In praise of backstroke

photo credit: Santa Barbara News-Press, 1997.

Is there any good reason for a marathon swimmer to train strokes other than freestyle?

It’s fairly uncontroversial, I think, that training in multiple strokes makes one a better athlete, in a general sense. Each stroke works a unique set of muscles, giving swimmers more “balanced” power in the water. Eddie Reese (multi-time U.S. Olympic coach) is well-known for promoting IM training for all swimmers, including sprinters and single-stroke specialists. Multi-stroke training is also less likely to lead to over-use injuries.

Think of it as in-water cross-training.

What about open-water and marathon swimming? Or triathlon? Is there any point to training other strokes when you’ll never race anything but freestyle? If (like most working adults) you have limited time to train, isn’t that precious time best spent optimizing your freestyle? That certainly has been my approach. Not surprisingly, since I started focusing on open water, my other strokes have suffered.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking this position – especially with regard to backstroke. For one, there are technique benefits. The principles of balance, body position, and core rotation are much the same between backstroke and freestyle. To the extent you can develop efficient backstroke technique, your freestyle should benefit.

But I’m thinking of a more practical reason. Specifically, backstroke is a natural recovery motion for freestyle. While similar muscles are engaged in the two strokes, they’re moving in opposite directions. After a hard freestyle effort, backstroke helps you almost literally “unwind” your shoulders.

At Point Vicente. It was all I could do to raise my arms even this high...

How is this relevant to marathon swimming? Two words: shoulder fatigue. For me, this was the limiting factor in all my big swims this year – Tampa, MIMS, Catalina, and Ederle. My cardiovascular fitness was never an issue; my energy levels stayed high, thanks to a well dialed-in nutrition plan. The only thing holding me back was shoulder pain.

(Re: shoulder “pain,” I should clarify: I’m not talking about rotator cuff inflammation, which is dangerous and typically the product of technique flaws. Just fatigue/over-use of the shoulder muscles.)

This is especially true for shoulder-driven swimmers such as myself. So… what can I do to get beyond the brick wall of shoulder fatigue? A few obvious ideas:

  1. Train more – so my shoulders are better able to tolerate the abuse. (But do I have time?)
  2. Take more (or stronger) drugs. (Is that safe?)
  3. Develop more of a hip-driven stroke – distributing the effort away from my shoulders, toward my core and legs. (But how much speed will I sacrifice, given my short stature and weak kick? — not ideal for hip-driven technique.)
Backstroking somewhere in the Harlem River. Photo credit: Hannah B.

Here’s another idea: do more backstroke. I already do some backstroke during marathon swims – usually a few strokes after each feed. At MIMS, I backstroked under every bridge.

How far can I take this idea? What if, instead of just a few strokes per hour, I swam on my back for an entire feed cycle? Unnecessary for a 5-10 hour swim, perhaps, but what about a 15-20 hour swim? Could I extend the useful life of my shoulders by “unwinding” them for 20 minutes each hour?

It seems even more relevant in my case, because I used to be a backstroke specialist. In my younger, pool swimming days, my main event was the 200 Back. Compared to most, I give up relatively little speed on my back.

To quantify this, I went through my results archive and compared my backstroke and freestyle times through the years at the 100 (yards+meters) and 200 (yards+meters) distances. At both distances, I consistently gave up about 6% of my speed in backstroke, compared to freestyle. (This estimate includes a 2-second correction for the disadvantage of an in-water start in backstroke.) By comparison, the difference between the world records in the 100m freestyle (46.91) and 100m backstroke (51.94) is 9.4%.

6% is really not that much. If my ultra-marathon freestyle pace is 2.5 mph (just under 1:30 per 100m), that means theoretically I should be able to swim backstroke at 2.35 mph – still a very reasonable pace. I give up 6% of my speed, but I’m willing to bet it’s more than offset by delaying shoulder fatigue.

Food for thought…