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.”

My favorite stroke tip

Beginning with the catch, and continuing through the finish of your pull:

  • Keep your fingers pointed straight down toward the bottom of the pool,
  • palm facing directly behind you,
  • elbows high.

This is a distilled version of the “paddle stroke,” which has been taught in elite USA Swimming programs since the mid-1990s, but has only recently been widely taught in adult Masters programs.

I like this stroke tip for several reasons:

  • It’s simple and easy to understand, even for new swimmers.
  • It’s high-leverage, meaning it can produce large gains in speed.
  • It’s useful for swimmers of all abilities.

fingers_down

I use this “stroke thought” almost every time I swim these days. If I’m feeling fatigued or unfocused, it’s surprisingly easy to fall back on an “S” pull pattern (an unconscious but ineffective attempt to gain more purchase on the water), or to let my elbows slip.

Yet another reason I love the FINIS Agility Paddles: it is much easier to “feel” the early catch, and sustain it throughout the pull. If you start pulling through at odd angles (rather than straight back), the paddle may slip right off your hand.

fingers_down3Is that a Zoolander face?

 

Watch and Learn

Chris Derks is a pretty OK swimmer — course-record holder and four-time winner of the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim, 2004 MIMS champion, competitor in numerous pro races, and owner of an 8:32 English Channel crossing in 2001.

Yesterday Chris posted a video of his English Channel swim to the Marathon Swimmers Forum. It’s a quirky video – 30 minutes long, with random cuts to other races, and ending in the middle of a conversation (apparently Chris plans to upload the rest separately) – but I enjoyed it quite a lot. Chris is one of the best in the business, and it’s a rare treat to see him in action. Also, I dig his taste in music.

Check it out:

A few of my favorite parts:

  • 0:35 – Cool postcard shot of the marathon swimmer and… is that a battleship?!
  • 0:50-3:37 – Interview with Chris. Background & motivations. “I still want to race against kids who are half my age, and beat them…beat them hard.”
  • 3:38-5:47 – Nearly indecipherable interview with his coach. Chris is training in the end lane (a.k.a. the traditional “animal lane” for old-school distance swimmers).
  • 3:53-5:08 – That was a 1:15 LCM split!
  • 6:16 – In Dover. Spectacular usage of The Who’s “Eminence Front”
  • 8:03 – The pre-Maxim era?
  • 8:47 – “On the morning of the swim, the weather was good, and the water was glass.”
  • 10:20 – Chris agrees with me that running into the water is the best way to begin a channel swim.
  • 10:55 – “Mötley Crüe’s ‘Kick Start My Heart’ provided the necessary adrenaline to keep Chris psyched for a long day ahead.”
  • 13:00 – Master class on feeding from a boat. The gold standard.
  • 18:19 – “Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire!” Great channel song.
  • 19:57 – How to feed from a kayak in less than 4 seconds. Watch and learn, people! (From the Tampa Bay Marathon Swim.)
  • 21:53 – Chris Greene Lake cable swim. Wow, he’s a lot faster than those Masters swimmers.
  • 22:40 – Meanwhile, back in the Channel…

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Besides Chris’ spectacular feeding technique, I also want to briefly discuss his stroke. There’s some good multi-angle footage from about 15:22 to 15:45, going into and out of a feed.

It’s not a symmetrical stroke. He breathes unilaterally to the right; he rotates slightly more in this direction, resulting in a slight swinging motion on his left (non-breathing) arm; he splashes a bit on his hand entry; his kick is a sort of raggedy four-beat; his tempo a metronomic 67 strokes per minute.

It’s not a pretty, dainty stroke. But make no mistake: It’s a devastatingly effective stroke for open water and marathon distances. A powerful stroke — a rhythmic stroke. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a thing of beauty.

Some schools of swim technique aim for grace, symmetry, smoothness, and lack of splashing. And I get why some people value these things – especially beginners. But they have little to do with speed or endurance – and those are the things I value.

I’m not saying you should imitate Chris’ stroke. Chris’ stroke is precisely adapted to his own body, his own strengths – even his own personality. Chris Derks swims like Chris Derks. Sun Yang swims like Sun Yang. Janet Evans swims like Janet Evans. Your mileage may vary.

For what it’s worth, I swim quite a lot like Chris. Check it out. Unilateral breathing to the right; arm-swing on the left; raggedy 4-beat kick. It’s uncanny, actually.

Don’t fight the water

People sometimes ask me what I think of Total Immersion. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say: While I may quarrel with a few of the details, I think it’s general emphasis on “harmony with the water” is quite valid – and its validity increases with swim distance.

T.I. coaches teach their students to not “fight” the water. Beginning swimmers often fight the water (almost by definition), but advanced swimmers aren’t immune. I often catch myself doing this when I’m fatigued and trying to hold a pace slightly beyond my comfort zone. I’ve paid much more attention to not fighting the water since I started doing marathon swims. You might be able to get away with fighting the water in a 50, or even a 200, but in a marathon this is death. A relaxed, efficient stroke is essential.

On days when I’m not feeling so hot, I try to forget about going fast and just focus on relaxing and swimming efficiently. If I’m working out with a team, this may require slight adjustments to sets.

For example, say the coach assigns a descend set – 4×200 descended 1-4. Instead of trying to go faster on each 200, I’ll try to hold the same pace on each one, but with progressively less effort. The only way to hold pace constant while using less effort is to become more efficient. Incidentally, I think these types of sets are useful as a warm-up to a long swim – or during the few days leading up to it.

Adventures in video analysis

A coach recently alerted me to a couple non-canonical things I’m doing with my freestyle technique. Of course, I had no clue I was doing these things. It occurred to me that it’s been years since I’d seen my stroke on video (my brief appearance in the Swim the Suck documentary excepted). Actually, probably about 15 years – at least as far back as high school. What else am I doing that I’m unaware of?

Having multiple underwater cameras positioned at different angles is ideal, but can be expensive to set up. On the theory that something is better than nothing, I bought a small tripod to mount and secure my trusty Canon PowerShot, which shoots HD video. Then, it was just a matter of propping it up at the end of my lane and pressing the shutter button.

I was mostly interested in looking at my freestyle (unlike some, I have no plans to swim around Manhattan doing butterfly). As long as I had the camera set up, though, I figured I’d check out my other strokes. Accordingly, I did a set of {100 free, 200 IM, 100 free, 200 IM, 100 free}. The 100’s free I descended to threshold effort (not all-out), and for the 200’s IM I tried to swim the 2nd faster than the 1st. I took about a minute rest between each swim.

For now, here are the videos of the three descended 100’s freestyle: Continue reading “Adventures in video analysis”