Stroke Contrasts Revisited

It is very hard to be aware of the flaws in your own stroke technique because they tend to occur in parts of your stroke where you have holes in your proprioception or body awareness. Way back in December 2009 we posted a classic blog to help you self-diagnose such flaws using something called 'stroke contrasts'. This is a very useful method for those without a coach overseeing their swimming and well worth a revisit today, two and a half years on!

The idea is very simple: swim a short distance and deliberately add a flaw to your stroke. If the flaw makes your swimming feel immediately worse that's fine but if it feels the same or only a little different from normal then there's a good chance we've identified an area for improvement in your swimming.

Our suggested procedure: Deliberately introduce the stroke flaw for 100m and see how it feels. Rest for 15 seconds and then immediately swim 100m removing the flaw and emphasising good technique in that area. Feel the contrast!

We've given you some suggestions below of common stroke flaws that you can experiment with. Also refer back to our 2009 blog post here for more examples and feel free to invent your own too!

Contrast 1: Putting On The Brakes
A classic problem encountered by those trying to overly lengthen the freestyle stroke is dropping the wrist and showing the palm forwards in front of the head. Try 50m braking with the right hand and then 50m braking with the left hand.

To correct, focus on keeping the hand a little lower in the water and angling the hand slightly downwards so the fingertips are a touch lower than the wrist. Get this right and you should feel a noticeable improvement in your stroke rhythm.

Recommended SS product: Catch Masterclass DVD or Overglider Swim Type Guide
Recommended tool to help correct flaw: Finis Agility Paddle

Contrast 2: Pushing Downwards During The Catch
One of the root causes of a poor body position in the water is pressing down in front of the head during the catch. This lifts the front end of the swimmer up and sinks the legs. This action creates a lot of pressure on the palm of the hand which can be misinterpreted as a good catch but pressing downwards doesn't help engage the water or create any propulsion.

Contrast this with bending the elbow in front of the head to press the water backwards, this will feel less forceful but it is generating much more propulsion!

Recommended drill: Doggy Paddle
Recommended SS product to correct flaw: Catch Masterclass DVD

Contrast 3: Thumb First Hand Entry
The leading cause of shoulder pain and injury is a thumb first entry into the water, with the palm facing outwards. This internally rotates the shoulder, creating a twisting action and possible impingement. Repeated thousands of times in training this leads to inflammation in the shoulder and ultimately injury.

Contrast this with the correct hand entry, with the hand facing downwards, entering fingertips first. If you feel any shoulder pain trying this exercise, stop immediately!

Recommended tool: Finis Agility Paddles
(these give you feedback by becoming unstable with a thumb first entry)

Contrast 4: Lifting Your Head To Breathe
Deliberately lift your head upwards so that your head clears the surface when breathing. This is poor technique as it acts to sink your legs downwards and involves pressing downwards with the lead hand which harms your catch. Straining upwards in this manner can also be the cause of neck pain. Contrast this with keeping your head low in the water breathing into the bow wave trough.

More information on bow-wave breathing:

Recommended Visualisation: The Split Screen View

Contrast 5: Holding Your Breath Underwater
This one was in our original blog post but it's so important it bears repeating!

Swim 100m holding your breath underwater, exhaling at the very last moment before breathing in. Contrast this with a smooth relaxed exhalation as if you are sighing into the water. Focus on relaxing and letting go of the water easily. If possible, breath every three strokes or less frequently to give yourself time to exhale fully.

Getting rid of the CO2 in your lungs and blood stream by exhaling smoothly helps you feel more relaxed and aerobic when swimming. A good exhalation technique is key to allowing you to breathe bilaterally.

Recommended drill: Sink Down Exercise

Contrast 6: Tapping Your Big Toes Together
Tapping your big toes as they pass is good stroke technique and helps you identify a scissor kick in your stroke. Swim 100m with a gentle flutter kick, turning your feet in slightly (pigeon toed) and brushing your big toes lightly together as they pass. You should feel a regular tap-tap-tap-tap. If there's any pauses or irregularity to the tapping then it's likely your legs are parting significantly. Be especially aware of any pauses during and immediately following breathing - this is when scissor kicks normally occur and they are easily missed whilst you are focused on breathing.

Correction: Most scissor kicks are caused by the lead arm crossing the centre line in front of the head. This causes you to lose balance and unconciously scissor kick to regain stability. Both our Arnie Swim Type Guide and our Catch Masterclass DVD are perfect for improving your stroke alignment.

Putting It Together

Using the stroke contrasts above, you can construct a valuable stroke technique session:

300m easy warmup, focus on good stroke rhythm
Perform the six stroke contrasts above in turn as:
100m introducing stroke flaw + 15 seconds rest + 100m focusing on good technique in that area
200m easy warmdown, focusing on correcting the biggest flaw you diagnosed in your stroke. Only think about a single aspect, don't try and focus on several things at once!

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Excellent!That good summary!

Anonymous said...

Excellent!That good summary!

Rudolf said...

.. putting it together, oh how sweet that would be, but, after some video analysis i am back at scratching my head, but see for yourself Adam or Swim Smoothers, (the top 11 videos, some are identical, all have been taken by my GF who managed to set her HD camera on the lowest possible quality, so the videos look simply scrappy (but somehow reflect my scrappy swimming too?)

I thought i improved so much, and i am sure i did when comparing with the usual crowd, but on these videos i still see a total mamateur somehow making it down and up the laps, not enogh umpah in my arms rotation speed, and my leg kick still totally sucks after more than 3 months of lots of fin kicking extra milage..

Any ideas on where to start improving so i can stop joking "i swim like an olympian - just a bit slower"??

Boy these word images are getting harder and harder to unscramble / read...

Anonymous said...

Having watched your dvd's, and being halfway through your book and on the blog for about a year I think this is the best coaching post you have made for self learners. Very helpful and insightful, brilliant idea to reverse the cause and effect. thanks.

Anonymous said...

question about kicking sideways when rolling your body...
if you look at mr smooth from rear view, as he rolls his body fully on the vertical axis, you can see he is kicking to the side with an angle rather than up and down in the water. is that the correct technique?

Adam Young said...

Thanks guys!

Yes anonymous, kicking with your body rotation is correct, at least for distance swimmers. For sprinters they tend to stabilise themselves more but even they rotate their kick to some extent. Hope that helps!


Pat said...

Thank you so much for this review of stroke correction. It may help address a problem that I have been experiencing in the past month. I am a long distance open water (lakes) swimmer, logging 18-21 km a week - 4-3 km a day - pleasure only. Recently I began to experience numbness and tingling in my hands. It was preceded by a stiffness in my right hand which has gone. I figured that it must be the combination of poor hand position while stroking, cool water - (I am swimming Canada's northern lakes) and perhaps the increased and sustained distances. I am 60 and have been swimming open water all of my adult life. I do pool swimming when driven indoors by cooling temperatures. Any additional light you can shed on the issue would be welcomed. I love your blog!
Pat Filteau

Anonymous said...

if you rotate that much with hips and legs..even for distance do you make sure you move fwd enough with each stroke? i seem to have a problem with extension/moving fwd in each stroke and i attribute it to rotating like this resulting is sidekicks..
any help appreciated

Adam Young said...

Hi anonymous, do you feel like you have a large horizontal scissor kick? That's not what I'm recommending!

A scissor kick is normally caused by a cross-over of the centre line with your lead hand in front of the head. This causes you to lose balance and scissor kick to stop yourself rotating on to your back.

Check out this post to correct:

Adam Young said...

Hi Pat, do you think a thumb first entry is a factor for you? Do you feel tense when you swim? It's possible you have some inflamation in wrist, shoulder or elbow and this is leading to numbness in the hand... of course if might not be related to swimming at all.

Adam Young said...

Hi Rudolf, at last video!!! ;)

You look like a develop Arnie - which is exactly as I envisaged after our conversations. Don't be discouraged by what you see, it's not that bad and I'm sure you've come a long long way.

A few pointers:

You are holding your breath quite dramatically underwater this will make bilateral breathing very hard and also lift you up at the front, sinking your legs.

Your head generally seems quite unstable and wobbles around quite a bit. (do you ever feel dizzy when you swim?) As you move to bilateral breathing, try holding your head still as if you are balancing a glass of champagne on your head!

Your kick is quite good actually in the sense that you don't kick too much from the knee and so keep your legs quite straight. Keep those toes turned in and big toes brushing!

Generally you swim quite flat in the water and you need more body rotation. A finis tech-toc might be a great investment for you here.

Like a lot of arnies (and ex-arnies) you look really quite stiff through the upper back, chest and shoulders, together with the lack of rotation, this is why the arms come round the side hand leading elbow. A stretching program on those areas will help you a lot.

Your catch positions are quite good but you could do with a bit more timing and feel to the catch. Worth working on this later after addressing the above.

Hope that helps!


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