Friday, October 9, 2015

Should Women Swim Differently To Men?

If we took all the swimmers in the world and thought about segmenting them, an obvious first way might be women vs men. Since most swimming gurus have historically been men, is the standard swimming advice out there under-serving women and if so what should we change?

Generally women:
- Are less strong but more flexible
- Are shorter, with shorter arms relative to their height
- Have smaller hands and feet
- Have wider hips
- Have their centre of buoyancy lower down the body (meaning their legs naturally sit higher)
- Apply more finesse and are less likely to try and muscle through the stroke

Some of those things are a disadvantage for swimming and some an advantage. Each will have an effect but they tend to cancel out to the point where women swim just as fast as men at the age group level of swimming and triathlon - go girls!

With the above list of differences in mind, let's run through some areas of the stroke and see where the 'standard' swimming advice out there often falls short for women:

Kicking Technique And Propulsion

Many girls enjoy kick sets and are often markably better at them than men. Why is that?

Firstly, women's greater level of natural flexibility through the ankles, knees and hips allows the legs and feet to point effectively and press water backwards as they kick (creating forward propulsion):

Olympic Medallist Cassie Patten's ankle flexibility
(See the full video clip of Cassie demonstrating her flexibility
in the SS Coaching System here

Slightly wider hips means the legs tend to taper in from a wider position and naturally angle the feet inwards (pigeon toed) which is great for kick propulsion.

The standard advice given to many age group swimmers and triathletes is not to bother trying to achieve any propulsion from your leg kick but many women are best served by kicking at a moderate tempo during distance swims:

The propulsion you gain contributes a useful push, the body position is lifted up even higher (reducing drag) and providing you don't over-kick (i.e. becoming kicktastic) it is not overly fatiguing to do so.

Head Position

You hear it said time and time again: Look straight down at the bottom of the pool to bring your legs higher in the water but this generic advice fails many swimmers, particularly women.

As a rule women have much better natural body positions in the water with the legs sitting noticeably higher than men. Partly that's because of better kicking technique but also because of lower lung capacity (less buoyancy in the chest) and fat being stored lower down the body than men.

If you already have a good body position and then try to look straight down you will tend to lose stability in the water and feel awkward. This is doubly worse when strapping on a wetsuit with lots of additional buoyancy in open water. Plus, your proprioception (body awareness) in front of your head is harmed when looking straight down and this is where the catch happens - technically the hardest part of the stroke to develop.

Try lifting the head a touch higher and looking further ahead girls - you can maintain a great body position, feel more balanced, develop your catch better and get a better view forwards in open water!

Stroke Length And Stroke Rate

We've lost count of the numbers of times we've heard a female swimmer (often in tears) come to us and say that their swim coach has said they must get under 40 strokes per 50m and they just can't do it and what should they do? You might be trying to meet a similar generic target yourself (another common one being 16 strokes in a 25m pool).

These arbitrary targets were created by coaches watching male Olympic champions and thinking my swimmers must swim the same way too. The problem is that if you are are 1.6m tall and weigh 55kg you haven't got a chance in hell of matching the stroke length of a muscular 100kg 2m tall male Olympic swimmer with hands like shovels and the wingspan of an albatross.

If you are a 'normal' height and build for a woman then your only choice is to use a shorter stroke length and turn the arms over faster to compensate (a faster stroke rate). The good news is there isn't actually much (if any) disadvantage in doing so and it's a style that works very well in open water too:

Pro Triathlete Katrina Mercer swimming very effectively at 1:16 /100m, taking 48 strokes per 50m lap.
Notice there's lots of rhythm to the stroke and Kat's using her kick to good effect. 

Our advice - ignore what you might have been told, happily turn the arms over faster and embrace taking more strokes.

As a guide to stroke rate, use the Swim Smooth Stroke Rate chart:

Notice how the width of the white zone allows significant leeway depending on your individual height and build.

If you've been following Swim Smooth for a while, you'll know that we are passionate about the fact that there's no single best way for everyone to swim. Our individual height, strength, flexibility, age and arm length has such a large influence that a single 'stroke blueprint' that everyone should use is always going to fail the majority of swimmers.

Instead we need an individual approach that embraces the differences between us all rather than being blind to it - a philosophy we've baked into all aspects of the Swim Smooth coaching program.

Swim Smooth!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Five Tips To A Great Winter's Swim Training

If you live in the northern hemisphere you'll know the days are getting shorter (and colder!) and quite likely your thoughts are turning to how to improve your swimming over the winter.

What should you be working on to make sure you are faster and more efficient next year? Here's Swim Smooth's five tips to getting your winter's training right:

1) Work On Your Stroke Technique But Keep A Good Rhythm

Working on your stroke technique with the right drills and methods is very important to improving your speed and efficiency in the water but beware the temptation of trying to create the perfect stroke by slowing things right down and killing all sense of rhythm.

Many swimmers do fight the water when they swim, wasting a lot of energy. If that's you then reducing your stroke rate (cadence) a little is going to help you straighten things out and get everything moving in the right direction. But beware of overdoing this, slowing things down too much introduces new stroke problems which quickly become ingrained such as pushing the palm forwards and 'putting on the brakes':

And the 'overglider kick-start' :

A large knee bend adds a huge amount of drag as it symptomatic
of a pause at the front of the stroke.

As we discussed here, a good sense of rhythm and a good catch and pull are critically linked:

Working on your stroke technique - whilst keeping a good rhythm - is when stroke magic starts to happen.

2) Get Comfortable With Uncomfortable!

It is often said that swimming is 'all about technique' but this isn't really true. The argument often goes that I will work on my technique first and then add in fitness sets later but with a low level of swim fitness you cannot sustain your stroke for more than a few lengths leading to that horrible feeling of your stroke falling apart.

The truth is that fitness is very important in swimming and could be worth 10 to 20 seconds per 100m to you over longer swims, and in some cases more than that. Plus, as you regularly perform training sets you might find that your stroke technique starts to 'click' into place and it becomes more automatic - a sure sign things are becoming more efficient for you.

Keep the training going through the winter months in combination
with your technique training.

So don't avoid regular fitness training sets over the winter - a CSS session once per week will do your swimming the power of good and stops you getting a bit lazy over the winter. As SS Coach Julian Nagi puts it: Get Comfortable With Uncomfortable.

3) Track Your Progress

What time could you swim 400m in today? If you don't know the answer to that question within 10 seconds then you could do with tracking your swim times much more closely!

Getting in tune with your times over different distances and during training sets gives you feedback on how things are going and if you are on the right track. If after a couple of months of training you are making no progress you need to re-think your training but if you see your times steadily dropping you can confident you are making real progress and there's more to come.

The point here is that without measuring it you simply wouldn't know.

Tempo Trainers: Do not eat!

The Finis Tempo Trainer Pro is the ultimate tool to give you that feedback - set one to beep at a given time per length and you can get feedback on your swimming speed whilst you are swimming. As the weeks go by you will see the time per length gradually dropping which is hugely motivating! And you can use the Tempo Trainer to precisely control your stroke rate - perfect for tip 1 too.

More on the Tempo Trainer Pro here:

4) Don't Forget Your Open Water Skills

We were filming last weekend at the Brownlee Button Tri in Yorkshire. Here's an aerial view of one of the swim starts:

Notice how beautifully flat the lake is at Harewood House (A) but as soon as the swimmers come along how choppy it becomes (B):

It doesn't matter how flat the conditions are in open water, unless you are leading the race you are always swimming in rough water and you need a stroke and the confidence to cope with that. If you can't swim straight, navigate well or draft effectively either then you're going to lose huge chunks of time as soon as you swim outdoors.

Open water skills are worth so much time you need to practise them all year round, including in the pool with friends in the winter. There's also no point developing a stroke that only works in perfectly flat swimming pool conditions which is why you need to combine your stroke technique work with regular open water skills practise through the winter.

Some tips on developing your open water skills in the pool here:

5) Set Goals That Will Fire You Up

Last but not least, set yourself a measurable goal that you want to achieve, or a series of goals one after the other through the winter months. The more excited about this you can get the better so make sure each goal is something you *really* want. It might be a fly-away race or to swim a mile continuously or perhaps 400m in under 8 minutes.

Set your goal on a fixed date 8 to 12 weeks away - long enough to really achieve something but short enough to stay motivated and focused.

The Three Keys

A key theme of the tips above is to maintain a constant focus on your stroke technique, fitness and open water skills through the winter. Combining these elements (we call them 'The Three Keys') into one continuous training routine is a core part of the Swim Smooth coaching philosophy. They really are a magic recipe for improving your swimming:

If this is a little different to what you did last year, don't let that stop you. Remember: Do what you always did, get what you always got!

We've Created The Ultimate Coaching Tool To Help You...

This sounds great but are you wondering how to combine this all together into an easy to follow routine? You need the Swim Smooth Coaching System Web-app, which you can run on any computer, phone or tablet with internet access.

Not only is the Coaching System packed with all the technique work you need but there are literally hundreds of training sessions and full training plans to follow (for all levels of ability) and loads of eye-opening open water skills sessions.

You can trial it for 7 days free here:

Swim Smooth!