Yesterday's Commonwealth Games Stroke Styles

If you live in a Commonwealth country, we hope you watched the two Commonwealth Games Triathlon events yesterday. If not you missed out, both were thrilling races at the fantastic Strathclyde Country Park near Glasgow.

The swims in both the men's and women's races were hotly contested with the warm conditions making wetsuits illegal, giving a distinct advantage to many of the stronger swimmers in the field. The women's swim was particularly interesting because of the two very distinct swimming styles that were on display.

England's Lucy Hall led for much of the swim and her long smooth stroke style was immediately apparent:

Lucy races on the French Grand Prix circuit where she is known as "La Sirène" or "The Mermaid" - and it's easy to see why! Swimming at around 68 strokes per minute, we calculate that she would take around 18 strokes in a 25m pool or 38 in a 50m pool.

We're sure you'll agree Lucy has a very long and smooth stroke - nicely fitting the mould of the Smooth Swim Type. Notice how she likes to use her kick quite a bit, which is a trait of Smooths when racing hard. It helps push them through the very slight gap between strokes when swimming with such a long stroke style but raises their heart rate and energy consumption higher than you might expect given how relaxed they look in the water.

Many Smooths tend to seek out clear water and sit on the front of the field like this, they don't like being knocked by other swimmers or buffeted by disturbed water. If you are as strong a swimmer as Lucy this is an option for you but of course there's no drafting benefit to be had, which can allow you to swim with much faster swimmers or save up to 38% of your energy expenditure! 1

(By the way, you might have noticed Lucy enters thumb-first into the water, we don't recommend copying that as it is the leading cause of shoulder pain and injury in swimming, instead enter with the palm facing downwards, fingertips first.)

What was happening behind her? Well that was altogether more chaotic:

Here we have the likes of Gold and Bronze Medallists Jodie Stimpson and Vicky Holland swimming with a lot more punch and rhythm, drafting in Lucy's and other swimmer's wakes. These are the Swingers - their strokes are not as pretty as Lucy's but are none the less very effective in open water, all that punch and rhythm ideally suited to swimming in disturbed water beside and behind other swimmers.

These girls are swimming at around 85-95 strokes per minute, with a stroke length equivalent to around 23 or 50 in a 25m and 50m pool respectively. It just goes to show that there's more than one way to swim efficiently and effectively! In fact most top age group and elite triathletes swim this way (and elite open water swimmers too) - it is actually the Smooth style that is the rarity in open water swimming, not the other way around.

If you watched the mens race then you'll know this to be the case as there were no Smooths at all on display, the rapid turnover of Henri Schoeman and the Brownlee Brothers powering away at 95 SPM plus, splitting the field and creating a breakaway pack of around seven Swingers, which proved to be the decisive break of the race.

A few years ago we posted our classic blog Behind Every Smooth Is A Gaggle Of Bloodsucking Swingers and this is exactly what with saw with Lucy and the girls behind her. If you're a Smooth and you don't want to do all the work and drag everyone around the swim course it's worth taking a leaf out of the Swingers' book - put a little more rhythm into your stroke, regularly practise drafting in training and become comfortable sitting in the pack. You will swim the same speed but at a much lower effort, ready and fresh for the bike. Or in the case of a swimming event ready to unleash your devastating turn of speed over the last 200m to win the race!

Swim Smooth

[1] CHATARD, J.-C., and B. WILSON. Drafting Distance in Swimming. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 7, pp. 1176–1181, 2003.


Glendo90 said...

Paul, great blog but hard to read on the blue background...

Anonymous said...

Anyone else notice there was little bilateral breathing going on?

Jonas said...

Well, here the swinger style wasn't necessary because there were no waves. More generally, the reason why smooths are the rarity in open water swimming is not that the swinger style is more efficient (as it actually is in rough open water), the reason is that generally smooths prefer to swim in the pool, they are not interested in endurance races, they don't have the personality of a triathlete. That's why.

Jonas said...

Swim Smooth keeps advocating the efficiency of the swinger style in open water. But with the swinger style you put a lot of strain on your shoulder during the recovery. And the swinger style is really, really ugly.

Anonymous said...

I just don't buy that drafting is 38% easier than leading. I'm a surf club swimmer, so I've swum open water for 25 years, but all relatively short course (120 up to 1600m), and I just don't get a 38% reduction in my effort, or a 38% increase in my speed when I swim behind someone else. In fact, there is a very, very small number of swimmers it's worth swimming behind - if they're quicker than you, you can't stay on them. If they're slower, it's not worth sitting behind them. I also think that if the benefit was that great, the leader would just never win. If you pulled the entire field around a 420m open water course, doing 38% more work, there's no way you'd stay with them in the sprint at the end. You'd have to be 40% better than everyone behind you to win. I believe it in cycling - drafting definitely favours the guys behind. I just don't buy it in swimming. Does anyone else feel a massive benefit from drafting - am I just doing it wrong?

Paul said...

Anonymous, the last time someone argued that point with me about the efficiency and efficacy of drafting we went into 20+ emails back and forth. I would send him research papers defining these results (one is even referenced here in this blog - I suggest you check it out) and he would argue against the points. I simply said "have you tried it as we suggest?" - his response "no, not until you can prove it conclusively to me!"

I told him I didn't have time to waste if he wasn't willing to try it. He eventually went away.

I kid you not this was 4 years ago - last month I got an email from him asking me to sign his mate up for the blog - his P.S was "by the way, I tried the drafting thing - seems it does work".

The question is - are you going to waste 4 years of your own swimming life disputing the fact rather than getting out there and practicing this very important skill? I sincerely hope not.

The reality is that surf club race field sizes are significantly smaller than triathlon events, especially Ironman events. As such the disparity of abilities will be much greater. Coupled with rough, choppy conditions and yes, drafting is MUCH harder - impossible though it is not. To write it off as "not buying it" is to turn your back like my "friend" from four years ago - please don't do that. Sign yourself up for an open water event this summer and see how you go. In the short-term, get down the pool with a mate 5-8"/100m faster than you and try to sit behind them - see how you go then tell me you don't buy it.

Don't be afraid to try new stuff even if it doesn't necessarily make theoretical sense.



Unknown said...

Agree with Karl, blue background doesnt make for easy reading, or am i getting old?????

Paul said...

Hi Jonas

Two points:

1) for some, a straighter arm recovery (especially when wearing a wetsuit) is actually LESS fatiguing and awkward than the classic high elbow recovery, despite appearances. See

2) there are no style points in swimming - and that goes for pool, open water or triathlon - the fastest, most economical strokes aren't always the most pretty - take Janet Evans as a prime example - 3-time Olympic Champion and former holder of the longest standing world record in freestyle swimming history. What do you / people make of her stroke? Unorthodox? Ugly? Choppy? But was it effective? All we see is the final outcome, who is first across the line - for Janet (and the Swingers in this clip) this is the optimal way for them to be swimming. As such, we're very happy to be trumpeting the benefits of this style for the right swimmers in the right conditions (note: not for everyone) - after all, can the whole men's field in yesterday's Commonwealth Games Triathlon be wrong? Do you think Alistair Brownlee cares if he looks "ugly" to you but is happily wearing yet another gold medal around his neck. I dare to say no.



Paul said...

Mani, not sure where you're seeing the blu background? Has the page fully loaded for you?

Bill Ryan said...

Drafting definitely helps a lot. I think it is a secret weapon. Two examples: In a recent OW swim I was drafting behind slower swimmers (slower as I soon discovered - there is no label saying they are slower on their backs), I drafted for awhile and got the rest benefit, then I passed them and found the next person to draft behind. I drafted behind 4 other swimmers, eventually passing each one and beating all of them. # 2: Doing pool workouts - circle swimming with 5 seconds between each swimmer. Even with 5 seconds distance there is, to me, substantially less effort than being in the lead.

Bill Ryan - Plymouth, Mass, USA

Jimpratt said...

Been looking at the Commonwealth games in the pol. Again very little bi-lat breathing. Not just the open water swimmers in the triathlon. Am I wasting my time trying to perfect it?!

Bill Ryan said...

@Jimpratt: For me I employ bilateral breathing during workouts. The benefits are obvious, better stroke balance, etc. But in a race I revert to breathing on one side. I would not be surprised if that is the case with many swimmers. Also, if the waves are coming in from one direction it is helpful to be able to breath on the side away from the waves.

Bill Ryan - Plymouth, Mass, USA

Unknown said...

Yes drafting does work Anonymous. As a coach and athlete I have seen it and used it. I train my Triathletes to prepare for it because it is an advantage and it is an underused skill. I think it is of more benefit, to novice age groupers, over the longer swim distances 1.5km and up as there is time and space for drafting patterns to form. I do know, however, plenty of good drafters who can catch the lead group in a 750 meter swim very effectively if they have the initial speed.
Swim Smooth don't do blogs on a whim but rather their information is backed by science and coaching experience - the best type. I can say this as an independant coach from NZ with no affiliation to swim smooth other than i use their web site as a part of my own ongoing education.

Anonymous said...

Sorry offTopic. Tuomas is swimming over the Gulf of Finland, about 60 kilometers, only few kilomters left...

Anonymous said...

This is interesting, but I'm not sure they are mutually exclusive?

"Many Smooths tend to seek out clear water and sit on the front of the field like this, they don't like being knocked by other swimmers or buffeted by disturbed water. If you are as strong a swimmer as Lucy this is an option for you but of course there's no drafting benefit to be had, which can allow you to swim with much faster swimmers or save up to 38% of your energy expenditure!"

Are you suggesting that smooth swimmers don't or won't draft? Or was this simply a writing transition to drafting?

Anonymous said...

Part 2:

"all that punch and rhythm ideally suited to swimming in disturbed water beside and behind other swimmers."

I would think that no matter what the swimming style, water would not have a preference for "punch" or "clean"? In fact, I'd think that hydrodynamically a clean entry would be preferred regardless.

Is there some other benefit that I"m not seeing to having "punch"? disturbed water is less would if anything need "less".

I'm just trying to understand plusses & minuses of each proposed style. Thanks.

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Anonymous,

It's a general observation that for some unknown reason, a lot of Smooth swimmers prefer to be in clear water, rather than in the hussle and bussle of the drafting pack. This could be due to there pool swimming background and liking to lead the lane. See

The Swinger style with slightly higher stroke rate suits disturbed water since there is constantly one hand pushing the water backwards creating propulsion. Longer Smoother strokes therefore tend not to go so well in choppy water. See . Hope that helps!

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Jimpratt and any others doubtful of the benefits of bilateral breathing- please read this!

Adam Young said...

Anonymous wrote: I would think that no matter what the swimming style, water would not have a preference for "punch" or "clean"? In fact, I'd think that hydrodynamically a clean entry would be preferred regardless.

When we say 'punch and rhythm' we're not suggesting swimming with a closed fist! The hand entry itself can be identical but the overall rhythm of the stroke is punchy which helps hugely in disturbed water as it jostles you about.


Graham Williams said...

If you would like a simple look at how drafting does work and is a skill well worth the time learning please watch this video I put together to show it.
Sorry about the poor quality but I filmed it many years ago and on tape :-)


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