Friday, July 6, 2012

The Stroke Every Swim Coach Wants To Change (But Shouldn't)

Harry Wiltshire is an elite ITU triathlete who is always amongst the first few athletes out of the water at every world cup event he races. He can swim 17 minutes and change for 1500m, and trains every day with the Brownlee brothers for good measure. But Harry has a problem: every swim coach wants to change his stroke.

His stroke is a long way from an orthodox smooth stroke, with a short punchy style and striking straight arm recovery:



He takes between 45 and 50 strokes per 50m and appears to windmill his arms. His turn over seems frenetic at 90 to 100 strokes per minute:


This is a long way from what most people think of as an efficient freestyle stroke and yet he's first out of the water at the very highest level of triathlon. At an easy level of effort he swims faster than most age group triathletes can sprint. How does he do this?

Don't Mess With Harry!

Also read our exclusive interview with Harry about his swimming and trying to make the Olympic team: www.swimsmooth.com/harry-wiltshire-interview.html
Harry was the first athlete that our head coach Paul Newsome ever coached whilst they were both at Bath University during the late 90s. Like nearly every other swim coach before or since, Paul thought that's a terrible stroke, let's smooth him out and make his stroke longer! The problem with doing so was that it immediately made him slower and less efficient.

Harry is a skilled swimmer and can switch to a longer smoother stroke if he wants to but this stroke style simply does not suit him and it immediately feels hard work. He doesn't swim the way he does because of a lack of coordination or skill, he swims this way out of choice.

It was this experience of working with Harry that caused Paul to realise that this 'Swinger' style of stroke did have a lot of merit and triggered a line of thinking and research that lead to the Swim Type system.

Like all great swimmers, the secret to Harry's stroke is what happens underwater. He has a great body position with hips, knees and feet very near the surface :


An excellent catch and pull technique, pressing the water back behind him with a bent elbow :


And a low energy two beat kick, ideal for distance swimming :


Harry's fast arm turnover gives his stroke amazing rhythm which helps him punch through waves and swell, and minimise buffeting from other swimmer's wakes. That high arm recovery allows good clearance over disturbed water and lets him to swim close to other swimmers to maximise drafting benefits.

At first sight it would be easy to disregard Harry's stroke as 'fighting the water' but as we can see above he's doing anything but. There's plenty of great technique in his stroke, it's just that everything happens very quickly. If you blink you miss it!

If you've been following Swim Smooth for a while you will know that we call swimmers like Harry 'Swingers' because they tend to recover with a distinctive straight arm style. Harry is an extreme example of a Swinger but nearly all professional triathletes and open water swimmers use this style to a greater or lesser extent, including those Brownlee brothers, who are favourites for Olympic Gold in London.

Should You Use This Style Yourself?

Harry's stroke isn't something we would hold up and say 'copy this' as it is a fairly extreme example of the Swinger type with quite a lack of symmetry and a significant head lift to breathe. Compared to an elite swimmer, his catch could also be improved somewhat. However, we should recognise and appreciate his strengths because there are definitely some aspects of his stroke you can emulate to become a better swimmer :

Harry exits another swim in the first pack.
- If you are a triathlete or open water swimmer, experiment with a slightly straighter arm recovery. This may feel strange at first but it will help you clear disturbed water and also swim closer to other swimmers.

- All swimmers need great rhythm and timing in their strokes, and this is especially the case in open water. Don't lose site of this by trying to overly lengthen your stroke.

- If you feel like your stroke is long and slow then experiment with getting into your stroke a little quicker at the front by keeping your lead hand always in motion, either extending forwards, lightly catching the water or pressing it back. You're not trying to shorten your stroke at the front or rear but just remove any delay at the front. Don't be afraid to 'put a bit of Harry' into your stroke.

- If you naturally suit a faster stroke style then feel secure that there's nothing wrong with that and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course you should refine and develop your stroke technique but keep that great sense of rhythm to proceedings, it's a real strength in your swimming.

At Swim Smooth one of our goals is to give great swimmers like Harry credit for what they do, which has been sadly lacking until now. They may look unorthodox but their stroke style is highly effective for distance events and they are brilliant swimmers in their own right.

Swim Smooth!



Breaking news: Since writing this blog, Harry won The Outlaw Iron-distance triathlon in the UK last weekend. As you'd expect he lead out the swim (in 48 minutes in his HUUB Archimedes)...




...and then went on to win the race. Quite an achievement when you appreciate he had stopped running in March to focus on trying to make the Olympic team as a swim-bike domestique. In fact his longest training run before The Outlaw was just 30 minutes long. A phenomenal achievement which really highlights his mental toughness in running a full marathon off the 112 mile bike, a classic personality trait of the Swinger.

Read our exclusive interview with Harry, including his thoughts on developing that unique style here: www.swimsmooth.com/harry-wiltshire-interview.html

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