A Story Of Dramatically Improved Efficiency

At Swim Smooth we receive a lot of emails giving us feedback about how your swimming is improving. Lee (a Kiwi living in London) wrote in and his experience really struck a chord with us - it's so typical of the stories we hear from Overgliders. Thanks for allowing us to share Lee!

Dear Swim Smooth team

I just had to write to send a huge thank you to all of you for an amazing transformation that your website has unlocked in my swimming.

I am, as I discovered from your website, a 100% classic 'glider' swim type, with a stroke per minute figure somewhere around 36 to 38 (as I know now, very slow) with a huge dead zone between hand entry and catch commencement. My absolute fastest possible 50m split was about 54 seconds, in a 25m pool.  Well, last night after discovering your website, I headed down to the pool with the goal of just seeing what 60 strokes per minute felt like.  After visualising strokes at one per second at the pool edge using just the seconds hand on my watch, I set off.  First go: 45 seconds!  I just dropped 9 seconds off my fastest ever PB; I couldn't believe it could be that simple.  It didn't even feel like it was all that hard.

I figure that has got to be the best swimming tip I have ever received bar none, in 5 years of trying to get faster in the water.  I can't wait to get back in the pool again - I'm sure there's another 5 seconds in there somewhere on your website!  So ... um ... THANK YOU!!!

Lee Berry

The next day we heard from Lee again, as he took off another three seconds from his 50m time! The fact he's now swimming 24 seconds per 100m quicker without much or any increase in effort really highlights how inefficient Overgliding with a big deadspot in the stroke is. As you can see from Lee's email, he did this by visualising better rhythm (simply from looking at the second hand on his watch!) which is exactly what Overgliders need to be working on.

If we look at our Stroke Rate Chart we can see that Lee's moved out of the blue zone (signifying too slow a stroke rate) up into the white zone. This is why he's been able to make such a big step forward with his efficiency. Of course if he went too far he'd end up fighting the water by moving into the red zone :

(for more information and an interactive version of this chart see here)

If you're an Overglider, as you swim work on keeping your lead hand constantly in motion: either extending forwards, tipping the hand at the wrist to initiate the catch, bending the elbow or pressing the water backwards - never stopping and gliding! A smooth and continuous catch technique will lift up your stroke rate with little if any increase in effort and you'll regain a real sense of rhythm to your stroke. All the details on how to do this are in our Swim Type guides: www.swimtypes.com/guides

Overgliding has become an epidemic in our sport over the last two decades: we sell 41% of Swim Type guides to frustrated Overgliders, many more than any of the other five Swim Types! Lee's experience is quite an extreme example and we can't promise every Overglider can improve quite so dramatically in just 48 hours but you too stand to make some big steps forward in your stroke efficiency by removing the pause from your stroke.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

I went to help a young lad who was also a classic overglider. His parents asked me to look at him because he had reached a plateau. His coach had said he needed to strengthen up but they weren't convinced. I agreed to watch anonymously as he trained and then I had a chat to him and his parents. His PB for 100m free was 1:04 but he'd been stuck on that for 12 months. He was also stuck on 0:29 for 50 free.

He had been taught to "place" his hand in the water and "glide" on his front arm. His next move was to hinge the wrist and press down with his hand...yuk!

Quite simply I got him to push his hand into the water keeping his elbow high and a straight line between hand and elbow. He was then to allow his arm to move down until his forearm faced backwards and then he could pull provided his elbow was high and upper arm parallel to the surface. He was worried about the lack of glide as were his parents but I told him not to worry, there was no need to think about that, just try and do what I advised and see what happened.

I hadn't seen him for 5 weeks because he was away for 2 weeks in Tenerife. In his next meet he swam 100 free and his time went down to 1:01.7 and that is a big change. HIs 50 free went down to 28.3.

In his latest meet he went 1:00.6 and 27.3 respectively. He is just 14 and that improvement has come in 5 weeks by not gliding and improving both his hand entry and catch. The look and his face and that of his parents was worth my time!

Tsahi Ohel said...

I am a 67 year old beginner. Thanks to your previous blog about breathing, I achieved my goal of swimming 1km non-stop. My time was 33min, and my stroke rate, about 35SPM. I am sure I over-glide. In the ramp test I found that I can maintain the same number of strokes per length while increasing the stroke rate to 50SPM. However, there is no way I can swim 1km at that pace. How should I train to improve my 1km time.

Paul said...

That's a great report of improvement Anonymous - well done.

It's a shame just how ingrained this whole world view of 'longer must always be better' actually is.

We came across a paper last night from the Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX (abstract shown at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20195179 ) which demonstrates clearly that overdoing the length of the freestyle stroke at stroke rates which are unnaturally slow is actually less economical than a natural stroke rate or even an elevated stroke rate.

I have been in touch with the authors directly to clarify the findings of the subject as VO2, heart rate and RPE all increase as stroke rate decreases below the swimmer's natural rhythm. The study found no discernible difference in those factors if stroke rate was elevated up to 20% above natural which gives great scope for those swimming in the open water who need to elevate their stroke rate in rougher conditions. This would explain why I was able to maintain precisely 80spm for 12 hours on my English Channel crossing back in September 2011 in some very nasty conditions - see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SavBLTMwvE

The key here is 'overdoing it' - if you're under the belief that you must make your stroke as long as possible and reduce the number of strokes you take per length down to some mythical number, chances are you'll be adding in a big pause at the front of the stroke, stroke rate will decrease and economy will also be lowered due to the significant energy expenditure it takes to constantly have to re-accelerate the stroke between each pause. Rhythm is much more important.

We often hear that swimmers who do overglide will report that they actually like this time to pause (relax) and lay on their side momentarily, however, these same swimmers are also warned about just how dense water is (up to 1000 times more so than air) without realising the significance of what this means for stalling their momentum in the water. To overglide means to slow down. That is never economical.

Hi Tsahi - yes, the last post has been very popular and certainly for many has helped them swim more continuously over longer distances. Maybe 50 spm is too quick for 1000m at the moment, but why not try 42-44spm and see how you go - as they say, every little helps!



Anonymous said...

I like a little glide in my stroke (45spm for 1.40 aplits), even though I understand your article and why you recommend increasing SR. But swimming with a 6/8 time, almost like a skaters waltz is a very pleasurable activity, even if there is an efficiency or time penalty, its grace instead of grunt? This graceful pleasure is what makes me want to swim 7 times a week rather than disicipline myself to go to the pool.

ps congrats on the channel crossing, awesome swimming.

cathy said...

I have been watching your website for almost a year now. I have learned so so much BUT....I still can not get any faster. My stroke rate is 60 +/- 1, depending on the distance. My very best 100 meter time was 1:54, usually closer to 2 minutes now. I swim much better with a pull bouy which tells me perhaps my legs sink. I try and swim with my chest open and core muscles engaged. hoping to bring my legs up. I really believe I will not get any faster but I just wish I knew the real reason why. I am a triathlete that favore the ironman distances.

Paul said...

Hi anonymous # 2 - an efficient freestyle stroke with good rhythm shouldn't be a "grunt" either, in fact, as mentioned in my post (above) a new study shows that artificially dropping stroke rate too low actually significantly reduces economy by raising VO2, heart rate and RPE due to the higher kick rate usually associated with a big pause.

Even if you're not overkicking, we often see Overgliders unwittingly kickstarting their stroke with a substantial flick of the leg from the knee to recommence the catch after it's paused. We see the knee and thigh very low in the water at this point, thus creating significant drag.

If you saw my English Channel swim video, you'll see that I held 80spm for 12 hours to get through the terrible conditions I faced - that wasn't grunt, it was rhythm - it couldn't have been grunt otherwise I wouldn't have been able to keep going for 12 hours! Most elite open water and marathon swimmers have stroke rates in excess of 80spm (mine would be on the low side!) - again, can they all be wrong?

Granted you enjoy the sensation of waltzing when you swim (when I time my 2-beat kick correctly I also feel a similar sensation of amazing rhythm) and if you are swimming more for pleasure then this is fine...however, I'm sure you'd like to go a little faster if you could? I guess it depends what you want to get from your swim, but 1'40" per 100m is often where we see Overgliders plateau off at and then become frustrated at not progressing any faster. If you're not frustrated and are happy with where you're at then that's great...keep enjoying your swimming, without enjoyment there is very little purpose anyway.

Thanks for writing in.

Cathy - have you identified yourself from the www.swimtypes.com website as an Arnette (Arnie) or a Bambino out of interest? If body position is a key thing needing attention then you could be a little more of an Arnette - check the profiles and see what you think.



Anonymous said...

Paul, I read the university abstract and open mindedly gave it a try. today I swam with SR of 56 instead of 45 on a set designed to hold SPL over increasing distance (6*50,5*100,3*200,2*400,1*800, try to maintain SPL from 50's over whole set).

By the second 200, I was unaware of any increase in SR as my body and brain had become accustomed to the new rate, and I was able to hold my SPL at 17 (instead of 15/16/17) at the lower SR, so a big validation to your post.

However, my swim partner (who is the type who would get in the pool swim 2 miles and get out about an hour later and repeat 2 or 3 times a week), started at 18 SPL on the 50's but degraded to 22/23 by the 400's

Its my view that learning to swim with a low SR that focuses on balance, streamline and stroke length (even if you have some dead spot or glide) gives you a good foundation for swimming faster when you pick up the stroke rate?

Its a bit like playing piano scales slowly as a beginner, learn to have precise rhythm, apply even pressure to the keys, keep your hands loose but in control etc etc. If you don't get those things right slowly you will come unstuck when you speed things up. Its the same with swimming. for every overglider, there is a very fit looking guy taking 25 strokes per length and swimming at 1:45 100metre pace.

You need to understand and train both elements of the swim maths (SR and SPL) and bring both up, establishing a low SPL foundation early on in technique development makes it easier to bring up SR afterwards than the other way around?

Its also why I think Isabelle Haerle beat Keri Ann payne in the great swim in london, she had a longer smoother stroke and was able almost to choose when to win the race.

In summary I am saying that your point about the dangers of overgliding are valid and having tested them personally would subscribe to your view, but I do not think you should disregard the benefits of long slow stroke training for new swimmers.

Anon 2 from yesterday.:)

Andrew said...

I can add comments from an Arnie perspective. I started swimming again this summer and slowed down to get the basics of my stroke in order. I was around 2:05 per 100m and with a rate of 48 spm. I tried swimming at 54 spm and it initially seemed too high, but I dropped to 1:43 per 100m. Now 54 seems too low and I've bumped it up to 60 spm, but I have not timed myself at that rate yet. It certainly feels faster.

I can say that focusing on constant motion of my leading hand helps with moving to a higher stroke rate.

I also do agree with the previous poster that slowing things down to get the basics (breathing, body roll, timing) was definitely worthwhile for me. But as soon as that became ingrained, I found that picking up the stroke rate has helped considerably and makes me feel smooth and powerful in the water. I think it also has made my catch and pull feel lighter because I'm not putting as much force into that initial part of the stroke.

Paul said...

Hi Anon 2

Thanks for testing this and glad you liked the experiment.

Firstly, we're certainly not against a smooth freestyle stroke and developing economy and efficiency, especially for the 25+ spl guys in the initial stages - otherwise we wouldn't be called Swim Smooth! ;-)

Interestingly enough though, seven times world marathon swimming champion, Shelley Taylor-Smith, who features on our Catch Masterclass DVD and at www.swimtypes.com/swinger also takes 50+ strokes per 50m but can maintain SRs >90spm for 12 hours. It's what works best for her, as too olympic gold medallist swimmers like Laure Manadou - there's always examples on each side of the equation I guess.

I haven't seen any video of the Great North Swim so can't comment there, but all types of factors could be at play here, not least drafting skills - as it was happened to David Davies at the Beijing Olympics in the 10km swim when he sat on the front the whole race only to be overtaken in the last 200m - heart-wrenching stuff! The other point to make I guess is that whilst Isabelle may well have had a longer, smoother stroke than Keri Ann in this particular race, it would still have been +30spm faster than most overgliders. Keri Ann also went on to win the World Championships this year in the 10km event which is her optimal distance and that which she is seeking an olympic gold medal.

I think the point that Andrew makes (above) about how important it is to get the basics in place at steadier stroke rates is very important indeed. Most Arnies will start in that red zone on the graph and through working on their stroke length through better reach and rotation and a more efficient catch they will elevate their body position which is the single biggest thing holding them back and move into the white zone with a slower stroke rate and a longer stroke...BUT...it doesn't stop here. As Andrew states, he then gradually looked at lifting SR back up whilst maintaining good form, which is essentially what you tried Anon 2 and had some good success with - the point here though is that many Overgliders are simply unwilling to try what Andrew did for fear of letting their hard won 'efficiency' break down. That's why so many Overgliders fear doing any beneficial fitness work either because they have been told that this will also run the risk of losing efficiency. The problem then occurs whereby stroke rate stays constant, fitness never improves and whilst spl might be low, so too is their speed.

All up Anon 2, I think we're both agreeing her with each other and I hope if nothing else this post has encouraged you and other Overgliders to simply give it a try and see what happens - we're not talking massive increases in stroke rate, just enough to get you off your plateau...equally, if it inspires you to give some of this a go: www.swimsmooth.com/training then this post wil have been a worthwhile exercise.

Keep enjoying your swimming Anon 2



Paul said...

Hi again Anon 2

I decided to take this experiment down to the pool myself this morning by swimming some laps at 35spm, 45spm and then more in my normal range between 64 and 80spm.

At 35spm (as per the original email from the Blog post), the very fastest I could swim for 100m was 1'42" - this felt incredibly awkward and very sinky at the legs. I was doing between 11 and 14 spl in a 25m pool for your reference. The big range is probably best explained by just how hard it was to swim this slowly and even given good technical ability in the water, I simply felt my stroke falling apart, swimming catch-up and never getting into a good rhythm.

I tried 45spm and manged 1'30" per 100m with a 2-beat kick and 1'24" with a 6-beat kick. Both felt very unusual and quite hard work (especially with the 6-beat kick). I was doing between 13 and 14 spl in the same 25m pool for your reference.

I swam at my English Channel stroke rate of 80spm and took 18spl and did 1'09" per 100m. If I am swimming a set of 20 x 100m with 10-15s rest I will typically maintain between 1'08" and 1'11" per 100m in a 50m pool so this pace is very repeatable and consistent for me. In a 50m pool without the 2nd chance to push off I'll typically be taking 42 to 43 spl. In a continuous open water swim, relatively speaking this might be more like the equivalent of 48 spl as I certainly didn't swim across to France at 1'10" per 100m!!

I also tried swimming at 72spm (my steady endurance pace) and was lapping comfortably at 1'20" per 100m.

Obviously this is just me and my findings for my stroke, but it was interesting how hard I actually felt it to slow down to such a slow stroke rate and add a very definite pause and glide to my stroke. Going from 80spm down to 35spm though is a massive jump of course and would explain this strange sensation to some extent. Equally though, if we turn this around and say that going from 35spm to 80spm would be equally ridiculous for the original emailer, but somewhere between 54 and 57spm might be a good start (as he found) then we'll be really starting to improve rhythm.

If you spend many years ingraining a long, slow stroke then it's going to take a long time to get out of that habit especially if the fear is there of letting all that hard work on your 'efficiency' go out of the window with anything slightly faster. It's probably fair to say that there is no such thing as a slow, efficient freestyle stroke - all the world's greatest freestyle swimmers (with any variety of stroke technique) would all find it nigh on impossible to swim efficiently at 35spm and 1'40" - 1'45" per 100m - they wouldn't be able to do this without significantly altering their stroke and adding in a full catch-up like I did.

Hope this all makes sense and is food for thought in terms of trying something a little different, even if it goes against the 'grain' of what you have tried before. We're not talking massive increases in stroke rate for all the Overgliders out there and equally, some of the Arnies and less refined Swingers would benefit from actually slowing down a bit - but what we are saying is find out where your own range is and like the original emailer, don't be satisfied with a lack of improvement especially if you've been swimming that way for 5 years (as he had) - if you're waiting for your long, slow stroke to suddenly result in fast times, you could be waiting a very long time!

Find the balance and use our chart as a bit of a guide.


cathy said...

I am definately NOT a bambino, perhaps lean towards an Arnie/Arnette. I am getting from your blog that perhpas slowing down the stroke rate amy be helpful. I had originally wrote in a few days ago....SR 60, 2:00 min/100 M.... So, should I try slowing the SR to 50? If I do this, I am concentrating on???


Paul said...

Hi Cathy

50spm would likely be too slow (it's very common to see Arnies/Arnettes becoming Overgliders), but 56 to 59spm would be worth experimenting with, especially at the start of a longer training set.

Let us know how you get on.



Anonymous said...

anon 2 here again.

Luckily I have no 'grain' to go against as I have only been swimming for 8 months.

I have 4 days off now as the wife is xmas shopping in uk and I have the kids alone in Norway but will put some faith in your knowledge and put my TT on 0.99 for the next 4 weeks and see where it takes me. I whole heartedly believe that 90% of the difference between me today and a sub 24 minute mile next year is stroke rate increase.

But to back myself I also believe that 90% difference of you at I guess 20.30 for a mile and a guy your age doing 18.30 or less is stroke length related ? :)

Paul said...

Thanks for writing back in Andy - keep us posted with your progress on that sub-24' mile, whereabouts are you right now?

Don't forget to try some of the more structured CSS sets that I suggested as well to complement your experiment and be a good 'scientist' by objectively measuring these things and correlating this against your feeling in the water.

My P.B for a mile open water is 18.10 but I understand the point you are trying to make. Compare me to Sun Yang, yes, his SPL (28-30 per 50m) is lower than mine and would be validity of this statement. However, David Davies was taking 41 SPL in this 400m event here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llik5Ne7ANA which (in a 50m pool) is just one stroke less than me per 50m but he's ~2'20" faster than me over a 1500m pool swim - the biggest significant difference there is stroke rate - Dave can stroke significantly faster than I can as evidenced by his very rotary style of stroke. Equally, Laure Manadou would take MORE strokes than me per 50m (as would have Janet Evans, Brooke Bennett, and most of the world's current rank of professional triathletes) - she swam way faster than I ever will be able to of course...her SR range was 100-110 SPM! Incredible.

I think the thing here is that there are examples on every side of the equation, but that is precisely what we at Swim Smooth are all about, and again, to bring this back to our original Blog this week, is clearly demonstrated by our SR .vs. Speed chart. If we only believed in stroke rate being of significance then the red zone on our chart wouldn't exist. As it is, this chart has been compiled from thousands of data points over the years in our bid to ensure that our empirical observations are also backed with objective measurements and listening into the 'world voice' about what is and isn't working for people. Swimmers like Janet Evans and Laure Manadou would still be outliers within our range, but so too would Sun Yang - as you've been informed, no other swimmer has swum like Yang before BUT is this the perfect model for us all to follow? Arguably not. We have to find our own balance - it's just that the world view to this point has always been 'make your stroke longer and you will be more efficient' but this just isn't true, at least not statistically nor from our empirical research or from observation of the huge range of swimming styles that we see presented at any elite swimming event in the pool and open water.

Hence where the idea for our Swim Types model originated from - it's simply a way of allowing swimmers to identify their stroke inefficiencies per Type and then work on improving these aspects to make them better swimmers.

...cont. on post below:

Paul said...

In further discussion of my previous post about my own testing with slower Stroke Rates, I also tested this same hypothesis with our Swim Smooth squads this week over here in Perth. No one who tried SRs in the range of 35 to 45spm could better 1'37" for a one off 100m with the instruction that they should swim as fast as they could but being restricted by that SR. The guys who tried this are all in the range of 19'00" to 22'30" for 1500m (so easily able to swim at a consistent pace of 1'16" to 1'30" per 100m). They also found themselves surprisingly out of breath and found the exercise much harder than expected purely because of either a) the increase in kick rate to make it through the dead spots in their stroke, or b) if they didn't kick hard, they'd have introduced a big 'kick start' to their stroke in order to re-accelerate after each pause - this caused the legs to sink out of the 'shadow' of their upper torso and create significant drag, thus forcing them to work much harder. Even our slower swimmers (in the range of 1'35" to 2'00" per 100m) found 35 to 40 spm too slow and were actually swimming slower and with more effort. At 45 to 50spm some of the Arnies started to smooth out a bit, but even then there was a point whereby if swim velocity actually slowed too much they'd physically sink and be back to fighting the water as they're known for. These findings are concurrent with what the paper I referred you to earlier found obviously.

So hopefully you can see that I am not arguing with your personal point here suggesting that if I could swim with a longer stroke I'd be faster than what I am, but simply emphasising the need to consider both stroke rate and stroke length (as I know you believe in) and also to consider that this balance of equation will be different for everyone - as many swimmers that we can point to with long, smooth strokes winning major events, so to can we point to an equal number of swimmers achieving equally good results with significantly shorter and faster strokes as well, especially in the open water, for triathlon and for marathon swimming events - all of which are our primary focus as a coaching program.

I used to be able to swim 1500m at 34 to 36 SPL (in a 50m pool) - was I any faster or was it any easier than what I do now? No, absolutely not, it was still a 100% effort - the decision for me to focus more on the rhythm of my stroke in recent years has been fuelled by a move towards longer marathon swims and observing what other elite swimmers do to be successful in this respect - namely higher, maintainable stroke rates requiring less force per stroke and a rhythmical 2-beat kick over a more sapping 6-beat kick. I'm marginally faster now than I used to be over 1500m, but significantly faster over distances 5km and above.

To summarise, elite swimmers will achieve the highest levels in the sport with a huge range in both stroke rate (from Sun Yang at 60-64spm, Ian Thorpe at 72-76spm, Thomas Lurz at ~90spm, Laure Manadou at ~110spm) and stroke length (from Sun Yang at 28-30 SPL to Shelley Taylor-Smith at ~50 SPL, who by sheer nature of her results in the open water being significantly better than anyone else (even the men at the time) over 25km+ and at ~90spm gives strong argument to her being one of the most economical freestyle swimmers of all time). The two factors are not mutually exclusive, but to suggest that one is statistically more significant than the other would simply be incorrect.

Hope this helps and good look with your challenge - keep us posted, I've enjoyed our discussion!

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