The Scariest Two Words In Swimming Are...


Or, to make it really scary:

The next time you get in the pool we want you to swim a 400m Time-Trial

You've only read three lines of this blog post but we bet you are already hatching an excuse for not doing this. Perhaps you're not fit enough, or your stroke technique isn't good enough yet or there's no point at your age?

In fact time-trials are so intimidating that every swim coach knows you never tell your swimmers ahead of time they're going to do a time-trial or they won't turn up to the session. When announced, a ripple of shock and panic runs through the squad: Did she just say time-trial? What, a real one? Now? Oh god surely not!

So why is a time-trial so scary? Ask a swimmer why and they will say "because they hurt" but is that really true? Is a well paced* 400m time-trial really tougher than a threshold training set you might perform every week? We don't think so.

No, the reason a time-trial is so scary is that they tell you exactly where your swimming is right now without any dressing up, over-ambition or over-analysis. They put a stake in the ground and say without any fluff: on December 28th 2012 I can swim X:XX for 400m.

What's the worst that can happen? :

- You might be slower than you would like - or slower than you used to be - but that's fine. You now know where you are, so set a new target time for 3-6 weeks ahead and your motivation to train will instantly kick in.

- You might swim faster than you expected. This happens surprisingly often with swimmers who lack a little confidence in their ability and you'll obviously get a huge lift from a result like that.

A time-trial forces you to be honest with yourself and whilst that's scary, it's very empowering at the same time.

Swimming to your maximum requires focus and determination, but it won't kill you or damage your stroke technique. In fact it is possible to enjoy time-trials for the challenge they offer and even to look forward to them (yes, really!).

If you've never swum one before, just go for it and swim as fast as you can. And when you're in the showers afterwards, tell yourself you've just joined the ranks of Thorpe, Phelps, Adlington and Yang, you've just become a competitive swimmer.

Clear Your Head And Just Swim

Swimming a fast 400m swim is such a simple thing to do but will clear out so much of the clutter from your head about how good or bad your stroke feels, how many strokes per length you take or how you ate too much over Christmas. Like many things in life what we hate to do is often the best thing for us. So why not start 2013 with a 400m time-trial and take an honest look at where you are so you can move forwards with your swimming?

Happy New Year and Swim Smooth!

*Pacing out a time-trial evenly is absolutely essential to swim your best time. Ideally every 50m should be swum at the same speed and when you get that right, it feels like a gradually increasing crescendo of effort. If you're dying in a world of pain after 100m then you started out much too fast.

Our tip is to push on the third 100m of a 400m time-trial to avoid fading in the second half, 200-300m is the time when many swimmers switch off mentally.

Visualise A Fantastic Streamline Position

We love a good visualisation at Swim Smooth. Here's double Olympic Gold medallist Rebecca Adlington showing us her fantastic streamline position off the wall. She's on her side as she's just tumbled and is performing the half-twist back onto her front:

* click on the image to show full size *

If you are a triathlete or open water swimmer it's tempting to be lazy with your streamline technique but this is still an important skill to practise, even though you won't use this position when racing in open water. Follow the tips on the image and remember:

- A good streamline reminds you to stretch through your core on the beginning of each lap, a feeling you should maintain as you break-out into your full freestyle stroke.

- This position gives your upper back and shoulders a mini stretch on every push-off which develops and maintains your flexibility over time.

 - The speed you will gain in the pool allows you to train with swimmers who would otherwise be a little bit quicker than you.

(Make sure you like our Facebook page here we regularly post more swimming visualisations like this.)

So that only leaves us to thank you for following Swim Smooth this year and wish you a fantastic festive break! Here's coaches Paul and Emma on the pool deck in Perth a few hours ago:

Merry Christmas and Swim Smooth!

The Data On Stroke Rate And Efficiency

We know that quite a few of you like a bit of science behind your swimming, so lets take a look at an important piece of research conducted by Southwestern University, Texas [1]. Even if you're not a numbers person bear with this - it's not too complicated!

Scott McLean and his team asked ten college swimmers of a range of abilities to swim in a flume tank (an endless pool). The flume was fixed to a speed of 1:40 /100m so no matter what, the swimmers had to maintain that speed, they couldn't slow down or speed up.

As a starting point, the study recorded the swimmer's natural stroke rate - i.e. how many strokes they take per minute (SPM) at 1:40 /100m. If you own a Tempo Trainer Pro or Wetronome you will have a good idea of what yours is, most age group swimmers are in the range 50 to 65 SPM.

Each swimmer was then asked to swim at 10% below their natural stroke rate and 20% below it, controlled by a Tempo Trainer beeping the timing to them. Since the actual swimming speed was fixed at 1:40/100m, as they slowed their stroke cadence they had to lengthen their stroke to maintain their speed.

For each swimmer they also sped up their stroke rate to 10% and 20% above their natural stroke rate. To keep the same speed, the swimmer had to shorten their stroke.

For each test oxygen uptake, heart rate and perceived exertion (how hard it felt to the swimmer) where recorded to give an indication of economy. They also recorded the kick rate (kicks per stroke cycle) and to keep the study fair the order of the tests was randomised.

OK that's the technicalities, what did the results say? First lets look at what happened as the swimmers lengthened out their strokes at a lower stroke rate. If you believe that a longer stroke is more efficient, then we'd expect the swimmers to become more economical:

The fascinating result was that as the stroke lengthened, oxygen uptake, heart rate and perceived exertion all rose significantly. The kick rate also increased significantly, suggesting the swimmer had to start kicking harder to maintain speed in the dead-spot created between strokes. All of these things are strongly suggesting that trying to maximise stroke length makes you less efficient, not more efficient.

Now let's add the data onto the right side of the graph as stroke rate increases:

Heart rate, oxygen uptake and perceived exertion all dropped slightly at a 10% increase in stroke rate and then rose a little at a 20% increase. When you get into the maths, the increases at 20% above natural stroke rate are not statistically significant but the mean does rise.

Our Conclusions

1) Swimmers tend to naturally select the slowest stroke rate from the range that is economical for them.

2) Don't overly lengthen your stroke below that point by trying to over-glide, it actually makes you less efficient, not more.

3) You are likely to be able to lift your stroke rate by 10% without losing any efficiency and for some swimmers as much as 20%. In open water the ability to swim at a higher stroke rate is a huge advantage as it helps you punch through wake and chop created by other swimmers. Try and overly lengthen your stroke in open water and you can literally be stopped dead in the gap between your strokes and you will slip to the back of the field despite working hard.

4) The increase in kick rate with longer strokes correlates well with what we see in the elite swimming world where Smooth swim types with a long stroke style (e.g. Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps, Ross Davenport) use very powerful kicks to help power them through any gaps in propulsion. The thing you don't want to attempt is a long over-gliding stroke with a two beat kick as you simply decelerate far too much between strokes.

Swim Smooth!

[1] McLean SP, Palmer D, Ice G, Truijens M, Smith JC. (2010). Oxygen uptake response to stroke rate manipulation in freestyle swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc., 42(10):1909-13.

An Exercise To Help You Lift Your Stroke Rate

We hear from a lot of intermediate level swimmers who have been diligently working on improving their stroke technique but are having trouble lifting their stroke rate to where they would like it to be. You might have found that by speeding up slightly using a Wetronome or Tempo Trainer Pro you're finding it too hard work to sustain.

Try this exercise and see if it helps. You don't need a beeper for it but it's more powerful experience if you have one.

Scull And Beep

1) Take your beeper and set it to 5 strokes per minute higher than your natural stroke rate. So if you naturally swim around 55 SPM, set it to 60 SPM. Use your numbers - not anyone else's! Put the beeper under your swim cap so you can hear it but ignore it for the moment.

2) Put a pull buoy between your legs and perform our Scull #1 drill:

The point of sculling is to get a feel for the water on the palms of your hands in a good catch position, as if they were in the middle of the catch phase of the stroke. During the drill, the hands are facing slightly outwards as they travel out and slightly inwards as they travel in. This is a bit like mixing hot and cold water in the bath, you can feel the light pressure on your palm as you do so:

This may seem like a strange thing to be doing but it is actually a very powerful exercise for improving your catch technique. The key - as in a good catch - is to make sure your fingertips are lower than your wrist and your wrist is lower than your elbow at all times, as in the pictures above. In this way your palms' pressure on the water is slightly backwards, which will move you forwards. If you don't go anywhere, check you're not sculling flat with your palm facing downwards or even forwards (you'll go backwards!) :

Facing your palm forwards like this is something that Overgliders tend to do in their stroke at the front, often feeling an increased pressure on the palm of the hand and perceiving that as a good catch. For this reason, many Overgliders struggle with sculling.

This isn't an easy drill, it can take a while to get the feel of it and even great swimmers will only move slowly through the water when sculling. That's OK, don't tense up and forget to breath, keep your breathing smooth and relaxed. Also resist the urge to kick at all with your legs, that's very much cheating! :)

3) Once you get the feel of the drill, start a fresh lap and perform Scull #1 for around 15m. Then, keeping the pull buoy between your legs, immediately transition into full freestyle thinking about lightly pressing the water backwards to the wall behind you and timing your stroke to the beeper. If you don't have a beeper to follow, become aware of your stroke rate and how fast you perceive your rhythm to be.

How does it feel? Our prediction is that it will feel a lot easier to maintain that higher stroke rate as you transition into your freestyle. This really highlights the link between a good catch technique and good rhythm in the stroke: improve your catch and your rhythm will naturally increase. Interestingly, this cuts both ways, try and slow your stroke down artificially and you normally harm your catch technique, this is the Overglider scenario we mentioned above and something we always try to avoid here at Swim Smooth.

What you might find is that you can easily sustain the faster rhythm of your stroke at first and it feels great but the effect gradually wears off after 25 to 100m of swimming with it. That's normal, it's just a sign that you're slipping back to your old catch timing. Keep working on this part of your stroke and as your body gets used to the movement you will be able to swim further and further using it.

Let us know how you go with this exercise by posting on the comments on this blog (click here and go to the bottom to post).

Next week we're going to look at the results of an important study from the University of Texas into the stroke rates of swimmers and their efficiency through the water. It's not too technical and we think you'll find the implications of it very interesting for your own swimming!

Swim Smooth!

PS. If you wish to understand why this exercise works, see Adam Young's post on our forum here: Or read the chapter in our book about developing your catch technique (especially page 91).

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