Elite Swimmer Demonstrations Need To Be Better

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As you know already, here at Swim Smooth nothing gets our juices flowing like some video analysis of a great swimmer to highlight how you can swim better.

In relation to the issues raised in last week's post where we looked at how our perception of a visually attractive stroke doesn't always equate to the most efficient way to swim for EVERY swimmer, we received the following email from Jim Kravets in California:

Dear Paul, Adam and Swim Smooth,

I bought the book and the DVDs and the Android App, and I am an ardent student of the Swim Smooth ethic, but I have a question and I'm not sure where to post it, as it concerns one of your basic tenets.

I've been contemplating your general feeling about "gliding" while at the same time trying to reconcile what I'm observing in this Speedo video with Nathan Adrian:

I'm sure you've address it before, but I think I missed your response. Would you kindly offer your thoughts again on what appears to be a gliding stage in that Nathan's forward arm seems to neither be catching, pulling, nor pushing for an observable amount of time.

Thank you,


At Swim Smooth we're great admirers of Nathan's swimming, he's obviously a fantastic athlete and has a very smooth stroke but there's some elements in this video that surprised those who sent it in to us, and may surprise you too. Things that we have warned you NOT to do.

Is this video really how Nathan elects to swim at his most efficient and powerful? As Jim asks, is it really a good guide to improving your swimming?

Let's take a deeper look and challenge the notion of visual perfection vs true efficiency and economy, whilst referring to another video of Nathan from when he won that fabulous Olympic Gold at the London games:

Extension Forwards:

The first thing you might have noticed during his demonstration swim is how Nathan turns his hand up at the front of his extension and shows the hand forwards. At Swim Smooth we call this "Overgliding" and it's symptomatic of trying to overly lengthen the stroke:

Stroke demonstration
Many non-elite swimmers develop exactly the same flaw when trying to glide down the pool:

Pushing forwards on the water like that helps stall the lead arm out front and artificially lengthen the stroke. But it adds a pause, creates drag and harms the catch that follows.

Does Nathan do this when racing? Of course not:

Swimming at his very best in the Olympic Games, Nathan extends forwards with the elbow above the wrist and the wrist above the fingertips. He takes more strokes doing this but it gives him much more traction on the water, reduces drag and removes that inefficient glide from the stroke.

Stroke Timing / Catch-Up Stroke

In the stroke demonstration he pauses with the lead hand out front such that the recovering arm nearly catches up at the front. Again, something we don't recommend and symptomatic of Overgliding:

Stroke demonstration
Stroke demonstration

This "catch-up" style of stroke is actually taught by some swim coaches but it's not an efficient way to swim and to move at any speed requires a very powerful energy sapping leg kick to push through the long gap in propulsion between arm strokes. Without a powerful kick you just grind to a halt and start to sink in the water.

Here's a normal swimmer displaying the same catch-up timing flaw:

Note that when racing Nathan doesn't actually pause out front, he's much more fluid in his stroke. The arms don't catch-up in front, in fact they pass just in front of the head, with the underwater arm already starting its stroke as the recovering arm passes over the top of the water:


During the demonstration swim you might have noticed Nathan's big knee bend and whip-kick:

Stroke demonstration

We see this a lot and it's entirely symptomatic of pausing and gliding too long out front with the lead arm. In order to get the stalled stroke started again he literally has to kick it into motion with an exaggerated kick from the rear. This creates a lot of drag and it's not something he's doing intentionally.

Here's a non-elite swimmer doing the exact same thing:

Notice the exact same combination of faults - showing the palm forwards at the front, pausing in that position and kick-starting the stalled stroke again at the rear.

When racing, Nathan uses a much more continuous stroke such that the legs can kick continuously and without excessive knee bend. The kickstart action is nowhere to be seen:


Hand Entry

Finally in the demonstration we see a the lead hand slicing into the water with the palm facing outwards. This is known as a thumb-first entry:

Stroke demonstration
Stroke demonstration

A thumb first entry certainly cuts through the surface of the water very smoothly but it is potentially very bad for your shoulders (out more here: www.swimsmooth.com/injury.php). The last thing we want you to do is injure yourself swimming so make sure you enter with the palm facing downwards fingertips-first instead. Not only does this reduce stress on the shoulder but it will also set you up for a better catch and pull:

Thankfully for his shoulders, and contrary to his demonstration, Nathan enters fingertips first (sometimes called a "mail-slot entry") when racing:


We sent through the above analysis to Jim and he replied:

Hi Paul,

This was an absolutely astounding response! You provided an explanation above and beyond anything I had hoped for, and your effort paid off in spades. As usual, thoughtfulness and research won the day. Thank you for taking the time to analyze this seeming anomaly.

I do hope you will find a way to post this to a larger audience. I know many would find this very useful.

Thank you again. You guys are all class.

Your Swim Smooth Zealot in California,


Demonstration Swims vs. Reality

When you watch content like elite demonstrations on Youtube you need to be aware that oftentimes that swimmer is trying to live up to the perceived ideal that a perfect stroke is as long and smooth as it can possibly be.

We hear it time and time again in statements like "A faster arm stroke doesn’t always improve your swimming speed. Longer efficient strokes are ALWAYS better than shorter, aggressive movements". The words are well intended but we can clearly see the dangers from them in the analysis above.

The fact is that when swimmers like Nathan Adrian are swimming at their best they actually swim quite differently. They do take more strokes than their minimum and they do swim with real rhythm and purpose. So should you.

A super-skilled swimmer like Nathan has the ability to change his stroke technique and stroke timing at will. He can introduce a glide to his stroke and change his stroke timing when trying to look super-long but when he needs to actually perform, he instantly changes back to proper stroke technique.

The danger for non-elite swimmers when watching a video like this is that you a) wrongly think you need to replicate that demonstration stroke and b) find it very hard to change your stroke technique and timing once it's been ingrained.

As a non-elite swimmer your time in the water is limited, you need to focus all your efforts on developing and training with a stroke that is best for you. Great technique, strong rhythm and the right stroke length for your individual height, build and flexibility.

Quality of content is everything. A great stroke visualisation for you to study is our very own Jono Van Hazel, swimming here with his "normal stroke" despite it being a demonstration swim. When our head coach Paul Newsome first saw Jono here at Challenge Stadium in Perth he was mesmerised by how smooth and efficient he was at all speeds when training up for the Athens Olympics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3HhNlysFDs

Challenging Convention At Swim Smooth - Our #1 Commitment And Promise To You

As human beings we're all curious about what it takes to excel at a sport or activity, to truly "suss" it out. You might regularly find yourself round a table chatting and debating with your mates about individual swimmers like Nathan Adrian and what makes them great. Why no one stroke is identical to another, either in the elite world or at your local pool.

We get that. We've built our entire philosophy around that. This can't be copied and replicated. It takes time, energy and passion to learn this and to truly understand swimmers of all abilities. This is what Swim Smooth is all about and is why our coaching has gained international credibility and endorsement by British Triathlon, Swim England and The International Triathlon Union in 119 countries around the world.

But it's not only knowledge, it's about creating focused, clear and interesting content that transparently communicates how you can improve. We've put in those hard yards for you, even to the point where some people have quipped that we have too much content!

We share an ambitious vision for the future of swim coaching and a core belief in swimmer-focused, always-relevant content to help you improve. This is what excites us as a swim coaching company. Anyone can point out the strong points of an elite swimmer like Nathan Adrian (albeit not his normal stroke) but only those with a vested interest in your swimming and a wealth of coaching experience can show you what you need to do to improve and why.

Swim Smooth!


SeaEagle said...

One small difference between Nathan and me: he's 6'6" & 230 lbs of muscle and I'm 5'10 & 160 lbs of "not so much muscle". 😎
Loved the analysis.

Sea Eagle in Seattle

Unknown said...

I read this post in order (ie. read the premise, then watched the videos (in order) before reading the rest of the article) so that I wasn't influenced by the conclusion.
All the way through the Speedo video, I was amazed at how poor his technique looked while constantly thinking: "This is an Olympic champion". Really confused in what I was seeing and a lot of it contradicted the narration too.
You can tell as soon as you watched the London final video that he doesn't swim like that when competing.
Great piece of anlaysis as always from SwimSmooth and I completely agree that deomonstration videos are often not very good for demonstration purposes.

Karen said...

This begs the question. Why is the demonstration swim different to the more efficient technique he uses when racing? How about we see the racing technique in slow motion.


Paul said...

SeaEagle, you're absolutely spot on!

Paul said...

Hi Richard, a great way to do your own "independent" review - well done! Glad we came to the same conclusions for you :-)

Paul said...

Exactly Karen - it does beg that question, doesn't it? I'm glad we were able to demystify some of that for you. Sadly, slow-mo high quality video footage under the water for more than 1 or 2 continuous strokes is very challenging - presenting it is even more challenging - my Rio Analysis was pulled from Youtube multiple times due to infringing potential copyright issues regards the televised coverage, so it's definitely a challenge for us to get this to you...hopefully the video stills go part way towards that though?

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