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.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

What an absolutely brilliant blog this week, even better than usual and that is saying something ! Thanks so much I cannot wait to try out these tips in the lake tomorrow, especially regarding having a more continuous stroke pattern to ensure that I don't lose speed between each stroke. Thanks so much, I love this blog, you have really helped me.

Martin N. (Worcestershire, UK)

michaels said...

Wow! This is so clear. What a great post... it's very helpful. I get it!

tristan said...

fantastic blog!

love the lance/jans reference as well!

great job guys, keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant blog, Paul. Just outstanding. Keep up the good work.

paddyhazard said...

That's a great post. Should really help stop all those bad habits of a 'long' stroke I've been 'taught'!

Anonymous said...

Allright. Nice post. But iI have however a question. You said that the stroke not have to be shortened to increase our frequency, ok. But we have to find how to spend less energy in our stroke, how can we do ? Must I make a less efficient stroke under the water to preserve my shoulders and heart rate ? Let's stay in cycling metaphor, I mean how can I get a smaller gear with my stroke which is normally the same in the movement ? Thanks

Vincent L (France)

Nigel S said...

Brilliant post, really helpful illustrations also

I am always guilty of the crossover but I cant notice when I'm doing it. My coach recommended I swim a length in training with my goggles out of the water and when I did its so clear to see...now it feels like my arms are too far apart on the entry and catch

Little things seem the hardest to change!!

Anonymous said...

Great analysis. Watched the videos of the Shanghai swims too. The winners breathed every 2 strokes. I'm new to swimming but understood this to sacrilege!

Jacky (Thjeko) said...

Thanks again for some great advice. My swimming coach keeps on telling me to glide and take my time, but the rhythm feels more natural and easy when I keep on moving.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis but some different opinions

1)overglide occurs when one arm recovery takes longer time because the long stroke takes this arm longer time to keep pulling and pushing side under tension. you can speed up the recovery but quickly tired

2) for training, overglide is the best way to correct body streamline. if you can't glide far, your body streamline is bad.

3) leading arm doesn't do the support job for breathing. when you breath, the upper body including chest, shoulder, armpit, heavliy retracted shoulder blade on the leading arm side support the upper body to help breathing. leading arm can keep longer body for streamline

Rudolf said...

Hmm, thanks for the "front" analysis folks, but where was THE more obvious thing, his kicks (or rather absence thereof, talking of Sun)??

I watched this on the best possible TV and never mind of what he was doing with his arms, i thought the secret was in what he wasn't doing with his legs, did i put my focus on the wrong spot??

What a bout training with a snorkel by the way, what is your point on this??

My lifeguard /coach on his free will observed i move my head to much from side to side so he gave me his snorkel. What an incredible difference not having to breath to the side anymore, all focus on that famous rhythm of catch and pull - but i guess there's also a danger in training to much with such a toy, or??

Jock said...

Fantastic post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I've been swimming in pools and open water for years, and never paid much attention to my stroke. Thanks to Swim Smooth, I am swimming better than I ever have. Thank you so much for sharing your love of swimming and your knowledge.
Mono County, California, USA

Steve said...

fastastic blog, I,ve been confused about my swimming stroke for a long time, Smoothy has sorted me out, great stuff, Cheers Steve, Dubai

Omer said...

Dear SwimSmooth team,
thank you for another great article.

Have you noticed that Sun Yang sometimes breathes every 1 stroke!!! Usually just after a turn. I mean: breathing to the Right-Left-pause-Left-pause-pause-Right.
Have you seen other elite swimmers doing so?

Adam Young said...

Thanks for all your feedback guys - great to hear that you're going well with your swimming wherever you are in the world! We do circulate your comments amoungst all the SS coaches so thanks for taking the time to post your comments. Enjoy your time on the water!

On specific questions:

Vincent, no you definitely don't want to disrupt your underwater technique to increase your stroke rate. You want to maintain this perfectly in place. Instead you want to spend less time gliding at the front of the stroke, make things more continuous and get into the catch a little quicker but nice and gently. The rest of the stroke can stay exactly the same, it's simply a question of rhythm of the stroke and timing of the catch. Even though you are taking more strokes each will be less effort because you won't have to accelerate after a previous deceleration. Remember you're only looking for a subtle change in the catch timing - two tenths of a second of glide removed is worth 5 strokes per minute - quite a bit! Hope that helps.

Hi Nigel, the secret to removing a crossover is to improve your swimming posture, see: http://www.feelforthewater.com/2010/07/how-village-people-can-improve-your.html

Hi Anonymous, many elite swimmers race every two strokes but when you're developing your swimming it's a good idea to breathe bilaterally if you can. It helps keep your stroke symmetrical and bad habits developing.

Hi Jacky, it can be good for some swimmers to lengthen out but if you're already swimming well and you have a natural style with lots of rhythm then it's much better to refine that style that try and start again with something that doesn't suit you.

Hi Anonymous, I'm not sure I understand your first point. Overgliding is just about timing the start of the stroke with the catch. On your second point, lengthening out can certainly help improve your streamlining but we don't agree it's best to glide to do this - it's so limiting in the long run for the swimmers technique and a heavily imprinted glide is very hard to remove! (ask any Overglider!). On your third point we'll have to agree to disagree, it certainly would be very hard to improve either way. Whatever, if a swimmer's lead hand collapses they struggle with breathing so we recommend fixing that.

Hi again Rudolf. Many distance swimmers have minimal leg kick, which is fine as long as their arm propulsion is constant (as Sun's is). What are you comparing this to, middle distance swimmers and sprinters? I think from our previous conversations we had you pegged as a bit of an Arnie swim type? For you guys you really need a nice rhythmical 6 beat kick to help keep the legs up. If you had Sun's body type, flexibilty and buoancy distribution you could use a minimal leg kick too, but...

Hi Omer, yes it's very 'unique' amoungst elite swimmers I would say! In the elite swimming world he has a very low stroke rate (around 62 strokes per minute) compared to most 1500m guys in the 75-85 SPM range. He can probably keep that going continuously but add a few seconds underwater during the turn and he's struggling, hence the extra breaths - unconventional but still obviously do-able! Incidentally, this is another reason not to over-glide in your stroke - most overgliders are around 45-55 SPM and this is a long time between breaths and makes bilateral breathing almost impossible. This is one of several reasons why we don't like to ever teach glide, not even to absolute beginners.

Joanna said...

Great post! Touching on so many aspects of the swim. I try to read something in swim smooth before going for the swim just to get psyched up!

Anonymous said...

will there ever be a Mr. Smooth that swims strokes other then freestyle?

Adam Young said...

Hi, animating Mr Smooth for the other strokes isn't too high up our priorities but we do get quite a few requests so never say never!

Unknown said...

The people at TI seem to promote a good glide and it seems that their technique will qualify as an overglide and what is your comment to what they are promoting.

Adam Young said...

Hi unknown,

To be honest I've never read or watched any total immersion materials so I don't think I'm qualified to say.

Do be wary of adding a deadspot to your stroke timing though, it's very bad for your efficiency and very hard to undo once imprinted.



Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Adam Young said...

Hi Anonymous (what's your real name?),

Did you not read the post? Nearly no glide at all - LOL.


Anonymous said...

Hi I'm TI swimmer for last 3 years and I can tell you that Sun Yang isn't TI swimmer. In TI we are big overgliders and Sun Yang isn't. Thanks Swim smooth I know how to work with my overgliding. I wish to know Swim Smooth before TI. I would be a better swimmer now... Thank You very much for Your posts and professional advice in books and dvds PAUL and SS Coaches!!!

Anonymous said...

"The truth is he's hardly gliding at all" This is not exactly true. Just do a quick calculation! Sun Yang's quick stats: 28 SPL* / 65 SPM (source: http://www.feelforthewater.com/2012/08/our-review-strokes-of-london-2012.html), that is 60s/65strokes=0.9231s/strokes. Therefore although 0.2s gap is "less than a blink of an eye!", this is a lot of gliding in terms of percentage: almost 22% (0.2/0.9231=0.2167). This means that Sun Yang is gliding more then 1/5 of his swimming time! (some stats shows 26 SPL for him, meaning close to 1/4 of his swimming time is gliding)

Adam Young said...

Hi Anonymous,

The percentage time is pretty irrelevant, it's the actual time that's critical because the inefficiency is caused by the deceleration between strokes and deceleration (dv/dt) is against time, not percentage of cycle. This is why the correlation of glide time to swimming speed is so strong when you plot it up:


The classic Overglider glides for 0.6-0.8 second and the extreme Overglider a whole second or more. You can see on those charts how this kills their efficiency dramatically.

The real key thing here is that when you swim as Sun Yang or any other smooth does with 0.2 seconds glide, the stroke feels extremely smooth and continuous. If you deliberately try and glide in any sense they the deadspot in the stroke becomes a lot longer than that instantly. This is the coaching reality of the word 'glide' it makes people hugely over-do the gap between strokes. The best way to get the stroke timing right is not to try and glide at all but actually keep things smooth and continuous at the front end of the stroke.


Unknown said...

thanks for keeping this blog alive. I've read them all, and I have to show respect for the most outstanding defense of your arguments you've been doing so far. I've been an overglider, I have it very clear now that thanks to this blogs and the youtube videos. I am 47 YO and lack a lot of flexibility in shoulders and hips. I've struggled for more than a year now to improve my swimming (to keep it comfortable) without success but I think I just learned how from here.

Miguel Ojeda

Anonymous said...

His name is Sun not Yang.

Unknown said...

i always hear about keeping one arm infront while breathing, my question is when does that arm start the catch phase followed by the pull? after my head is turned and eyes looking down or a bit front? or a bit sooner? i personally do it whilestill breathing, is it too early?
and by stroke rate you mean left/right/left??? in 15secs i do like 8 to 10 is it slow? i try to raise it n im out of breath....
thanks a lot

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.


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