Swimming In Rough (Or Cold) Conditions With Long Arms

Thanks to everyone who replied, posted and commented on last week's post Another Great Example - Different Strokes For Two Very Different FolksIt featured two strong swimmers of very different builds, each swimming with a style that suits them individually. It is already one of our most discussed blogs of all time!

Here's that video of Andres and Nico again as a quick reminder:

On the blog comments we received this question from Antony:

As someone who has a +15cm (6") Ape index, how would you recommend approaching swimming in choppy ocean water? With my Ape index, I would be more naturally suited to the smooth style, but I am wondering if going more swinger is better in the ocean, especially in long distances in cold water (1500M+, 14C/56F temperature, no wetsuit) where just keeping hypothermia at bay is an issue. Also, how much can one go swinging if their arms are long? Thoughts?

That's a really great question - thanks for asking Antony! If you have long arms yourself how should you swim in rough conditions, given that a long smooth stroke style might not be very effective at all?

Firstly we need to clarify something:

Swinger vs. Smooth isn't really about the arm recovery

When comparing Swingers versus Smooths, the first thing you might notice is how the arms recover over the surface of the water. Smooths tend to use a classical high elbow:

And Swingers a straighter swinging recovery (ideally high over the surface of the water) which is where they get their name from:

But the different arm recovery style isn't really the essence of the types - there are many Smooths out there with a straighter arm recovery (for instance super-fish triathlete Richard Varga) and sometimes there are even Swingers who have been coached to use a higher elbow. It's just much more common to see Swingers swinging and Smooths with a high elbow.

Of course when it comes to open water swimming that straighter arm recovery of the typical Swinger has plenty of advantages. For one it means you won't catch your hand on waves and chop, and it allows you to swim closer to swimmers without hitting them with your recovering arm - perfect for drafting on someone's hip.

So the first take home for Antony here (and everyone else with long arms) is if you are currently swimming with a classical high elbow then consider opening out the arm slightly for open water swimming. We're not talking bolt-straight (like bowling a cricket ball) but opening 10 to 20 degrees at the elbow lifts the hand above the water significantly and will give you a lot more versatility swimming near to other swimmers.

That's exactly what Richard Varga has done with his own swimming; you can see him swim in the Guru here (subscription required): https://www.swimsmooth.guru/video/mb/richard-varga/

It's Really About Stroke Length vs. Stroke Rate

So if it's not about arm recovery, what is the real difference between a Swinger and a Smooth? It's actually about the trade off between how long the stroke is and the cadence (stroke rate).

Imagine you are riding a bike, travelling at the same speed you can either spin a small gear or push a big one with a slower turnover. That's Swinger and Smooth respectively. Each has found a "sweet spot" in the length of their stroke and the rate of their stroke that suits them.

Part of this is about your height and build. As we saw last week, Andreas with his shorter arms simply can't match Nico's stroke length, his only alternative is to take fewer strokes but with a faster turnover. Each stroke takes less effort so the overall work-rate is equivalent.

If you are quite short with short arms you don't really have much choice, you are simply going to have to take more strokes but at a higher stroke rate. Don't be put off by this, you can do so without fighting the water and it will give you a natural advantage swimming in the great outdoors as the more continuous propulsion helps you punch through disturbed water.

Now lets take the opposite situation - being tall with long arms. In this case a longer stroke style may suit you BUT NOT ALWAYS. There are actually many taller swimmers with longer arms who naturally suit the Swinger style. A classic example is France's Laure Manaudou (5'10" - 180cm tall) who broke the 200, 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle world records swimming at around 110 strokes per minute (an incredibly high stroke rate):

That's an extreme example but none the less it's important to appreciate that when you are tall with long arms you actually have a choice, you can swim with a relatively short stroke and a faster turnover if you so wish. And to answer Antony's question, for rough water swimming yes we would recommend you do so for the performance advantage it will give you.

The key to lifting your stroke rate is to get into the catch sightly quicker at the front of the stroke. Swingers tend to enter the water, extend to their reach and immediately pitch the hand and forearm downwards to initiate the catch. Smooths extend and hold there for around 0.2 second before pitching the hand and forearm downwards.

That 0.2 second at the front of the stroke is a very short period of time but removing it is enough to lift your stroke rate from 65 SPM (typical for a classic pool Smooth) to 73 SPM. Also, the speed increase from swimming more effectively in open water means the arms travel faster through under the body with the water so you can expect a further gain of a few more SPM from that effect too.

We're still talking about fairly moderate stroke rates in comparison to most elite level Swingers who live in the 80s and 90s SPM. That's fine though, with longer arms you can only go so high and lifting your stroke rate into the mid 70s will noticeable increase your effectiveness in open water. It's the right sort of change for your build and swimming makeup.

So a key skill for a Smooth looking to swim well in open water is to work on the timing of the catch at the front of the stroke and being able to get into the stroke fractionally quicker at the front when the going gets rough. It's quite a subtle timing change but the gains are significant.

Our key drill to facilitate that change would be Scull #1: www.feelforthewater.com/2012/12/an-exercise-to-help-you-lift-your.html

Keeping Warm In Cold Water

A second question in Antony's post was about avoiding hypothermia. A longer slower stroke does generate significantly less heat for the swimmer and that's a big disadvantage in cold water swims. Over the years many Overgliders (swimmers with very slow stroke rates) have reported to us that they really struggle to complete cold water swims of 18C and below because they suffer from hypothermia.

Swimming with a shorter stroke and a faster turnover (the Swinger style) does generate a lot more heat. In fact when our Head Coach Paul Newsome won the 46km (!) Manhattan Marathon swim in 2013 (see his race report here) he attributed his ability to handle the cold conditions (16C / 61F water) as a key advantage in comparison to some of his taller-longer-smoother competitors.

Paul celebrates his victory in NYC - yes a shorter stroke can make you (very) happy!

So if like Antony you are swimming in cool water without a wetsuit, and have a long smooth stroke style, then make sure you have developed the ability to lift your stroke rate in training. That skill could easily be make or break for completing your event.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

You should have to worry about hypothermic a in a 1500m swim

Anonymous said...

Correction: You shouldn’t have to worry about hypothermia in a 1500m swim

Petr said...

Swimming uses up energy, and part of that energy is converted to heat. If a swimmer swims the same speed with slower stroke rate and faster stroke rate, and if the swimmer has the same efficiency at those rates, shouldn't the production of heat be the same?

Antony said...

Wow, I am honored to have not one, but two of my questions answered here! Thanks for the detailed response - I will definitely give these ideas a go.

Anon, I started experiencing signs of hypothermia at about the 1500M mark of a 2000M swim in 56F degree ocean water without a wetsuit, which is why I asked these questions. "Shouldn't" and "did" are two situations that don't always agree, at least with me! My longer, slower stroke and somewhat leaner build (I am a recovering Overgliding Arnie) no doubt contributed to this.


Petr said...

Antony: As indicated above, I don't necessarily agree with the idea that higher stroke rate (at the same rate of energy expenditure, also known as power) at the same swimming efficiency will lead to higher resistance to hypothermia. If a swimmer is using the same power to swim for different stroke rates at the same efficiency, the amount of heat generated is probably the same. I think the reason why slow stroke-rate smooth swimmers struggle with hypothermia could be simply because they have "a somewhat leaner build" (your words). Increasing the stroke rate would generate more heat because the total power would go up. Unfortunately that would also mean that that's true great might not be sustainable for long.

Petr said...

Sorry, garbage got through. Please replace "that's true great might not be sustainable for long." with "that higher rate might not be sustainable for long."

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