Swim Smooth Analysis: 2013 Barcelona World Championships

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We hope you managed to see some of the FINA World Swimming Championships from Barcelona last week, it was a fantastic event packed with some brilliant performances, particularly in the distance freestyle races. In this post we've picked out some interesting video stills highlighting the stroke technique and strategic elements of the men's and women's 800m and 1500m races, won by Sun Yang of China and Katie Ledecky from the US.

With very similar strokes underwater, Ryan Cochrane (right) leads Sun Yang during the 1500m final

Both Yang and Ledecky are what we call the Smooth Swim Type, having long smooth freestyle strokes and a powerful 6 beat kick when in full-flight. Notably both swimmers drop down to an intermittent flutter kick over long races, saving their full kick for the last 1-200m of a distance race. This ability to sprint is a trademark of the Smooth type, who have a natural turn of pace over short distances and so tend to also dominate the sprint events in the pool. Notable 'sprint-Smooths' being Alexander Popov, Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps.

However at Swim Smooth we recognise there is also another 'ideal' way to swim freestyle for distance swimming, the less celebrated 'Swinger' type. Interestingly the main competitors to Yang and Ledecky in these races were Ryan Cochrane and Lotte Friis, both of whom use a shorter punchier style of stroke to move through the water. Both fit into the Swinger stroke bracket, particularly Friis who favours the classic swinging straighter arm over the water from which the type takes its name:

400m into the 800m final: Friis (leading) uses the classic straight-arm swinging recovery of the Swinger, a style used widely by elite open water swimmers and triathletes. Ledecky (second place) has the classical high-elbow of the Smooth stroke style.

Despite being taller (1.84m/6'0” vs 1.78m/5'10”), Friis takes 44 strokes per length and Ledecky 38. As Friis has a shorter stroke, to move at the same speed she turns her arms over quicker at 95 strokes per minute (SPM) versus 81 SPM for Ledecky. That's a large difference and just goes to show how there's no right distance per stroke that everyone should swim at – nor is a long stroke necessarily better than a short stroke. It's about finding the stroke that works for you as an individual, if Friis tried to swim with Ledecky's stroke style or vice versa it simply would not work for them and they'd be slower as a result.

It's not just stroke rate, the personalities of Swingers and Smooths tend to be quite different. Smooths tend to be quite suave in their dress sense while Swingers are a bit more 'out there' and prefer bright bathers; in the case of Lotte Friis bright nails too!

If you have a Tempo Trainer Pro yourself, try setting it to those stroke rates in turn (Ledecky: 81SPM / Friis: 95SPM) in mode 3, see if you can stay with the beep for 25m. 95 SPM is obviously very fast but 81 SPM is quick too, despite Ledecky looking long and smooth in the pool. The secret to Ledecky's speed is that her stroke is actually long and fast.

Strategically the 800m and 1500m races were interesting as Yang and Ledecky let Cochrane and Friis lead the whole way pacing themselves off them before using their sprint finish to overtake them over the last 100-150m. It's unlikely they would have gained any drafting effect from the next lane over but psychologically following someone is much easier than leading:

Sun Yang (far side) paces himself off Ryan Cochrane midway through the 1500m, keeping an eye on him on every breath before unleashing his finish in the last 100m. Note Cochrane's straight arm recovery style.

Friis (leading) stays on the far side of her lane away from Ledecky, just in case she's managing to pick up a tow from her wake.

If you are fortunate enough to be a Smooth swim type yourself there is an important strategy lesson here, particularly if you are considering open water swimming or triathlon. You will probably feel a strong temptation to get out front and lead the whole race but if do that you will likely tow around a whole bunch of slower swimmers drafting behind you (see our classic blog post: Behind Every Smooth Is A Gaggle Of Bloodsucking Swingers).

Instead of trying to lead, learn to draft effectively and get comfortable sitting in the lead group yourself behind other swimmers. In a triathlon where there's no advantage in sprinting at the end of the swim but in an open water race you can unleash your finish with 200m to go and leave everyone in your wake.

What else can we learn from these great swimmers? We'd highlight three important things:

1. Zero Glide From Katie Ledecky

If you study footage of Ledecky's stroke, you can see how her stroke starts immediately as the previous stroke finishes at the rear. Katie may appear to glide down the pool with her super-smooth stroke but this is in fact an illusion, her propulsion is smooth and continuous and there's zero pause-and-glide in her stroke:

Consecutive video frames 0.04 seconds apart: Ledecky finishes one stroke (A) and immediately commences the next (B). You can see the overlap in Friis' stroke in the background, starting the front stroke before the rear finishes, giving her that faster revving style.

The notion that great swimmers glide down the pool is the biggest misconception in swim coaching – something we're dedicated to dispelling at Swim Smooth as it's an idea that harms so many swimmer's stroke techniques and limits their achievements.

If you've tried to add a pause-and-glide into your stroke, check out this data showing how incredibly inefficient it is and our similar analysis of Sun Yang's stroke from 2011.

2. Sun Yang's Great Catch And Pull Through Technique

A feature of Sun's stroke is his powerful catch and pull, pushing himself forwards strongly on every stroke:

At its simplest level, propulsion in swimming is about engaging with the water and pressing it backwards so that you are propelled forwards, which we can clearly see Sun doing above. You're not looking to rotate your arms round in a big circle like a waterwheel, you're entering the water, extending forwards and pressing water backwards until you reach the back of the stroke.

3. Fantastic Pacing Skills

Here's Sun Yang's splits per 50m during the 1500m race. Notice how perfectly paced the swim was up until the sprint finish over the last 100m with each 50m split only varying by a few tenths of a second:

distancelap time (seconds)
5027.13 (from dive)

To pace things that accurately takes tremendous skill and is something that nearly all non-elite swimmers lack. It's so easy to start too fast in your swims and then blow-up, ending up slower overall.

One way to help you develop your pacing skills is to swim with a Tempo Trainer Pro set to beep at your target speed - so you reach the end of the lap on every beep (a bit like a constant pace beep test). It's so easy to get way ahead of the beeper in the early stages of your swim only for it to catch and pass you. Nearly all world records on the track or in the pool have been set with even pacing, or a slight negative split where the second half is quicker than the first. Swimming with good pacing in training sets will give you bigger fitness improvements too.

Katie Ledecky's Hand Entry

We've talked about Sun Yang before on the blog and what a phenomenal swimmer he is but Katie Ledecky is equally impressive, having shocked the world to win the 800m gold at the London Olympics aged just 15 and now winning four golds at the world championships (400m/800m/1500m/4x200m) just a year later. She's the new superstar of distance swimming and we look forward to more stunning performances from her over the coming years.

Is she perfect? Nearly but not quite, she does have a distinct thumb first entry with the palm turning outwards on her right hand which is going to place a twisting load on her shoulder:

Katie Ledecky's left and right hand entries

Given that she already has a great catch and pull-through, rectifying that to a more neutral entry (as she does on her left side) is unlikely to bring a speed improvement but it will help her avoid shoulder injury over the coming years. If you suffer from any shoulder pain when you swim, a thumb first entry is the first thing to check for in your stroke.

The Open Water Races

Both the mens and women's 10km marathon swims also played out as classic battles between Swingers and Smooths but out in the open water the tables were turned and the Swingers came out on top. In the mens race, Spyridon Gianniotis took the win to claim his second world title with Thomas Lurz in second, both 'swinging' at 92-95 SPM for the whole race. The Olympic Champion Oussama Mellouli came in third with his longer smoother stroke, racing at 68-70SPM.

The start of the men's 10K swim in Barcelona. It's obvious what an advantage a straighter arm recovery is to clear the disturbed water and other swimmers.

In the women's race, the two Brazilian swimmers Poliona Okimoto Cintra and Ana Marcela Cunha took the gold and silver, again stroking fast in the 90-95SPM range. For more detail on the races, check out Steve Munatones' excellent race reports here and here where he discusses how despite the water conditions being relatively smooth, in a tightly packed group of swimmers they became very turbulent indeed.

The open water results highlight the fact that swimmers with a faster stroke rate tend to naturally excel in open water. That faster punchy rhythm helps drive them through the wake, chop and disturbed water quickly and efficiently. The key thing to appreciate is that this is not a less efficient way to swim and they are not fighting the water, it's just like spinning a smaller gear on the bike taking more strokes but each taking less effort.


Once again at a major swimming championships we see a range of stroke styles being used by different athletes to suit their height, build, natural style and the race in which they are competing. This just goes to show that there's not one ideal stroke style that all great swimmers use.

As you develop your own swimming try not to fall into the trap of thinking you must swim in a certain style because it could well be the wrong style for you. Instead, work on each area of your stroke technique such as improving your breathing technique, your body position or your catch and pull through and see how the stroke clicks together as a result.

What to work on as a priority? Take a look at our Swim Types microsite here: www.swimtypes.com. As well as the elite level Smooth and Swinger, there are four other types which range from beginner through intermediate to advanced level. Discover your type and we'll show you exactly how to improve, step by step.

Swim Smooth!

PS. If you enjoy your facts and figures, here's our summary of the women's 800m and men's 1500m swimmers in numbers:
Women's 800m Winner: Katie Ledecky (USA)
Age 16
Height 1.78m (5'10")
38 Strokes Per Length / 81 Strokes Per Minute
Gap between strokes* Left: 0.00 sec, Right: 0.00 sec
Finishing time (new world record) : 8:13.86 (61.7s/100m)
Swim Type: Smooth
Women's 800m Second Place: Lotte Friis (Denmark)
Age 25
Height 1.84m (6'0”)
44 Strokes Per Length / 95 Strokes Per Minute
Gap between strokes* Left: -0.12 sec, Right: -0.12 sec
Finishing time : 8:16.32 (62.0s/100m)
Swim Type: Swinger
Men's 1500m Winner: Sun Yang (China)
Age 21
Height 1.98m (6'6")
28 Strokes Per Length / 60 Strokes Per Minute
Gap between strokes* Left: 0.16, Right: 0.22
Sprint finish gap between strokes*: Left: 0.00, Right: -0.12 (85SPM)
Finishing time : 14:41.15 (58.7s/100m)
Swim Type: Smooth
Men's 1500 Second Place: Ryan Cochrane (Canada)
Age 24
Height 1.93m (6'4")
36 Strokes Per Length / 82 Strokes Per Minute
Gap between strokes* Left: 0.00, Right: 0.00
Sprint finish gap between strokes*: Left: -0.12, Right: -0.08 (99 SPM)
Finishing time : 14:42.48 (58.8s/100m)
Swim Type: Swinger
*The time gap between the stroke finishing at the rear and the next starting at the front from video analysis averaged over several strokes. Negative denotes stroke overlap.


Anonymous said...

I wanted to ask about Sun Yang's hands when they are underwater as the fingers seem very splayed. Is this normal or would he swim (even!) better if the fingers were closer together?

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised to see how far through the stroke both Yang and Ledecky are before their next stroke "starts". It looks like they're almost to the recovery before the next stroke reaches its pull. I've always tried to have my stroke start by the time the other stroking arm is perpendicular to the bottom of the pool. Is my thinking right on this or is their stroke just what works for them?

Anonymous said...

It really looked like in the 800m women's race that there was a lot of one sided breathing, did anyone else notice that?

It was especially noticeable from underwater where they only turned their head in one direction and then straight down.

Anonymous said...

I find it quite interesting - mainly due to spending too much time reading technique articles about hip rotation - how little hip rotation these guys seem to have - they all look pretty flat in the water to me. Would love to see that discussed by one of the coaches.

comment on the breathing on one side above - I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone racing in a world champs final breathing any less - if they are I'd suggest they ain't going hard enough!!

GeorgeY said...

Two years ago I wrote a comment about the swinging style of Spyros Gianniotis who at the time won his first world championship title in 10K. This year he has retained his title, I am so proud for Spryros who I was fortunate enough to meet and exchange a few words at a race in Greece. He really is a great guy, he came to the race as a spectator and did us the honors of presenting the awards at the ceremony after the race (local amateur race, mind you).

Anonymous said...

In our own way, we all have a perspective of what constitutes good technique in swimming, and I know that when I first started coaching I often compare my swimmers techniques to those of champion performers.

If my swimmers technique was similar to the given and accepted 'role model' then, the technique of that swimmer must be good... but, is that assumption correct? This assumption is often the presented case by other swimming companies and swimming coaches.

However, the fact that champions vary in the observable features of their performance suggests that merely copying is not the smartest way to reach peak performance.

Thus, it is important to realise that there is no 'one' correct technique. People are different and good technique varies according to many individual characteristics such as body size and shape, strength, physical maturity and flexibility.

Today, information about swimming technique comes from a variety of companies/clinics and coaches presenting their ideas on faster swimming.

While these outlets claim to base their programme on the fastest swimmers and it is true, that the fastest swimmers have a far more effective technique for them over than slower swimmers, even the fastest swimmers have technique limitations.

Therefore, modeling your technique on the latest swimming ideas or championl (even if it presented as the ideal stroke technique) can result in the adoption of ineffective technique elements.

Poor technique often results from a technique that is modeled from the elements of the latest advertised trend, as opposed to the elements of fast swimming.

How is this a problem?

A problem arises when this presented model of technique becomes “conventional wisdom.” According to Nobel Laureate Harold Kroto...

"People are generally willing to accept conventional wisdom without any supporting facts. "

Many smoke and mirror misconceptions have been assimilated into the conventional wisdom of swimming and have, consequently, slowed many a swimmers’ progress.

This presents a dilemma. If swimmers can look different and still be performing well, how do we assess technique and identify faults in order to improve it?

All swimmers and coaches need to be aware that the 'ideal' movement pattern does not necessarily have a particular appearance.

Rather, the 'ideal' performance is one in which the movement obeys the important mechanical and physiological principles relevant to the skill.

This principle lies at the very heart of my teaching and coaching.

Anonymous said...

"It really looked like in the 800m women's race that there was a lot of one sided breathing, did anyone else notice that?"

yes. in fact i didn't see *anyone* bilaterally breathing in any of the events i saw!! which did surprise me...

any comments from the author?

Adam Young said...

Hi anonymous,

Pretty much every swimmer breathed to both sides, swapping sides tactically to keep an eye on their competitors. Swapping sides regularly is still technically bilateral breathing - it's not just breathing every 3 strokes.

If you watch Sun Yang carefully after a turn he breathes both sides on consecutive strokes ('breathing every 1') that's not something we'd recommend but it clearly works for him.



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