Hand Exiting The Water IN FRONT Of The Entry Point?

There's a common story that circulates among swimmers and coaches that legendary swimmers such as Alex Popov have such long efficient strokes that their hands exit at the back of the stroke ahead of where they entered the water at the front!

On the face of it this sounds amazing but is it true? Let's have a look at Jono Van Hazel's stroke, Olympian from the Athens games and owner of an extremely smooth efficient technique. Here's some stills of Jono's stroke taken from our Catch Masterclass DVD, he's swimming here at a steady pace of 1:10 /100m and 34 strokes per 50m.

Here's Jono's left hand entering the water:

And on the same stroke exiting at the rear:

His exit point is definitely in front of his entry point, highlighted by the red line which we've added at a fixed point relative to the lane rope. That looks very impressive but here's the twist - you might also be doing this in your own stroke.

A quick trawl through the vast Swim Smooth video archives here in Perth shows that at least half of 'normal' swimmers we've filmed enter ahead of their exit point. Here's Mike, a classic Arnie swimming around 1:55 / 100m and 48 strokes per 50m:


Jane, a fast developing Bambino swimming here around 2:00 / 100m and 51 strokes per 50m:


And Natalia, swimming here around 1:35/100m and 52 strokes per 50m:


All three swimmers are exiting in front of their entry points. How can this be true? And what does it mean? Let's look at Jono's full sequence of frames :

Take a close look what happens between frames 1 and 2 where the left hand is extending forwards and the right hand is finishing its stroke. The hand extends forward underwater nearly a meter before starting the stroke, driven by the propulsion of right arm and hand. Of course, the exact same thing is true for our more modest swimmers which explains how they also exit the water in front of their entry point as well.

OK, so exiting in front of entry is not such an extraordinary achievement as we were lead to believe. Jono has a fantastically efficient freestyle stroke capable of swimming 100m in sub 50 seconds but in this regard he's not outperforming our 'normal' swimmers significantly. There doesn't seem to be anything magical or mystical about his stroke length.

Jono could artificially lengthen his stroke further if he wished by introducing a glide - if he did that we'd see in frame 3 above that his left arm would still be stretched out gliding rather than catching the water. He'd certainly exit the water even further in front then. However, he does not do this as not only would it slow him down but he'd become less efficient as he has to work hard to re-accelerate himself again on the next stroke.

Here at Swim Smooth we call overly lengthening the freestyle stroke 'overgliding'. Overgliders tend to drop their elbows and wrist as they try and lengthen forwards as much as is physically possible:

Showing the palm forwards like this adds drag ("putting on the brakes") and greatly harms your catch on the water and so your propulsion. When Overgliders tidy up their strokes and remove the deadspot introduced by gliding, they generate much more propulsion and their sense of rhythm and timing returns. The result: they move closer to Jono's stroke style and swim much faster swimming for the same level of effort.

Use our Catch Masterclass DVD and/or Overglider Swim Type Guide to fix these aspects of your stroke.

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Sometimes You Just Have To Let That Smooth Stroke Go

If you've been patiently refining your stroke technique in the pool it can be quite a shock to turn up at an open water race or triathlon and find sizable chop, rolling swells or even breaking waves. Swimming in these conditions is really quite challenging as the motion of the water moves you around and disturbs your stroke rhythm.

The key thing to understand is that any swimmer of any level finds these conditions tough and everyone is slower than they would be in flat calm water. That's just how it is. The important thing is how well you cope and from a purely competitive sense, how little you slow down relative to other swimmers.

Performing well in these conditions is about focusing on stroke rhythm at the perceived expense of smoothness and stroke length. A long slow stroke style becomes much less efficient in rough water because the water's movement stalls you in the gap between strokes.

By shortening your stroke slightly and focusing on rhythm, you'll punch through waves and chop much more effectively. What's more, the more continuous stroke pattern will stabilise you and you'll feel much more in control.

Letting That Smooth Stroke Go

When you're in the midst of a rough open water swim, switch your thinking from "Oh god, this is such a struggle" to "OK, now I'm going to focus on rhythm and power through this". Think about getting into your stroke a little quicker at the front, don't force it but remove any delay there and focus on lifting your rhythm. It may feel a little scrappy at first but that's OK, if you were watching from the outside it wouldn't look anywhere near as hurried as it initially feels.

Try a simple mantra of "1-2-breathe-1-2-breathe..." where the 1 and 2 are on non-breathing strokes. This will turn your mind away from everything around you and keep it on the important things, your stroke rhythm and your breathing. Everything else will take care of itself!

If you really struggle with anxiety in these conditions (every swimmer does to a greater or lesser extent) then keep focusing on your exhalation into the water over and above everything else. Anxiety makes you want to hold your breath and when swimming this can easily bring on a full blown panic attack. Try the mantra "bubble-bubble-breath" to make sure you're exhaling smoothly whenever your face is in the water. You should find your nerves settle down quickly after a few minutes.

Excelling In Open Water

Of course to perform really well in open water you actually want to swim as close as possible to other swimmers to conserve energy or be towed along by a much faster swimmer than yourself. Such is the benefit of drafting that really you should never be looking to swim in still water! Even in an otherwise flat lake, the wake from other swimmers in close proximity is enough to recreate those disturbed water conditions which calls for that faster stroke rate style.

If you watch the elite wave at a triathlon or open water swim you'll notice that every swimmer uses this shorter faster stroke style for this reason, even in an otherwise flat calm lake. Increases as small as 3-5 strokes per minute over your normal pool rhythm can make all the difference.

It's important to appreciate that by lifting your stroke rate, we're not looking to swim harder. Just like spinning a smaller gear on the bike, each stroke takes less effort but you're taking more of them. This might appear contrary to what most people are led to be an efficient freestyle stroke but in the open water environment it's essential for best performance.

Swimming with more stroke rhythm isn't an advanced level skill, any swimmer can do it. But let's not over-think this, get out there and try it, it really does work!

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The Most Important Walk In Swimming?

It might be as little as ten meters but the walk from the changing rooms to the pool can really define your swimming.

If you've been learning freestyle or working on improving your stroke then you should feel proud of yourself. Most people in the world can't swim and many in the western world do absolutely no exercise at all. You may not be the fastest swimmer in the world but that's absolutely fine thank you - so start walking out onto the pool deck tall and proud. Like your mum used to say: "head up, shoulders back, chest forwards!"

Adopting some positive body language and being confident in what you're doing will make a real difference when you start swimming. For one thing it will improve the positivity and rhythm in your stroke, which can only be good for your technique. And, if you can carry forward that shoulders back posture into your stroke you'll start to 'Swim Proud' which is great for your alignment in the water.

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Our Stroke Analysis: The Two Best 1500m Swimmers In The World

As we mentioned last week on the blog, we hope you've been enjoying the FINA Swimming World Championships from Shanghai. (If the championships haven't been shown on TV in your country you'll find most races on YouTube)

The winners of both the men's and women's 1500m finals featured totally dominant performances from swimmers with very different stroke styles. Making the headlines in the men's race was China's Sun Yang, breaking Grant Hackett's long standing world record of 10 years in the event. Sun's strikingly long smooth stroke (taking just 28 strokes per 50m at 62 strokes per minute) perfectly matched his 1.98m tall (6'6") long-limbed frame. You can watch the race here.

It would be easy to watch Sun's performance and assume that everyone should aim to swim using this style but in the women's race Lotte Friis from Denmark put in a fantastic winning performance, finishing just 7 seconds off Kate Zieglers's world record. Lotte's stroke has a completely different style from Sun's, using a straight arm recovery with a much shorter faster stroke. In direct comparison to Sun, Lotte took 43 strokes per 50m at 88 strokes per minute. Still very tall at 1.84m (6'0"), Lotte has chosen and refined a style that works superbly well for her and it might well be best for you too. You can watch her race here. (Incidentally, Kate Zeigler also used this stroke technique, we call it the Swinger style and it's used by most elite open water swimmers and triathletes)

Let's analyse these two great performances and draw some important conclusions for your own swimming:

Absence of Gliding

Sun has an amazingly long stroke, perhaps the longest we've ever seen in the elite swimming world. It looks like he's *gliding* down the pool but be very careful - it's almost entirely an illusion due to the sheer length of his stroke. Here's some consecutive frames from his video, 0.04 seconds apart:

The gap between one stroke finishing at the rear and the next starting at the front is less than 0.2 of a second - less than a blink of an eye! The truth is he's hardly gliding at all - to Sun as he swims his strokes will feel very continuous from one side to the other. The same is true for Grant Hackett (the previous world record holder) - we measured the gap between his strokes as 0.15 seconds.

Although these tall smooth swimmers look like they pause in their stroke and glide down the pool, we can see from the frames above that they don't. What we perceive when we see this footage at full speed is quite different from the reality. Sun has an extremely long stroke by virtue of his huge wingspan and efficient propulsive technique, this long style creates the perception that he is gliding when in fact there's only a tiny fraction of a second between strokes.

The Swim Smooth team here in Perth perform thousands of sets of video analysis on swimmers every year. If you are a bit of an Overglider and have tried to lengthen things out by adding an active glide to your stroke, we can tell you from experience that your deadspot will be in the range of 0.6 to 1.2 seconds. This means you'll be decelerating on every stroke which is losing you a lot of efficiency as you have to re-accelerate on the next stroke. This deadspot between strokes is the key difference between a Smooth Swim Type (of which Sun is a classic example) and an Overglider - other than the fact that a Smooth swims more than twice as quickly of course!

Overgliders need to work on the fluidity and timing of their catch to remove the deadspot in their stroke and so become more efficient. Find out how in our Overglider Swim Type Guide here.

As you'd expect with her faster stroke rate style, Lotte Friis has no gap between propulsion phases at all, starting her stroke at the front just as the stroke is finishing at the back:

This continuous propulsion is what makes the Swinger stroke style so dominant in open water, there's not even a tiny gap in propulsion to become stalled by wake or chop from other swimmers. Although this style can look like hard work, it isn't when you get it right and if it suits your physiology. It's a bit like spinning a smaller gear on the bike - she takes more strokes but each stroke is less effort. You could say she's Lance Armstrong to Sun's Jan Ullrich.

If you're looking to lift your stroke rate remember it's not a matter of shortening your stroke: we can see from the frame above that Lotte's still finishing the stroke by her hip and not shortening it at all. Instead, the key is to get into your catch at the front just a little sooner by keeping that lead hand in motion, either extending forwards, tipping over or pressing backwards. Never stopping and actively gliding.

Stroke Timing

The stroke timing of Sun's and Lotte's stroke is also worth examining. They both use 'front-quadrant timing' which is swimming jargon for the hands passing in front of the head:

This is important as it helps keep the stroke long and gives you support when you go to breathe because the lead arm is out in front of you. If your lead arm collapses down then your hands will pass behind your head and will offer you no support to breath, as we can see with this classic Bambino swimmer:

If you take on water when you breathe, try improving your stroke timing to always have one hand in front of your head at all times. Try repeating the mantra 'one-two-stretch' as you swim where the 'one' and 'two' are on a normal stroke and the 'stretch' is on the breathing stroke. This will help you focus on keeping that lead hand out in front of you for support as you breathe, making things feel much more comfortable:

Even though Sun has a very long stroke, he doesn't catch-up with his hand in front of his head as many Overgliders do. This is critical, a full catch-up style stroke is slow and inefficient because of the very long gap between strokes. Here is such an Overglider, swimming around 2:20 per 100m pace. We measured the gap between his strokes during video analysis as 1.0 seconds, so long he nearly comes to a halt between strokes when he swims:

Catch Initiation

Both Sun and Lotte tip their wrist at the front of the stroke as they initiate the catch prior to bending and maintaining a high elbow, just as we animated Mr Smooth to do. When watching video clips at full speed this is easy to miss but it's a key to you initiating a good catch in your own stroke:

Remember you're looking for a light rhythmical feeling to the catch at this point, it's not a solid feeling until underneath your body during the pull phase. It's quite likely in your stroke that you over-power things here in front of your head. Even though Sun and Lotte are swimming at maximum effort they're still keeping their catch light and rhythmical. Find out how to develop a great catch yourself in our Catch Masterclass DVD.

If you've enjoyed this post, would like to add a comment or ask a question, please let us know in the comments here.

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