Does Your Stroke Need More Oomph?

If you're quite new to swimming, you're likely to fit the mould of one of two of our Swim Types: The Arnie or The Bambino. At first sight they may look quite similar in the water but in fact they are very different swimmers.

The Arnie is the classic swimmer who tends to fight the water, with a large crossover in the stroke, low lying legs and often a scissor kick. These are normally athletic guys and girls with a background in other sports who try to use their strength to power through the water but unfortunately they work much more against the water than with it, wasting a lot of energy:

See the full Arnie profile here to see if it fits your swimming.

The Bambino may have some of those faults too but uses a much lower level of effort with the hands slipping gently through the water with very little traction. They may take on water when they breathe as the lead hand collapses downwards on a breathing stroke giving them no support whilst taking a breath:

See the full Bambino profile here to see if it fits your swimming.

If you are an Arnie, slowing down your stroke slightly is a good idea to give you the time to lengthen out on each stroke. Focusing on getting more control is critical to improve your swimming. This is the traditional approach to swim coaching at work which will serve Arnies well. Of course, once you've developed your technique, you can speed things up again to get further gains in speed.

However, the Bambino responds in a very different way. Slow your stroke down and you lose what little attachment on the water you have and so things get harder, not easier. With your swimming you actually need a little more stroke rhythm - or as we like to call it: OOMPH!

The next time you swim, try focusing on positive movements in your stroke and getting a good rhythm going. You can do this simply from feel or use a Tempo Trainer Pro to make small adjustments and get things just right. These little beepers sit underneath your swim cap and beep a rhythm to you, like a metronome but for swimming. You simply time your stroke to the beep. At the moment you probably take something in the region of 40 to 54 strokes per minute but we suggest you try lifting that initially by 3-6 strokes per minute up to around 50-60 strokes per minute:

For an Arnie lifting their stroke rate would definitely make things harder and less efficient but for Bambinos a greater rhythm actually makes things easier as you gain a better feel the water and traction with your arms stroke. We're not looking to turn you into a thrashing beast but a little more purpose and oomph is definitely a good thing for your stroke style.

Once you've tried this and got the feel of swimming with a greater sense of positivity, introduce the One-Two-Stretch Mantra we talked about here: You'll soon be on the way to faster and more efficient swimming!

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Fingers Together Or Apart?

Take a look at these two pictures of Michael Phelps (left) and Ian Thorpe (right), two of the greatest swimmers of all time. How are they holding their fingers? :

If you said 'slightly apart', are you sure? What about the other hand?

Many elite swimmers do spread their fingers slightly at the front of the stroke as they enter and extend forwards but once starting the catch and pressing the water backwards they bring them together to stop water slipping through. If there is a gap between their fingers, it is tiny.

You may have been told you should hold your fingers slightly apart in order to increase the surface area of the hand slightly and to feel relaxed but it is only with closeup photography or video we get a clear picture of what elite swimmers actually do once into their stroke underwater. The danger with trying to hold them slightly apart is that you end up spreading them too far and dramatically reduce your hold on the water.

The Thumb

One exception to this is the position of your thumb, which may move slightly out during the stroke. Here's Athens Olympian Jono Van Hazel doing just that:

Russian freestyle great Alexandar Popov held his thumb out in a similar way:

Meantime double Olympic Gold Medallist Rebecca Adlington keeps hers tucked in:

What should you do in your stroke? We recommend you simply hold your fingers lightly together and focus on the much more significant areas of your stroke technique. Unless you are knocking on the door of elite swimming you will almost certainly have plenty of refinements in your stroke technique to work on which will bring large gains to your performance, as will the right fitness training and open water skills development.

Should you spread your thumb? We suggest you go with whatever feels right to you, some people like the feeling this gives, others not so much. In all likelihood you're already doing whatever suits you best naturally.

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So Much Talent Going To Waste

A personal article this week from Paul Newsome on a subject very close to all of our hearts at Swim Smooth:

As Malcolm Gladwell made famous in his excellent book Outliers, of those who make it to elite or professional level in nearly any sport, there is a large bias towards those who were the eldest in the sport’s age banding as a child.

His example of professional ice hockey in Canada is fascinating, as observed by psychologist Roger Barnsley:

"In any elite group of hockey players - the very best of the best - 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December."

When is the age cut-off for age-class hockey in Canada? The 1st of January. A boy whose tenth birthday is in the first few weeks of January is nearly a year more physically developed than another child in his group who doesn’t turn ten until December. No wonder he skates better than the younger child, gains confidence in his ability as a result and is viewed as more talented by his coaches.

This is a significant advantage at this early age but the self belief it creates, the team selections and the extra coaching he receives as a result means that advantage self re-enforces and continues for many years, right into his professional career. Our younger boy of equal natural talent is much more likely to be underdeveloped and cast aside by a system focusing on short-term performance over long term potential.

Of course the exact same effect happens in swimming with age-banding – which is also a great shame – but it is actually not age-banding I’m concerned with here. It’s the type of events that junior squads focus on around the world: sprints.

In swimming, up until the age of about 12 or 13, the majority of events raced by our youngsters are from 50 to 200m. In fact at this age 200m is considered as a distance event when in fact it still favours tall powerful kids well suited to highly anaerobic swimming. There is next to no opportunity for any child of that age to race over further than 200m and so the children with great natural endurance (but perhaps not the longest smoothest strokes) never get the rewards they deserve and start that cycle of positive re-enforcement that the good sprinters benefit from.

Good coaches will tell parents that they don’t allow their swimmers to specialise too young in any particular event and that “all strokes should be attempted” due to the balancing effect this will have on them. However, if we are not letting our children specialise towards a stroke to give them time to develop, shouldn’t we also give opportunity to those who may not naturally be suited to sprinting to try some longer events that might suit them better?

The fact is that the meters covered in training in most junior squads is more than enough to race effectively over longer distances such as 800 or 1500m pool swims, or 2.5km open water. And ironically we often see those kids suited to sprinting doing too much volume for their needs!

As age-banding in all sports neglects the talent pool, so does our ‘sprint-only’ approach to junior swimming. The drop-out rate of kids from swimming is notoriously high in the 13-15 age range, perhaps because by that age kids and parents have realised they will never be the next Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin. The question is, how many of those would have made fantastic distance swimmers? And just as importantly, how many would have enjoyed distance swimming and kept it going for the rest of their lives – perhaps transitioning to open water which might have suited them perfectly?

As a child in the 1990s swimming at Bridlington Swimming Club, I know I was completely unaware of distance swimming as a sport. There was a lad in our squad whose mother enrolled him for the local open water club in Scarborough. I knew nothing about what or why he was doing this, only that the other kids and I thought he was only doing it because he wasn't that good in the pool and was carrying a few extra pounds in body weight.

How wrong we were - that kid went on to perform at a high level in open water and has since swum multiple marathon swimming events. What's more, he's still in the sport and still loving it as much now as he did when we were all 6 and thrown in the deep end of the pool for the first time.

I loved triathlon and instantly found my natural stroke style perfectly suited open water swimming.

In the UK and elsewhere it could be said that triathlon has benefited from this problem. Back in 1999 whilst studying Sports & Exercise Science I was also a Young Person’s Development Officer in the South West region of the UK for the British Triathlon Association (as it was then). There was much talk that as Talent ID officers, we should be visiting the local swimming clubs and looking for swimmers who weren’t quite making it in the pool to give triathlon a try.

Not co-incidentally, many of those swimmers who chose to switch to triathlon were those of smaller stature than their sprint-rivals and had shorter choppier strokes (the Swinger style as we call it). Many of them had weaker kicks too, perhaps lagging behind during kick sets. 

This still happens today with many swimmers converting to triathlon (the Brownlee brothers being classic examples), which is great for triathlon but not so great for swimming as a sport. With open water races booming and the 10K marathon swim now an Olympic sport, it’s high time we took another look at how our juniors are prepared from a young age. 

However for me, as I made mention of above, this is not just about gold medals, it’s about fairness and giving every child the best chance in swimming and the opportunity to experience something they love. Aged 16 I made the switch from swimming to triathlon and found I performed far better over longer distances and in open water. Suddenly it didn’t matter that I didn’t have much sprint capacity and I was 5’10, not 6’4.

I love distance swimming, particularly in open water. I love getting in a rhythm and switching off from the pressures and strains of daily life. I feel fortunate to have found distance swimming and I also know that whilst I have continued swimming through adulthood most of my contemporaries from my days as a junior swimmer have long since left the sport.

Swim Smooth is about helping you become a better swimmer but it is also about unlocking that love for swimming which is a gift for life. For us that starts with recognising that we are all different, swim with naturally different styles and are good at different events and that should start in kids coaching.

So if little Jonny comes home one day dejected that he hasn't made the team for that weekend's sprint meet, perhaps we should give him the chance to try some longer events. Who knows how he might perform with that opportunity, what it would do for his self esteem and where that could take him. It could be something that literally changes his life.


PS. Also see this interesting article on why kids drop out of sports

Two Minutes On Tumble Turns With Fiona Ford

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At Swim Smooth we get a lot of requests for instruction and tips on developing your tumble turns.

You'll be glad to hear we have a full SS production on tumbling in the pipeline but you don't have to wait - Swim Smooth Coach Fiona Ford has just created a great two minute Youtube tutorial on tuning up your tumble turns here:

Unless you're a competition pool swimmer it's not essential to learn to tumble but it's a lot of fun and a great skill to learn. Of course, when you master it you can save a lot of time and it helps you train with slightly faster swimmers if you can turn faster than them.

Fiona's based in Richmond, London and runs full Swim Smooth Video Analysis consultations and squad training suitable for all levels of ability:

All Swim Smooth coaches are hand picked from our extensive coach education work across the globe and we train them extensively to bring you the very highest level of coaching available anywhere in the world. Book a session with your nearest coach today and discover what they can do for your swimming:

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