Stroke Thoughts

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.

2. “reach”

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 (except perhaps “middle finger first” –> the very end of the recovery). 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?

Swim Smooth stroke filming from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

Dave Scott on open-water swimming technique

After his victory at MIMS, Paul Newsome and his Swim Smooth business partner Adam Young embarked on a cross-continental road trip to experience America via swimming.

Along the way, they stopped in Boulder, Colorado and met up with 6-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott. Paul did an interesting video interview with Dave on the topic of open-water swimming technique. It’s worth your time to watch all 7 minutes, 46 seconds of this video. Here’s the money quote from Dave:

“I’m not concerned about distance per stroke. I like an effective front-end of the stroke, on the catch.”

MIMS 2013, Part 1: A perfect storm

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.

I’m not in a position to grasp all the factors that contributed to the situation on race day – I daresay none of the swimmers are, either – but my sense is that 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.

– A storm (literally), producing several inches of rainfall that swelled the rivers, inhibiting the predicted flood tide and amplifying the predicted ebb.

NYC-region weather radar - the day before MIMS.
NYC-region weather radar – the day before MIMS.

– Unseasonably cold water temperatures (61F/16C in the East & Harlem Rivers; a couple degrees warmer in the Hudson). The qualifying swim of 4 hours in 61F is designed to weed out unacclimatized swimmers; nonetheless, some swimmers were unprepared for the cold.

– A stable of escort boats still recovering from Sandy, leaving far less leeway for no-shows.

– Inevitable no-shows among the remaining escort boats, leading to chaos and last-minute reassignments at the starting line…

– leading to a delayed start, thus missing the peak flood current in the East River…

– leading to the slower two-thirds of the field missing the tide change at Hell Gate.

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.

My experience of MIMS 2013 was different than most. I was honored to be asked by Paul Newsome (founder of Swim Smooth) to serve on his crew. Paul was not only one of the 11 finishers; he was first among them. By my analysis, the delayed start and storm-shifted tides benefited him (due to his speed – and thus his ability to beat the tide changes) in the same way that it doomed the prospects of the slower swimmers.

More on this in Part 2…

On the South End Rowing Club “Pride Swim”

This Sunday is the annual South End Rowing Club “Pride Swim,” a short ~1.2 mile flood-assisted swim from “Coghlan Beach” (fronting the Golden Gate Yacht Club) to the SERC beach. It is one of many LGBT Pride-related sporting events in San Francisco, the Proudest among cities, and one in which I will Proudly take part.

Course route: "Coghlan Beach" to SERC
Course route: “Coghlan Beach” to SERC

Recently long-time SERC member Daniel M. sent the following message to the club email list, detailing some interesting history, placing SERC in the context of gay rights, AIDS, and the progressive tradition of San Francisco.

This email is one of many reasons I am Proud to be a South Ender.

Full names have been abridged in the interest of privacy.

This “Pride Swim” Sunday is in and part of a great progressive tradition of the SERC.  So everyone knows, in the early 1980s, Rich “Richy” P. was an out front gay member of our club and always stood up for gay rights.  He was a swimmer and a rower.  I met and befriended him in 1984 when I joined the club as I was immediately drawn to him as one of the most progressive members of our club at the time. There were still some male members of the club who hated the fact that the club was now integrated with women let alone open gays like Richy.  Richy also stood up for women’s participation in all aspects of the club and got into public verbal combat with other male members who were openly misogynist.

Sadly his lover was one of the first people who contracted the “gay cancer” which later became know as AIDS.  He was also a member of the club but I didn’t know him that well. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe his first name was Kevin.  He came into the sauna near the end of his life one day looking like a refugee from a WW2 fascist death camp.  We couldn’t figure out why he was so bone thin and didn’t want to embarrass him by asking.  Richy told us later what was going on and many club members, both men and women, came out in open emotional support of both of them.

There was a lot of fear about how AIDS was spread at the time so putting down the false rumors and standing by Richy continuing to be allowed in the club was super important.  He had a “bummer sticker” on his locker which had a slogan “SILENCE = DEATH” in the middle of a large pink triangle.  Amazingly, Richy never contracted AIDS and for years he gave his blood weekly so scientists could study why his immune system had resisted the AIDS virus.  As South Enders we were convinced that it was because he swam in the bay!!  He was too!!

Later in 1980’s, Richy lead many club members, including myself, to participate in the Gay Olympics, invented in San Francisco back then of course and which was open to both gay and straight amateur athletes.  I believe Richy was also a charter member and organizer of the Gay Olympics.

We did the swim division and, like the swim you will do Sunday, it was great fun!!!  It was also important as the USOC filed a law suit against Gay Olympics saying that it owned the right to word “Olympics” because they did not want gay people to use it.  The case went all the way to the reactionary Reagan Supreme Court at the time which upheld the USOC complaint. However, it did not stop the growth of what is now called and widely celebrated as the “Gay Games”!

Richy moved away from SF in the early 1990’s and I lost, sadly, lost contact with him. I do not know it he is still an “out of town member” of the club.  I hope is doing well where ever he is.

Given all this, it might be appropriate to celebrate Richy P. this Sunday…maybe name the swim after him in the future.  He did allot for all our democratic rights and participation in our club as well as gay folks “back in the day” when that was extremely hard to do.

Respect and Appreciation for our club doing this “Pride Swim” Sunday.

MIMS 2013

It’s that time of year again! In the weeks leading up to the annual Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, the solo field starts trawling the internet en masse, looking for free last-minute advice. I always know MIMS is approaching when the incoming search-engine hits start spiking for my MIMS 2011 report.

I figured I’d save everyone some time and put all my MIMS posts in one place.

Race Report: Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 2011

Other MIMS Posts

Photo by Hannah B.
Photo by Hannah B.

I’m excited to return to New York City this weekend for the first time since the Ederle Swim in 2011. I’ll be crewing for Paul Newsome, founder and head coach of Swim Smooth, a school of swim instruction far superior (IMO) to Total Immersion. I’m a long-time Swim Smooth fanboy, so this is quite an hono(u)r indeed.

Best of luck to the field, in particular Suzie Dods (fellow South Ender), Jim Neitz (SBCSA swimmer and benefactor), Karen Throsby, and Grace van der Byl (my Catalina support swimmer).

It’s possible I will be providing some on-the-water commentary via Twitter.

How to get an effective workout at public lap swim

This post is part of a collaborative project with Donal at LoneSwimmer, delving into basic issues of training and technique in swimming. Donal also published a post today, check it out here.

Whenever possible, I prefer swimming with other people – either with a training partner or in a coached squad workout. But occasionally my schedule dictates finding water at a public lap swim session. It’s possible to get a good workout at open lap swim, but it takes a bit of planning and training know-how.

Based on my observations at hundreds of public lap swim sessions over the years, there are some folks who come to swim laps, desire to become better swimmers, but simply don’t know how to go about the task. For those without a background in competitive swimming or similar sport, it may not be at all obvious.

For example, one of the more common approaches I see at the pool consists of: (1) Getting in the water. (2) Swimming continuously for X amount of time. (3) Getting out.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers on getting the most out of solo workouts at a public lap swim session:

Learn proper lane etiquette.

It will be less frustrating for you… and everyone around you in the pool.

Have a workout plan.

Not necessarily a full written workout with every detail, but at least a basic mental structure of a workout. What do you want to accomplish today?

A basic workout structure can be as simple as this:

  • Warm-up – mostly easy swimming.
  • Technique work & build into main set.
  • Main set.
  • Kick or pull set.
  • Cool-down.

Interval training is more efficient than continuous swimming.

Continuous low-intensity swimming is an inefficient way to build cardiovascular endurance. Interval training (repetitions of shorter distances, swum at higher intensities than one could sustain continuously) is far more effective.

Check out the Marathon Swimmers Forum for some good example interval sets:

Don’t rely on pool gear.

Fins, paddles, buoys and snorkels are swim tools, designed for specific purposes, typically strength or technique-related. When you use any swim tool for an entire workout (or majority of it), it’s no longer a tool but rather a swim aid.

If you can’t swim without fins, in my view, you can’t swim. What happens when they fall off accidentally in the ocean? If you always strap on paddles for the main set, what happens when you compete and you can’t use your paddles?

Learn flip turns – even if you only compete in open water.

If you do open turns, you’re basically coming to a complete stop between every length of the pool. Open turns are surprisingly common among triathletes, even relatively fast ones. I’ve never understood it; plus it looks goofy. Flip turns (sometimes called tumble turns) allow you to transfer much more momentum from one length to the next. It makes pool swimming much more bearable.

Learn all four strokes – even if you only compete in freestyle/front-crawl.

Different strokes work different muscle groups, and it will make you a better athlete. Backstroke can provide a nice change of pace for your shoulders after too much front-crawl.

Follow-up review: FINIS Swimsense watch

I had high hopes for the Swimsense, I really did.

Unfortunately, in the 2+ years since I bought the watch I’ve had two major issues that remain unresolved. With worthy competitors now available from Garmin – the 910xt and the Garmin Swim – these nagging issues are a deal-breaker. Absent any major product revisions by FINIS, I must retract my original recommendation of the Swimsense.

The deal-breaking issues are:

1. Build quality.

I’m now on my fourth Swimsense. The first three all became unusable after half a year of infrequent use, each time for a different reason. To FINIS’ credit, each was replaced free of charge.

My first Swimsense lost the ability to connect to my computer via the dock (and thus the ability to re-charge the battery). My second Swimsense developed moisture behind the crystal, and shortly thereafter stopped connecting to the dock. My third Swimsense developed a tear in a strap hole (see photo below) and no longer fit my wrist properly. Unlike the Garmin Swim, Swimsense wrist straps are not replaceable.


Keep in mind, I don’t even use the Swimsense that frequently! Once a week at most. For a $200 watch, these quality-control issues are unacceptable. (I paid $200 in January 2011. The price has gradually dropped ever since – does that tell you something?)

2. Accidental power-ons.

The Swimsense powers-on with the just a slight press of the top-left button. It’s so easy to turn on that it often happens accidentally. A most infuriating design flaw! I’ve learned to avoid putting the Swimsense in my swim bag. Inevitably, the jostling of carrying the bag to and from the pool will power-on the Swimsense. Then, next time I try to use the Swimsense, I’ll find the battery drained.

It’s happened more times than I can count. I’ve never come closer to smashing a piece of swim equipment against the nearest wall than I have with the Swimsense.

So, if I were to purchase a swim watch today, I would choose the Garmin Swim.

All that being said, if I have a working Swimsense in my possession, and if I succeed in transporting it to the pool without accidentally draining the battery… then it does a reasonably good job of counting laps and strokes.