The swimming stroke is not unlike a golf swing: a complicated, interconnected series of fine and gross muscular movements. For the few who do it well, it appears fluid, natural, unified, and effortless. For most, the movements of swimming and golf can feel unnatural, difficult to integrate, and frustratingly unamenable to brute force.
Even those who have mastered the swimming stroke/golf swing can develop subtle technique flaws, of which they may not even be aware. One must maintain constant vigilance against these creeping flaws, ideally through a combination of mindful practice, well-selected drills, coaching, and video analysis.
One method I find useful in maintaining proper form and guarding against creeping flaws is: stroke thoughts. I didn’t invent this phrase or idea, but I define it as: simple, succinct technique pointers repeated subvocally (internally) while swimming.
In practice, I use stroke thoughts most often at the beginning of a session (while warming up), or when I feel myself lapsing (mentally or physically) in the middle of a workout or race. I repeat each thought by itself for a few stroke cycles, focusing on just that single part of my stroke, before moving to the next thought. Basically, I’m “checking in” with each part of my stroke.
I use seven specific stroke thoughts, starting with the hand entry and proceeding through the catch, pull, hip drive, and kick.
1. “middle finger first”
I have a slight tendency for a thumb-first entry, especially on my right/breathing side. So, I focus on keeping my hand in a neutral position as it enters, fingertips parallel to the surface of the water, with the middle/longest finger entering first.
When I get fatigued and/or cold, I have a slight tendency to shorten my stroke too much and rush the catch. So, I focus on reaching forward before I initiate the pull. Notice I did not say glide. I don’t pause at the front of my stroke, like catch-up drill. I’m simply trying to reach forward a bit more. The reaching motion comes from body rotation, which in turn comes from hip drive. (Everything is interconnected!)
3. “fingers down”
When I finish reaching forward, I tilt my wrist slightly and point my fingers toward the bottom of the pool. I try to keep them pointed toward the bottom (not angled to the side, not horizontal) all the way through my pull.
4. “elbows high”
I sometimes drop my left elbow slightly as I breathe to the right, especially with fatigue. This is not only less efficient, but can also irritate my left shoulder. So, I focus on keeping that elbow high, “grabbing” the water with my lats, all the way through the pull.
5. “pull straight back”
No “S”-stroke. Straight back. Like a big paddle.
6. “tight kick”
I sometimes do a slight scissor-kick as I breathe. This is an unconscious compensation for the slight “unbalancing” caused by my breathing motion. However, it greatly increases drag. So, I focus on keeping my kick tight, kneecaps close together and toes pointed inward. This has the follow-on benefit of forcing me to take a more efficient and balanced breathing motion. (Everything is interconnected!)
7. “drive the hips”
With fatigue, I also tend to rotate less, increasing the burden on my shoulders. Ironically, this causes me to become even more fatigued. So, I focus on driving my rotation from my hips, less from my arms and shoulders.
After I cycle through my seven stroke thoughts, I turn my brain off and focus on the overall rhythm and “feel” of my stroke. If something still doesn’t feel quite right, I cycle through the stroke thoughts again and try to identify where things are breaking down.
Notice I’ve said almost nothing about the recovery phase of the stroke. I don’t think much about my recovery because frankly, it doesn’t much matter. It doesn’t contribute to either propulsion or drag reduction, because it’s happening above the water.
What matters is what happens under the water. That’s why elite swimmers display a wide variation of recovery styles, but are comparatively similar under water. Think Janet Evans vs. Sun Yang.
Important note: Stroke thoughts are intended as a temporary “check-in” or tune-up. Like with the golf swing, over-thinking can lead to paralysis. In the middle of a long swim or tough interval set, I’m mostly trying to focus on rhythm, flow, and feel.
Here’s a video of me swimming 100 yards at the recent Swim Smooth coaching clinic in Livermore. Which stroke thoughts should I be focusing on?
Last month I crewed for Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome on his victorious Manhattan Island Marathon Swim.
It was a great honor and pleasure to meet and spend the weekend with Paul, his business partner Adam, his paddler Amanda, and all the rest of the Perth squad. They treated me very well, and I left New York City with a swirling headful of inspiring memories and new friendships.
I’ll defer to Paul’s story of his own swim. Instead, these are more general reflections on the experience of seeing MIMS from on the water – quite different, naturally, than being in the water.
But first, a few thoughts on this unusual edition of the world’s longest annually-held marathon swim race.
MIMS 2013 was a disappointing, even heartbreaking experience for a number of very accomplished and competent marathon swimmers. Of the 39 soloists who started from Pier A, only 11 made it around the island unassisted - compared to 100% finish rates in 2011 and 2012.
It was a perfect storm of bad luck. Perhaps some human error (as should be expected in chaotic, stressful situations), but mostly just bad luck:
There may be (and has been) a tendency to blame the event organizers for the disappointing outcome. And while I don’t mean to completely absolve the organizers of blame - again, I don’t have enough information to judge (and neither do you!) - I would caution people against this tendency. I would encourage them to think of how many things have to go right in order for an event as complicated as MIMS to go off in the first place.
What does it say that people have come to expect 100% success rates?
Nothing is “guaranteed” in marathon swimming. Shelling out $1000s doesn’t entitle you to a successful swim – unfortunately, even for those whom the $1000s are actually significant.
All that being said: lessons learned from Paul’s swim?
“Expect the unexpected.”
A well-worn chestnut of open water swimming, of which MIMS 2013 often reminded us. The day before the race, the Daily News of Open Water Swimming reported on the apparent female domination of MIMS, proclaiming one the “overwhelming favorite.” Instead, men swept the podium, 1-2-3.
Ignore the chaos in the East River – it means nothing. Shut up and swim.
All sorts of odd stuff happens in the East River. At one point, 9th-place finisher John Hughes found a current and was actually leading the field. He ended up 50 minutes behind Paul. Typically, swimmers are in the East River somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours, out of a 7.5-to-10 hour race. Nobody wins MIMS in the East River – or loses it. So forget about the race and conserve your energy – both physical and mental. You’ll need it later.
Train for the worst case scenario.
The “observed qualifying swim” for MIMS 2013 was 4 hours at a water temp of 61F. Why 61F? Because historically in early June, the water in the NYC region _could _be in the low 60s. Are you prepared for 7-8-9 hours at 61F? The fact that two swimmers were pulled for hypothermia less than 2 hours into the race indicates that some were simply not prepared.
“A grim patch.”
Memorable words spoken by fellow boat crew Adam via marine radio to paddler Amanda, instructing her to move Paul around a certain spot in the Harlem River. Probably for naught – it was all pretty grim. Paul was sick for two weeks afterward.
The importance of good pilots.
There are meaningful differences among boat pilots, in knowledge, skill, and frankly, how much they care. If you’re trying to win MIMS, these differences matter. For the sightseers, I suppose, it matters less.
Moreover, in MIMS, there are actually _two _pilots. The boat pilot and the kayaker. This contrasts with a channel swim in the open ocean, where the boat can set a consistent course that the kayaker mirrors. In the crowded waterways of Manhattan, the boat is more of a roving escort and cannot always set the course. In which case, the swimmer depends on the kayaker to set the course – either based on his/her own local knowledge, or via communication from the boat.
Pay attention to the tide cycles.
When Paul was approaching Spuyten Duyvil and the Hudson River entrance, we were confronted with a choice: Cut the corner and stay close to the Manhattan shoreline, or head straight out into the river? At the time, Paul was leading Lochie Hinds by 400-500m, but this lead could vanish quickly with the wrong navigational choice.
Typically, the Hudson is fairly slack when the leaders reach it, and it’s best to stay close to shore and gradually move out toward the east stanchion of the GW Bridge. But because of the late start, we reasoned that the Hudson might already be moving, with a faster current out in the middle.
At Spuyten Duyvil, we motored ahead of Paul and Amanda to scout the currents. Indeed, there was a visible back-eddy along the shoreline, and we measured a 3+ knot current further out. We radioed back to Amanda to bring Paul straight out into the river.
His lead was preserved.
No, I’m not talking about the “grim patch” in the Harlem. I’m talking about cruise ships.
A giant one pulled out into the Hudson at Midtown, right in the middle of the race. Fortunately, Paul was already past it. For a brief moment we thought our challenger (Lochie) would get stopped, effectively ending the race. But the ship took its time starting up and Lochie got past. The swimmers right behind Lochie (Ceinwen and Bill) did get stopped. I am not sure if the final order of finish was affected. It’s not fair, but that’s life in crowded urban waterways. Small swimmers and big ships.
In the end, MIMS is won by the fastest swimmer who is also sufficiently prepared.
There were four swimmers in the MIMS 2013 field of roughly similar pure pool-swimming speed: Paul, Lochie, and the two who got pulled for hypothermia early on. One of these four was almost certain to win. Two of them, evidently, were not sufficiently prepared. Which left Paul and Lochie. They each took nearly-identical lines around the island. So Paul beat Lochie because he was able to swim faster, for longer. Simple as that.
MIMS success has nothing to do with being Australian. Shelley Taylor-Smith won MIMS five times because she was a professional marathon swimmer competing against (for the most part) amateur Masters swimmers. She was simply a better swimmer.
Yesterday SERC and the Bondi Icebergs of Sydney officially became “sister clubs” as a delegation of visiting ‘Bergs joined us for a Tuesday morning Alcatraz swim.
In need of, I suppose, new challenges, I decided to attempt the swim using only sculling drill - both forward (hands in front) and back (hands by hips). I filmed the event with a GoPro on a head attachment.
I ended up resorting to a few strokes of backstroke (so as not to stretch out the support vessels), but for the most part I did it: Alcatraz to Aquatic Park… sculling.
Here’s 52-minute video condensed to just over two. Unfortunately the GoPro memory card reached capacity shortly after I entered the cove, so I didn’t capture the finish.