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!

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

As a foreigner, I don't understand : drifting makes our swim easier in open water, but on the contrary drifting in a pool makes our swim more difficult due to the waves generated by the nearby swimmer; is that correct ?

Greg Moriates said...

Great post. Makes perfect sense. Will try it at next weekends race.

paula said...

Is there a particular wet suit you recomend for open water swimming. Thank's paula

Adam Young said...

Hi Anonymous, current or waves or chop will always make swimming harder in open water. Because in an open water race there's so many swimmers around you they generate a lot of waves and chop themselves. So we are saying that in open water, no matter what the conditions, you have moving water making swimming harder.

In the pool things are always much stiller, which means that a longer smoother style can be used. You still must be careful not to over-do this in the pool though, over-lengthening your stroke makes you less efficient again.

Adam Young said...

Hi Paula,

We love Blue Seventy suits and have done a lot of testing and development with them. However, the most important thing is how a suit fits you (always try them on before buying) and if they fit your body type:

The body type thing is fascinating. For instance, in the Blue Seventy range, if you have good natural body position in the water then the Helix would suit you great. If you have sinky legs without a suit then the Axis which has a different buoyancy profile for such swimmers is perfect. It helps bring the legs up. However for those with a good body position naturally, the Axis would bring them too high and make them feel uncomfortable.

The very best thing is to test them swimming if possible!

Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

I 'd like to give you an example: My compatriot Spyros Gianniotis from Greece finished first at the 10k open water swim in the World Aquatics Championships. His time was 1:54:24! See the video here

(sorry but the commentary is in Spanish). I believe that his style is that of a refined swinger. He came in 16th at Beijing Olympics where he had an early lead in the race only to fade in the end. This year he held back, saved his strength by drafting (he was 35th at the halfway mark) and sprinted the last 750m to win. See his comments here:

I firmly believe that Gianniotis is the proof of concept for your post.

Greetings from Greece

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article, thank you. I have 2 questions of clarity I was hoping you could comment on.

1) What is the mechanism to increase the stroke rhythm without significantly increasing the effort - a shorter follow through on the stroke? a shorter reach? a catch that isn't quite as efficient to let more water through your hands?

2) What if the chop is from waves as opposed to other swimmers? What's the best way to handle that scenario? Is it best to hit them straight on, at an angle, etc?



Adam Young said...

Hi George, thanks for the video links! Yes, these guys in open water love to swing! I personally hadn't heard of Spyros Gianniotis before Shanghai but that was a very impressive win! Thanks again.

Hi Steve,

Actually none of the things you mentioned is required to lift stroke rate. The most important thing is to improve your catch techique and this in itself will lift your stroke rate. A poor catch pushes the water downwards, to the side or forwards - because this involves changing the water's direction it takes some time to do. By pressing the water backwards instead, in the direction it's already moving, you lift your stroke rate.

You definitely don't need to shorten your stroke at the front or rear to do it. It's just a better timing with less deadspot and better movement pattern. Getting into your catch a little sooner and with better technique really is the key.

In most open water race you don't have too much choice of direction when you're travelling round a course, there's only one path to follow. Certainly if you are trying to draft effectively (which you should) then as long as your competitors are on a good course you don't really want to go your own way as you'll lose the draft. However, for very long distance solo swims you might have a choice, there could be a case for heading straight into a swell and then swimming accross it later (rather than diagonally to it) perhaps when it's more sheltered. But you'd have to be really convinced of the benefits as it would mean swimming a longer distance. If in doubt, a straight line course is best!

Hope that helps,


Anonymous said...

Adam - yes, thanks, I think that does help indeed. As for the 2nd part I failed to mention training vs a race but you covered both.

Thanks again,


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