.
Or alternate sides on 100.

Phelp’s Freestyle multi-camera angles & slow

Nice YouTube video. He’s not the most famous or best freestyler ever but he’s still one of the best and better than any of us will ever be.  The kick is amazing to see from the side, especially for us long distance swimmers who barely move our legs.

Here’s the same clip but with Phelps compared to a specialist freestyler.