Flaws In A Seemingly Perfect Stroke?

If you've seen a "Smooth" Swim Type in action, you may have felt a little jealous of their silky smooth stroke which allows them to slip through the water, seemingly effortlessly. Of course they're not actually effortless, they're working as hard as any other swimmer but they're so controlled and smooth that it looks deceptively easy.

Elite swimmers such as Rebecca Adlington and Jono Van Hazel epitomise this long smooth stroke style but there are many strong masters swimmers and fast swimming triathletes who swim this way too. Despite these swimmers looking like a picture of perfection, there are a couple of stroke flaws that Smooths exhibit surprisingly often:

Flaw 1: Turning The Hand Outwards At Full Extension

Turning the hand outwards at full extension is quite subtle and you may need to watch a swimmer from the end of the lane swimming towards you to see it happening:

Like many Smooths, elite triathlete Guy Crawford has a
tendency to turn his hand outwards at full extension.
Turning the hand out harms the initiation of the catch that follows and can cause the elbow to drop slightly underwater as the swimmer leans on it, lessening their engagement with the water. This might happen on either or both sides of the stroke.

A good visualisation to help correct this movement is to become aware of the middle finger on each hand as you swim. Enter the water and extend forwards, keeping that middle finger pointing gun-barrel straight down the lane, even on a breathing stroke. By straightening out the lead hand you should immediately feel a better sense of rhythm and fluidity to the stroke.

Flaw 2: Late Breathing Timing

Good breathing timing involves turning the head away from the arm as it enters the water and extends forwards. If you were to watch this in slow motion, the head turns slightly ahead of the shoulders:

Guys's breathing timing is excellent, rotating his head to breathe just ahead of his body roll.
This looks easy but it's surprising how many Smooths have late timing where the shoulders roll and then the head turns slightly afterwards. The resultant window of time available to breathe is reduced and this can make a big difference to your breathing efficiency. When you see a swimmer with late breathing timing, their head appears to flick to the side in a jerky action instead of turning smoothly.

If your breathing timing is late, you may be completely unaware it is happening. You can check by consciously turning the head away from lead arm as you enter and extend forwards on the breathing stroke. Try it the next time you're in the water, improved breathing timing should feel smoother and more relaxed.

Smooths And Stroke Correction

Smooths are very proprioceptive swimmers who normally make changes to their stroke very easily, however they may find these two particular habits hard to break. Be persistent and expect the changes to take about six sessions before they feel "right".

Take heart if you're not so smooth in the water yourself, sometimes great swimmers find improving their stroke challenging too!

Swim Smooth!


Oliver K said...


I turn my left hand outward (not the right one; I'm right-hander).

As it happens, the last month or so I'm trying again to become more smooth. I started as overglider, and mixed-in swinger elements. But I feel now I could retry the smooth style. Now I feel very sharply (also seeing it on my video analysis), that I'm doing strange things with my left arm. One element is that the left hand, I guess, wants to be clever, catching the water, and does then "snaky" movements.

To get into the smooth region (it feels like it, and the stroke counts goes down, while maintaining the stroke rate, in the range 56 - 72 strokes per minutes), I need to stretch out "violently", with full force. That costs a lot of energy (missing shoulder flexibility, I guess), and there is the danger that I hold my breath, but it feels superb (as if things fall into place). I don't have an interest in long distances, while sprinting I would like to do (currently I'm around 33s for 50m (25m pool); started practising swimming 13 years ago, approaching my first half centenary). So I will give it a go for a few months, seeing how it develops.

Back to the problem. When doing the full stretching, then it feels reasonable with my right hand: I can feel especially the high elbow, and the catch, and it feels like a whole movement. However with my left arm, it is strange. I already started trying to control the turning of the hand before reading this, by just trying to be relaxed and "straight-forward". Also the high elbow works much less, and the movement is not "whole". I guess part of the story is that a history of rotatory-cuff problems especially in the left shoulder has left a trace of evading movements.

I'll try to think at the middle finger. If there are some other mental images, or exercises, which might help in my situation, I would be glad to hear it.

(I must say I don't believe in technical exercises, since I don't *feel* their point. What do you want to achieve with them --- and how to measure it ?!! With (full) swimming there are the basic measurements of time (stroke rate) and stroke count, but in which direction to go with a technical exercise? It seems to me that technical exercises are geared towards a standard coach-trainee relation, where the almighty coach treats the swimmer like a robot. But I have no coach, and I don't want to --- a "proud overglider" in that I love swimming on my own and exploring it (the beauty of swimming for me has a lot to do with the dialectical mind-body relation, it is lived philosophy). So from time to time I try out various technical exercises for a few weeks (for example the swim-smooth ones), but yet nothing worked. Except that now for the awkward-left-arm I try one-sided swimming, with the right arm fixed extended. Here now I feel something afterwards, something gets activated a bit. So that's the first technical exercise where I ever felt something. (Otherwise I prefer (love) to do full stroke, but with the attention shifted to various aspects -- I love thinking during swimming).

Oliver K said...

I just was one hour in the pool, and I think I came closer to the problem. I watched the action, and astounding things were revealed.

With my right arm I think the basics are there. The catch-phase starts directly after the stretch, without a big drop of the arm, and the elbow doesn't drop too much either. It feels better when I increase the stroke rate.

But the left arm is schizophrenic. When I want to do early catch, then I get an awkward hand-bending, which altogether feels weak and unnatural. Okay, I tell my arm to not do this, concentrate on the middle finger, and that everything is straight and direct. And it works -- sort of: When watching my arm, a scandalous scene unveils, I tell, command, scream at my arm to start the catch, but it doesn't do it, it drops and drops, nothing can stop it, and only very late starts then the catch! There is a kind of inhibition, a slowing down of time, which the commander of the space ship observes with astonishment.

So I can do early catch, but with awkward wrist and arm bending, or I keep the arm relaxed and straight, but then the arm separates itself from the ship, can be steered only with delay.

This fits very well with very different speed-related sensations regarding my both arms: With my right arm, I like to go with higher stroke rates, and faster feels better and easier ( too slow is 52 strokes per minute, which feels like hanging in empty air, and 80 is fun). But with my left arm, when concentrating on the early catch I always had the feeling that already 56 strokes per minute is at the edge, and above that I loose that high-elbow feeling (or better, early-catch feeling). It seems as if there are conflicting patterns, and if the arm is on relaxation and straight, then it takes so to speak a big effort of the signals to get through, reaching it very late.

So tomorrow I'll try to really slowly practice the early catch. Perhaps best with some form of catch-up, where I swim flat, keep the right arm straight, and do fully controlled, slow high-elbow catches with my left arm. In the other exercise, which I described above, being on my side creates too much rotation and distraction. Hopefully with time I can increase the speed, and a kind of signal facilitation is created.

Hope that was of interest to somebody ..


Zonfeld said...

When turning for the breath, my head used to follow the recovering shoulder. I read the "turning the head away from the arm as it enters the water and extends forwards" part and tried it in the pool today. Not sure if I got more air but I noticed that my head remained deeper in the water and I had less vertical movement overall; the breath was less disruptive. I was surprised I could breathe at all when almost everything I saw was below the surface. :)
Thanks for the great tip!

Oliver K said...

I actually do not understand what that late breathing time is supposed to look like. I have no clue what "where the shoulders roll and then the head turns slightly afterwards" means. Some photos would be nice (of the flawed action, like we have it for Flaw 1).

I have a question regarding breathing for the smooth style: I would like to see what the missing fourth and fifth photos would look like. If I see the third breathing-photo right, then inhaling didn't start yet, since the mouth is closed, right? What is the relation between starting breathing and starting the catch? How far will the arm be down, when the breathing is completed?

Unfortunately, on the 8 underwater-seconds of the van Hazel clip he is not breathing (actually, apparently he is also not exhaling, since no bubbles??) From the rest of the clip it looks as if at the end of the breathing the arm is just 90 degrees. For Mr Smooth it looks as if he would finish earlier, so that the arm is 90 degrees when the head is already back to normal position?

And does the inhaling for "standard smooth" start before, at or after the time the catch starts? Or does it differ? I guess its about at the same time?

Is on one of the DVDs you can buy more to see about van Hazel? I have the older DVD, with Bill Kirby.

Adam Young said...

Hi Oliver,

Wow there's a lot of thoughts going on there when you're swimming!

You really need some simplification and clarity on what you are doing. Definitely recommend some video analysis help you get that. If you get some footage yourself, send in to help@swimsmooth.com and we'll take a look for you.

Yes, Jono is in our Catch Masterclass DVD.

Cheers, Adam

Anonymous said...

To Oliver K.,

Dude, what the hell are you smoking? Your comments/questions are nothing but incessant rambling. I was trying to find out what the point was so that I could learn something. I hope your swimming technique doesn't mirror your thought processes.

Oliver K said...

"I hope your swimming technique doesn't mirror your thought processes."
I hope it does.

Oliver K said...

Hi Adam,

thanks for your answer. I see there are some misunderstanding (though I'm slightly surprised). I stressed the subjective side, how I actually experience it. The objective side is less dramatic.

Within the last year I had three SwimSmooth video sessions, and that was very helpful. I think I have now a reasonable vision and feeling what I'm actually doing, and also the direction where it should go (for some time).

Regarding the bending of the left hand: I checked those three recordings, and also another older one, and it's all there, always the same. It was never flagged, apparently wasn't considered to be a big issue (and there were other issues). It came only up for me more prominently when trying to develop a better catch and a higher elbow with the left arm.

I developed within the last 4-5 months a new form of my stroke, experimenting with more swing. That was fun, and made me faster, but led to the following: The right arm swings forward quite strongly, the left arm much less so. When breathing to my right side, then actually the body rotation is full 90 degrees, facing directly the side wall. The left arm does it's beginning pull then nearly fully straight (pointing now directly to the ground). And when then the body rotates to the other direction (with the strong swing of the right arm), then the left hand crosses over the middle line (kind of an extended S shape). Especially the hand-crossing (below the body) was flagged, and I was working on that. And on that occasion then I tried to integrate further "smooth" elements.

I believe it is because of that history, that the left arm has trouble. (As if the right arm would do the pulling, and the left arm is kind of an anchor.) But when I now practised slowly, then I was able to control it after some time. Doing the catch-up with the elbow nearly at the surface seemed especially helpful. The left hand feels weak, as if there is less steering capacity, and much less strength, but the basics I got I think. When I go faster and/or stronger, then the old habits partially come back, but I guess that's kind of natural.

With the slow motion then I believe also the hand rotation is under control. What I described was the transition pain, from the old movement (where the left arm bends very late) to the new form. And there then that element of bending the hand, likely relatively unimportant, felt much more outstanding. Like under a microscope, while I guess a video recording would show only minute changes.

It's interesting how drastic certain changes in style feel, while on the video you see actually only some rather small differences. I got faster, first session (one year ago) the 150m (for the recording) I swum in 2m39s, second (half a year ago) in 2m20s, third in 2m12s. The elbow drop somewhat less, the hand sinks a bit less, the head moves a bit less, and the stroke rate increased. But besides these details (and the overall dynamics) it looks very similar. So well, good thing needs time. And finally I think I can *see* and *feel* myself basically in the water (though I must say this more truthful picture is less glamorous then earlier pictures I had in my head -- hey, it feels great, I must look like a shark -- that's not the case, now I know).

brian said...

Gas Guy got a dropped elbow in this shot? If so is this of significance. Is it due to pushing the finger tips upwards at end of hand entry as he extends?

Adam Young said...

Hi Brian, yes he has very slightly and you could argue it's harming his stroke technique a little. Even great swimmers have small things in their stroke to keep an eye on and monitor!

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