Technique vs. Training - An Olympic Swimmer's Perspective

SS Clinics and Camps:
This week on the Swim Smooth Blog we have a special post from Olympian Anna-Karin Lundin, giving us her experience and insight on striking the right balance between technique work and fitness training with her own swimming and those she coaches.

As you'd expect, Anna-Karin is a brilliant swimmer herself (you can see some footage of her in action below) and is very much a "Smooth" swimmer with a very long silky-smooth stroke... But what happens when she tries out swimming like a Swinger just for kicks? The results are quite surprising...

Anna-Karin is currently training to be our first Swim Smooth Coach in Sweden - a big thanks for your insight A-K!

My stroke has always been in my favour, my strength. Up to the age of 13, I won races thanks to an effective stroke and a winner’s mind. It got me pretty far but eventually my competitors came up beside and passed me. I realized there and then: I have to start training for real! And so I did and my results came in an instant; number one in Sweden when I was 14, and one year later I qualified for the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

Now, 25+ years later, I have once again experienced almost the same thing. In a deeper way this time. Now with the why, the how, and the what. As a former coach for another swimming methodology, I was tired of not knowing how to best progress my own nor my clients’ swimming. Now, I know what I have been missing. This article is a declaration of what structured CSS-training has given me, both as a swimmer and for my coaching approach.

But let’s go back to my younger years and start from there: in the Swedish national team I was called "The Ant". Tell me what to do and I will do it. I did the work, the hard work, but unfortunately too often without knowing the why. Endless amount of meters clearly provided results, but it came at a cost. As a tired, mentally worn out 19-year old I quit swimming, bitter and lost.

It wasn’t until 2010 I took up swimming again. The masters World Championship was going to be held in August in my hometown, Gothenburg. When I learned about this, a little fire within me was lit. With eight months to go, I made a plan, using what little knowledge about training I had. This was fun, reading and learning a lot alongside the swim sessions. Trying new things, both in the pool and the gym. So much had happened since I was last active. I gave myself a challenge: “How fast can you get with only three to four workouts per week?” I must say it got me pretty far, ending up taking two WC gold medals and the journey continued with two more golds at Masters WC in 2012. As a 39-year-old mother of two, I was only three seconds off my all-time best performance 19 years earlier in 100 meters. So, what did I learn from this?

1) Understand what you do and why – that will motivate you further

2) Maximize the time you have – do the work that has to be done, skip the rest

3) Racing again was fun

At this time, I also started to help out some triathletes with their swimming. Initially just for fun but soon my full time job as a teacher was dropped to a part time, and then I started my own coaching business. I went to the States to get a Total Immersion coach license as I felt I needed a base for my coaching. My swimmers found my new skills exciting, first in Sweden to try this out by a licensed coach. It got so popular that me, myself and I were not enough to cover the expanding market. I educated 10 more coaches, we became the crew of Simcoachen.

With her extensive swimming background, Anna Karin has that
classical long smooth stroke style.
Very, very focused on technique and swimming beautiful, effortless, and one small detail at a time. In our world, there were a right and a wrong way of swimming, and we strived to get it right of course, forming all swimmers into one technique. Our swimmers got better, mainly from reducing drag. But quite soon I figured out that the swimming style we taught mainly suited one kind of triathlete/swimmer - the ones that likes to read, understand, analyse, taking things quite slow...

Obviously this is not ideal as my goal is to be able to coach all people regardless of ability, and level of ambition. In my own swimming I noticed that I was losing fitness, as I was busy trying to keep strokes per length to a minimal and looking awesome. Time did not matter and with a low frequency stroke (44 SPM) it was impossible to get fast times when I gave it a go. I started to see a similar trend with my competitive athletes, and I immediately realized I needed to change my coaching strategy so I started to look around for options.

I got my eyes on something completely different and immediately I felt that I found a secret treasure! This is what has been missing in my own swimming as well in my coaching: Swim Smooth with fitness, CSS, Jono van Hazel, Paul Newsome, Red Mist, Swim Types and using a Tempo Trainer in a totally different way. How very exciting!!! I got in at a three-day Swim Smooth workshop in England. I checked out the app (Ed: now The Guru) some weeks prior to my attendance, getting the unfit body moving again. I tested out some sessions to get a grip and to understand what I was about to learn more of.

Something happened with my fitness pretty fast and I went to England with hope, joy and curiosity. This was definitely something for me! During the workshop, one of the sessions included s 400m and 200m at full speed, a classic CSS-test (Critical Swim Speed). With a Dutch guy chasing, I was not in a million years letting him pass me! My heartbeat went back to normal after five hours. But this was so much fun – racing again! Getting tired and feeling alive! From this background, you can point out three things:

1) Something BIG was missing in my swimming and coaching: FITNESS

2) People are different, and you can’t squeeze everyone into the same mold

3) It is still fun to race!

I am an easy target to challenges. Coach Paul Newsome gave me an unreachable (yes, THAT hard) task and I swallowed the whole bite. Back home I started training with sessions from the Swim Smooth App giving me purpose, understanding and structure. Every set divided into three zones: warm up, building pace/technique and then a CSS-set. Same structure but different from day to day. Very challenging sets, but doable and smartly build to not reach lactate level.

I got tired, but not sore and worn out. I could keep both mind and body fresh and go back to the pool day after. My body was able to manage and slowly but accurately build a faster me. My swim fitness went from zero to "better" within a month. Everything smartly calculated on the hundred of a second, completely personalized from my CSS-times in England. Pretty fast I realized the importance of house holding with my reserves. I had to, otherwise the doable was not about to happen and this very important knowledge has been a key to managing longer distances at a high speed, for me and for those who I coach. My focus had moved from only technique work to CSS-training: building speed and motivation day by day. You have to do the work but the difference from my youth is now sets with world-class structure and a deep understanding. The circle was closed.

Swim Smooth was just what I needed motivation and fitness-wise and I dropped 22 sec/9 sec on 400/200 in 10 weeks. The joy for swimming was back, so much more fun to follow a red, focused thread than swimming blind. On my Perth-trip in January 2016, I got another challenge (from Adam Young this time) and this had to do with both stroke rate and personality: “Let your inner Swinger out and try 72 SPM”. Oh my God, I had been struggling with my rate around 60 SPM!

Video: Anna-Karin compares Smooth and Swinger styles (extract from SS Coach Training in Perth)

Now, three months later I have let my inner Swinger out and I love it, feeling comfortable and relaxed at 70-72 SPM and this has made me drop 3 seconds per 100 m.

Playing with higher stroke rate, working and taming the body to adopt has definitely been a major lift in my swimming, I am almost flying on the water. That is a feeling I share with my swimmers, they love the structure and CSS-work as much as I do since I am lucky enough to pass that feeling on week after week. They have learned so much in less than a year, getting much faster and this summer is the first for them to try out their new skills in Open Water, so very exciting!

Our swimmers are more motivated than ever before and their times in 400 and 200 have dropped amazingly, the times from the past are long gone. This is definitely the future!

Anna-Karin Lundin

Swim Smooth!

PS. For more information about becoming a Swim Smooth Coach, see:

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What Should You Focus On In Your Stroke Technique During A Race?

If you live in the northern hemisphere then you'll know the triathlon and open water race season is getting into full swing, and if you haven't swum in your first race it's likely you will do soon.

A common question we get asked at Swim Smooth is what should you think about during a race in terms of your stroke technique? Should you think about being long and smooth or turning your arms over as quickly as possible, or what?

Race Focus

First up, whatever you focus on it needs to be very simple. Swimming is a very technical sport and there's lots of elements to the freestyle stroke but in a race where you are sustaining a strong effort you don't have much spare capacity to think about anything complicated. Plus there's probably technical aspects of the race to be keeping an eye on such as any current, swimming straight and finding a good swimmer or two to draft off.

Because of this you're largely going to swimming on autopilot (hopefully with good technique from good preparation in training) whilst keeping an eye on perhaps one or two simple things in your stroke.

Here's 4 ideas on what you might focus on. For the right swimmer each can be brilliantly effective and make the difference between a great performance or a poor race. Experiment with these in training - ideally within a tough training set such as a CSS or Red Mist session - to see which keeps you smooth and swimming well:

1. Exhaling Smoothly Into The Water

Super simple this one and so easy to overlook but can make the difference between having an enjoyable swim or a full-blow panic attack. Most swimmers feel anxious in open water to a greater or lesser extent and the first thing you do when anxious is hold your breath underwater - which raises the CO2 in your blood stream and makes you feel even more anxious!

Simply blowing bubbles smoothly into the water breaks this vicious circle and instantly calms you down. Recommended for any swimmer but particularly anyone nervous swimming outdoors.

2. Legs Straight, Feet Turned In And Big Toes Tapping With A Light Flutter

Another very simple tip but incredibly effective for anyone who tends to kick from the knee or scissor kicks in their stroke. Converts the drag created by a poor kick into a little propulsion to lift the legs higher and push your forwards. Recommended for any swimmer with a tendency to kick from the knee - you should instantly feel smoother and more relaxed in your stroke.

3. 1-2-Straight Mantra

The majority of swimmers have some level of crossover in front of the head where the lead arm crosses the centre line. Not only can this harm your propulsion and create a scissor kick but in open water it can cause you to veer off course, losing you even more time!

You are much more likely to cross the centre line with the lead hand when breathing.

A great mantra to address this is to repeat to yourself 1-2-Straight-1-2-Straight where the 1 and 2 are normal strokes and Straight is your breathing stroke - the word straight keeping your focus on the lead arm extended straight in front of the head and not crossing the centre line

Of course this mantra will also have you breathing bilaterally which will help you swim straighter still. Recommended for anyone with a crossover or who regularly swims off course.

4. Pressing The Water Backwards With A Good Rhythm

This one focuses on the propulsion in your stroke in the right way. If you think about pressing the water back hard then the tendency is to press down on the water during your catch or wrench the water causing your arm to slip backwards with little traction.

A much better focus is to think about where you should be pressing the water (backwards to send you forwards) but instead of focusing on effort, think about doing so with a nice smooth rhythm. This creates the right amount of force in the right place to send you efficiently forwards.

Recommended for intermediate and advanced swimmers.

So there's a choice of four very effective things to focus on in your next race. Don't attempt to think about them all, pick the one that worked best for you, keep focused on that and you will have a fantastic race.

Swim Smooth!

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