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.
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.
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?
- Review: Swimming paddles (loneswimmer.com)