A week or so ago I went to the John Charles Centre for Sport in Leeds to take part in The Triathlon Coach swim analysis workshop. It involved a hour’s swim focussed on increasing speed, with each of us taking a couple of minutes to be filmed swimming, before then having a two hour session on technique, analysing our stroke, and suggestions for improvements.
Swimming is my thing. It’s my sport. In every triathlon I’ve done, the water is my home. I’m always so glad that they begin with the discipline I feel the safest with – time to relax, and settle in (when I know a lot of other people are mostly concentrating on not drowning), the opportunity to get used to breathing and the silence of being-alone-with-yourself of triathlon.
I grew up swimming for a club, to a county level. I even did a couple of international meets. I trained in 3 or 4 pools across Lincoln: NK, City, Christ Hospital, and Yarborough. Early mornings and late nights. At Yarborough they had a walk way between the girls and the boys changing areas, where an attendant would take your things in a basket, before lockers were installed there (although as part of the club, you’d just take your bag on poolside). NK was the site of the strongest memory I have of a swim meet – of a 50m backstroke win that felt like I was flying and also not moving. I looked up and suddenly it was over, and I was 5m ahead of everyone else. I gave up swimming not long after I was 12 following a severe break of both my arms. My mum said I used to swim in my sleep when I had the casts on. I joined a drama club with all my new spare time (the routes life finds for us) I didn’t stop being a swimmer. When I worked in a kitchen in the south of France for a year when I was 18 I would wallow in the cool water of the Ardêche Gorge. I learnt to canoe and picked it up at a rate that unnerved my instructor, but to me always just felt like using the paddle as a hand, when I swim my hand is a paddle.
When I went to university it was a sports university to do drama (no irony lost) with a beautiful 50m pool, in Wolverhampton the pool was less nice and times restricted but I worked my way up to a swimming fitness I’d lost for a while, with the help of a waterproof mp3 player. Back to Loughborough for a PhD and over those 4 years I watched British Swimming’s training sessions and tried to straighten my stroke out. I built up my distances, but I had no clue how to construct drills and rests and paces for actually progressing my technique. I did remember paddle and pull buoy work though, and kick, so I added some of that on, and was eventually swimming 5k sessions as a mix of crawl, breast, back, pull, kick with no rests. Then I moved to London. Ironmonger Row’s funny 33m pool had me doing complex maths, I used to cycle from Lewisham to Ironmonger Row for an hour’s swim before a 10am start at work. I observed that London lane discipline was worse, and that people here kick harder. Lewisham pool was nice enough – a great resource for the community – but lane times severely limited, and once someone told me that the likes of me shouldn’t be swimming there. Later I thought up the comeback I never said: “I’m in the fast lane, there’s no faster one, though there are several slower, why not avail yourself of one of them”. In Loughborough they actually had a ‘faster’ lane. Slow, medium, fast, faster.
Every Saturday since I moved to London I would cycle from Lewisham to Crystal Palace to swim in the 50m pool there. A pilgrimage.
Crystal Palace National Sports Centre is tall, the architecture angular, the sun spills in from 3 sides of windows, set in the heart of Crystal Palace Park. You hear the diving boards ricochet, squash court squeaks, but thankfully they don’t play any music. The pool is old, but graceful with it. One half always set aside for lessons – local clubs, or sometimes synchronised swimmers and an instructor repeatedly tapping the middle steps with a cane for the beat. The lanes for public use are open as long as I’ve ever encountered 7am-7pm most days, 10am-5pm at the weekends. It’s bliss. I can fit swimming into my day rather than my day into swimming. I can get sleep, recover. I can run with a backpack and get 85 minutes around the park in before a 3500m training session. In October I moved to Penge, which is a 5 minute cycle and a 10 minute run from the pool. They have a stock of pull buoys and kickboards so I don’t need to carry those in my backpack. There are a couple of pigeons that fly around in the ceiling sometimes. The water is cool – a proper training temperature – flags for turns, proper lane ropes, 2 minute clocks, even with 6 people in a lane there’s room to feel like you’ve got space.
And this year I got a coach, the last bit, the training sessions, I now have someone setting the drills, the distances, the rests. And I’m getting better. Hitting personal bests.
My Friday swim, followed by a 45’ run, looks like this:
WARM UP 1 x 600 m front crawl , 6/10 effort: 300m EZ, 200m Build, 100m hard
10 x 50m +20s rest – TORPEDO KICK + POLO Notes:Execute a GREAT push off from the wall. Keep your head down with your hands placed on on top of the other tucking the top thumb under the lower hand. Reach as tall and high as you can and if you are flexible then tuck your arms behind your head. After you have pushed off in the streamlined position kick as hard as you can until you run out of breath. When you surface do a head up “Water Polo” style stroke to 25m, then do easy freestyle for the end of the rep (50m)
10 x 100m single arm drills +20s rest after each 100m. Notes:This drill is perfect for developing rotation, Early catch and balance between L & R arm strokes. To view a video of this drill please click here – 25L/25fs/25R/25fs – on 1 arm drills have 1 arm by side.
5 x 200m PULL 8/10 effort + 20s rest. Work on cadence and good catch
COOL DOWN 1 x 300m EZ backstroke
Swimming is all about being symmetrical and efficient. In a world of thickened dynamics (water moves like air does but with more force) the aim is to transfer as much energy into forward momentum as possible. Because you need to turn to breathe you need to carefully balance and counter balance your body in the water – any point of asymmetry and some of your energy propels you sideways, works against you and the water, not with it. Lots of splash means you’re moving air more than water, not enough and you might be too low in the water. Your body should be flat, if it dips, then your feet will drag. Movements should be smooth and aerodynamic. You train by concentrating on different things in each session, rather than trying to get each bit of technique right in one go. Ingrain it, add things in, find out what it feels like to do it right with a paddle that forces your stroke into the right position, then repeat it without. A different session each week will focus on: strength (upper body, and kick), technique, endurance.
I was taught to be a pool swimmer: power and sprinting. But I’m training for open water.
Unsurprisingly this is what the workshop stroke analysis showed me. I have a good pool stroke – my body is in a good position, I have a good kick, my elbows are high, but I have developed over-gliding, and am doing a series of things I learnt in the 90s which either aren’t thought to be best practice now, or that aren’t suited to open water swimming: explosive breathing, thumb entry, slow, powerful smooth stroke. I have a slow cadence (stroke rate) and a long stroke. Although I was about the same speed as others in the class, I had the lowest stroke rate – around 50 strokes per minute. Almost good for a pool stroke, but unideal for open water – where you need higher arms, a much faster turnover, where you need to breathe comfortably on both sides to avoid sun glare, waves, wind.
So, take a look at these three videos. The first is me, with my stroke rate of around 50. The second is a famously smooth pool swimmer, Jono Van Hazel, who starts out with a stroke rate of around 65, hitting 1:15 per 100m, and the final is the world’s best open water technique swimmer Jodie Swallow, who has a frankly astonishing ALL DAY stroke rate of around 90 (1:10 per 100m). She can keep that pace up for HOURS. Listen to the commentary there – it’s a swinging uncouth stroke in the air but she has immediate catch (the word for getting a purchase on the water with your hand), and still maintains high elbows (you might hear coaches talking about the importance of high elbows, but they don’t mean above the water, they mean under the water – it means you can use the big muscles of your back to pull on the water) and great technique all the way through.
This is me!
— Jono Van Hazel (stroke rate of around 65. 1:15 per 100m)
— Jodie Swallow (stroke rate of around 90, 1:10 per 100m)
So, here’s what I need to work on
1) buy a pair of these: http://www.proswimwear.co.uk/finis-freestyler-hand-paddle.html paddles to help correct my entry position – experimenting with an entry point closer to my body, so that I cut down on the glide
2) improve my cadence (increase the stroke rate) – train at a higher cadence, by either straight-up counting strokes, or using something like this: http://www.proswimwear.co.uk/brands/finis/finis-tempo-trainer-pro-yellow.html which will beep for every stroke (and which can be used for pace keeping, you can use it sort of like a bleep test for swimming, knocking it down a second every 100m)
3) continuous breathing – unlearn the way I’ve been breathing for years. Relearn another. One is for sprinting, the other is for long distance efforts.
And keep up the strength and endurance training too.
I love swimming. It’s my home. It’s quiet and strong and every tiny alteration you make to your stroke makes you faster. It’s a field of never-perfect and of personal best. I’m excited to have new things to work on.