Friday, June 10, 2011

Actually, There Are Two Ideal Stroke Styles

Most people assume that the Smooth Swim Type is the ideal stroke style. Very tall swimmers like Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe and Rebecca Addlington epitomise this style - their long strokes setting world records and winning multiple Olympic gold medals.

But, unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. There is another stroke style that can be just as fast: the refined version of The Swinger. This shorter, punchier style of stroke can be incredibly quick, especially when combined with a two beat kick. Laure Manadou, Kate Ziegler, David Davies and Janet Evans used this style of stroke to win gold medals and set world records in the pool. In fact, at the 2007 World Championships, the women's 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle were all won by Swingers - proof that they can dominate in the pool.

Smooths and Swingers sit
together at the top of the tree
The key point to appreciate with these refined Swingers is that although they're using a fast stroke rate, they're not fighting the water. There are no crossovers or scissor kicks to be seen and their body position is very high, reducing drag. They also have great catch mechanics, pressing the water backwards which propels them forwards effectively. In short, they have all the key stroke elements for fast efficient swimming, just as the Smooth style does.

Whilst there are generally more Smooths than Swingers in elite pool swimming, the situation is reversed in open water. Swingers dominate in the great outdoors (including triathlon) because the extra rhythm of the stroke helps punch through disturbed water from other swimmers. A Smooth making the transition from the pool to open water should be very wary of this.

So there are actually two 'top dogs' in swimming stroke technique, not one. Both have their strengths and weaknesses but they are both devastatingly fast and efficient strokes when matched to the right swimmer.

Which Style Suits You?

In a sense you don't have to consciously choose because as you develop your swimming your stroke should naturally evolve one way or the other. Instead of actively chasing a particular stroke style, focus on correcting and refining elements of your stroke technique and you'll gravitate towards the style best suited to you. This happens because different swimmers have different natural buoyancy, strength levels, gender, height and arm reach. Believe it or not personality can play a part in this too - Smooths tend to be quite reserved and considered people while Swingers are normally more extroverted and go getting!

We don't know why but Swingers seem to love bright swimsuits!
If you find that you naturally favour a faster more punchy style with minimal kick, then the Swinger style is for you. Work on refining it by removing any crossovers in your stroke and improving your catch mechanics (see here). Also check you're not using a thumb-first entry into the water on one or both sides, this is a bit of a tendency amongst Swingers.

If your stroke naturally evolves towards the Smooth style then that's great but remember that to perform well in open water you're going to have to commence your catch a little sooner than you might as a pure pool swimmer. This will shorten things just slightly and add more rhythm to your stroke. You can do this without fighting the water but allow yourself some time to develop the modification as it will change the feel and timing of your stroke quite dramatically.

Swim Smooth!


jonisaacson said...

You say that "swingers" have a high body position. I believe that a swimmer is going to displace a certain amount of water no matter what. Swimmers cannot possibly reach a speed at which they hydroplane. They are more like kayaks than runabouts. When people talk about a "high body position," I think they usually refer to a high head position, which might be helpful in open water swimming, where staying on course is an issue, but if the head is elevated, something else, usually the hips, must sink.

Except for that point, I like what you say about the two styles. Most of my best distance swimmers have been two-beat kickers, which I think is another way of describing "swingers."

Anonymous said...

has anyone done an energy study of the two types?

Petr said...

I think I saw somewhere here a discussion of the two-beat kick for sprints (or plain fast swimming with substantial propulsion from kicking)? I don't seem able to find it. Any help will be appreciated.

Adam Young said...

Hi jonisaacson,

No we're certainly not talking about hydroplaning but the level at which they sit within the water. Many swimmers sit very low in the water and create lots of drag, the point we're making here is that both Swingers and Smooths sit at a high, horizontal level within the water to minimise drag.

On the subject of head position, actually many swimmers have good enough natural buoyancy and stroke technique (catch specifically) that they are able to swim with a high high position without anything else sinking. Such swimmers feel very unbalanced in the water with a low head position in the pool and it's definitely a mistake to ask them to swim in that manner.

Hi Anonymous,

We're not aware of anyone doing such energy studies between the styles, no. The practicalities of this for swimming are much much harder than for cycling or running I think.

Hi Petr,

I'm not quite sure where you were looking, maybe here?

Pure sprinters (50/100m) will always use a very powerful 6 beat kick because they are looking to develop absolute maximum propulsion despite the very high short term energy loss.