Sarah Thomas' Incredible Feat of Endurance

You've probably read in the news about an incredible swim that took place this week:

Starting in the early hours of Sunday morning, Sarah Thomas from Colorado battled through the harsh currents, weather and cold water to break a new world record by swimming four times non-stop across the English Channel! That's 209km, 54 hours and (only!) 1 jellyfish sting - a truly astounding achievement!




Considering your own long distance swim? Would just like to improve your stamina a bit in the pool? Distance swimming is both physically and mentally demanding. Sarah Thomas claimed that ‘every length had something hard about it’. Therefore, both physical and mental preparation is key to ensuring success in these type of events.




You can read Sarah's full race report here.

The English Channel did not make the life easy for Sarah with each lap presenting a new challenge to overcome. In the first and second lap, nausea set in and eventually led to sickness. Despite this, Sarah's mental strength shone through. Her goal, in the darkness of the second lap was to keep swimming and 'make it through until daylight'. After the turnaround, the sickness escalated and was now a certainty after every feed. The crew on the boat were instructed that if the sickness didn't subside, Sarah would have to be pulled out of the water. Unaware of the severity of the situation, Sarah was given anti-sickness tablets in her next feed and carried on swimming, 'daydreaming about being dry, warm and asleep'!

With the sickness under control, the final challenge (if there wasn't enough already!) in lap four presented itself - the early change of tides. Sarah was instructed by her pilot to crab across the current with the hopes of breaking free to the other side. As you would expect from Sarah, she did it, but at the cost of a huge time delay. Fortunately, she had support in the water from her friends, Craig, Elaine and Karl, in the final 4 hours of the challenge. She even managed to sprint to the finish and was welcomed on the shores by crowds, champagne and M & Ms! Sarah describes it as one of the hardest mental challenges she has ever overcome - "I wanted to quit - and had good reason to do so. Yet, somehow, my crew gave me the strength to keep going!" Her focus, determination and perseverance throughout the swim is incredibly inspiring and highlights the importance of mental control during long distance events.

Sarah Thomas had her crew supporting her the whole way - even at the end!

Swim Smooth’s Paul Newsome has first hand experience of the mental challenge of long distance swimming as he took on the challenge of swimming the channel himself in 2011 and since then has completed several other long distance swimming events. How did Paul prepare for this and keep motivated during the whole event?

Paul immediately before starting his channel crossing in 2011.

Paul: I think the most important thing about a long distance marathon swim is to break it down into much smaller component parts. Whilst Sarah had the goal of swimming 4 laps of the Channel (unprecedented in the history of the sport), on the day, I’m very doubtful if she would have allowed herself to think that far ahead.

If you’ve ever swum for 1hr continuously you’ll know how daunting and challenging that is. Imagine getting to the 1hr mark and someone telling you you still have another 53h10m to go! Psychologically that would be hugely difficult to deal with, but if the goal were just to swim for another 30 minutes until your next feed, then suddenly that starts to become more manageable, such that, rather than thinking too much about the stress and strain of what your imminent future holds, you can try to remain in the present and even break it down so granular as to just visualise keeping each stroke balanced smooth and efficient in that particular moment.

Whenever I’ve personally thought too far ahead I’d get daunted by the challenge and start to lose motivation, but I can specifically recall when swimming 46km or 28.5 miles around New York (where I am right now), all I was saying to myself was “bubble-bubble-breathe” (seriously!) and eventually this became “just focus, stay focused now, concentrate, concentrate, concentrate” when I eventually took the lead at 2.5hrs in and went on to win the race.
It gets very lumpy in the middle of the channel!

Giving yourself or your swimmers something simple to focus on here and now in the present is absolutely essential to stop that drift of focus into the “what if” future. When we swam around Manhattan, Adam clocked my initial stroke rate as 88-90spm which I knew in training wasn’t sustainable, but I knew 81spm was. As soon as he fed me back this data, the next 30 minutes was all about falling back into this predetermined feeling and gaining confidence that, whatever happens to the other competitors, I know that this is what I can personally sustain. So I doubled down on that and eventually it all came good.



Sarah's swim from her GPS data: England -> France -> England -> France -> England!

I would imagine that Sarah knew exactly what pace she could hold and dialled into that. This is evidenced by the fact that, acknowledging her favourable conditions on the day, the first 3 GPS traces describe a very similar sine curve pathway, indicating that she was getting pushed equally left and right (east and west) with the changing of the tides as she progressed forwards. In lap 4 (which no one has ever done before), she starts to drift a lot more left and right with the tide indicating that her speed has dropped considerably, but when you turn around for your 4th lap after 37hrs and face the impossible or literally the final frontier where no person has gone before (for you Star Trek fans) then this is to be expected. She’s essentially been swimming for 2 continuous days at this point without sleep and so it’s no wonder that she would slow down. The point is that she made it through and it was all that savvy pacing, focus and will power in the first 3 crossings that enabled the impossible to become possible. Truly amazing stuff!

If you are interested in completing your own long distance challenge (in the pool or open water) head to our Long Aerobic Interval sessions on the SwimSmooth Guru, designed specifically to physically and mentally prepare you for long distance open swims.

If your goals are a little bit more modest then what can we take from Sarah's stunning achievement? Well perhaps take inspiration from this extreme display of endurance and push your own regular swim sessions a little bit longer. Swimming 2km right now? How about a 4km challenge this weekend? If that's too easy, perhaps even 6 or 7km? Sometimes the barriers in place are more mental than physical - give it a shot and when you're feeling a little tired, stay in the moment, ask yourself can I do one more stroke, and then one more lap, and then one more 100...?


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Why Do Elite Swimmers Recover Over The Water Like This?

If you've watched elite swimmers in the pool you might well have noticed they often recover over the surface of the water and angle their hands back behind them like this:





In fact our freestyle animation Mr Smooth also does the same as he swims:




If you noticed this you might have wondered why and if you should try and do the same?

The reason elite swimmers get their hand in this position (either consciously or unconsciously) is that they have been coached to swim using a classical high elbow arm recovery over the surface of the water:




This certainly looks pretty but with the forearm becoming so vertical, they run the risk of the hand hitting the surface of the water as they swim (as if performing old-school finger-trail drill). The backward angle of the hand gives them more clearance so they don't drag on the surface.

A high elbow recovery could be the right thing for you in the pool if your upper back and shoulders are flexible enough to achieve it. However in open water, where the water is much more disturbed, you run the risk of catching your hand, which would slow you down:




Far better in open water to use a slightly straighter arm recovery and bring the hand up and over more. This is why you see elite swimmers and triathletes swimming like this:





Even if you swim in a perfectly flat lake, the surface very quickly gets disturbed by other swimmers. In fact you can see this in both images above, the swimmers are moving through quite flat water but immediately around them it's turned to mush.

So, if you are a triathlete or open water swimmer, don't focus on developing a classical high elbow recovery because it will be a major hindrance when you are in open water. A loose relaxed high recovery is better, as we can see demonstrated by super-fish elite triathlete Richard Varga here:



You can study Richard's stroke in full in the Swim Smooth Guru here (subscription required): https://www.swimsmooth.guru/video/mb/richard-varga/


As you'd expect, our Miss Swinger animation shows this higher open water recovery style:



So should you swim this way all the time? All year round? In a word - yes! It's the right habit to get into for open water and it works perfectly well for pool swimming too. And, if like many adults you are a little tight in the upper back or shoulders, you'll find it makes for a more relaxed recovery that feels easier to perform.

Here's Swim Smooth Coach Fiona Ford practising this with her London triathlon squad:




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Still Trying To Glide? Check Out These Two Images

Who are the greatest female and male swimmers of all time? Undoubtably Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps with 28 Olympic and 42 World Championship gold medals between them!

Check out these two underwater images of them at the same point in their freestyle strokes. They are both finishing one stroke at the rear and visibly starting to tip the fingertips downwards to start the next stroke at the front:





Why is that significant? Because in a single image for each, we can see that neither of these GOAT swimmers is gliding - there is no perceptible pause between one stroke finishing and the next starting. Both Katie and Michael are smoothly transitioning from one stroke to the next down the lap.

Despite our best efforts, there are (still!) many swimming coaches and coaching programs on the internet teaching swimmers to pause-and-glide when they swim. This is a massive mistake as water is 800 times more dense than air and by pausing in your stroke you instantly decelerate before having to reaccelerate on the next stroke. An incredibly inefficient and ineffective way to swim!

When you watch elite swimmers on TV they often look like they are gliding forwards through the water but this is an optical illusion brought about by the length of their strokes. The fact is they achieve that length through good streamlining and a great catch and pull technique, not by gliding.

You should follow the same philosophy in your own swimming, work on your stroke technique by improving your body position, becoming more streamlined and developing a good propulsion technique - transitioning smoothly and continuously from one stroke to the next.

Whether you are coached or self-taught, by actively trying to glide you are artificially lengthening the stroke - putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Also see our classic posts:

Curing The Overglider: www.feelforthewater.com/2015/12/curing-overglider.html

Case Study: Scott The Extreme Overglider 5 Years On: www.feelforthewater.com/2015/09/case-study-scott-overglider-5-years-on.html?m=1

Swim Smooth Analysis: 2013 Barcelona World Championships: www.feelforthewater.com/2013/08/swim-smooth-analysis-2013-barcelona.html


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Why Are Women Better At Kicking Than Men?

If you've performed kick sets in the pool you might well have noticed how women tend be much better at kick sets than men. Of course there are exceptions to this but it more often that not holds true across a spectrum of adult swimmers. Why is that?

There are two main reasons:


1. Flexibility In The Hips, Ankles And Feet

Last week on the blog we posted this image of a female swimmer showing good kicking technique:



This is actually the amazing Lucy Charles-Barclay, an elite swimmer turned pro triathlete who holds the swim record at the Hawaii Ironman.

Compare this to our age group swimmer:



The difference is his body position is immediately obvious but notice how stiff his ankles are in comparison to Lucy's such that he can't easily point his toes.

Also notice how tight he is in the hip flexors in comparison, bringing the knee forward and down in the water:



Of course this comparison is a little unfair as Lucy is an elite athlete with a decade of competitive swim training behind her but these differences commonly bear out between male and female adult swimmers. Whilst men can be stronger than women this also tends to come with much less flexibility, and as we can see here this is bad news for their swimming.

So if you are a man (or indeed a woman) in this position, what can you do? Perform regular gentle stretching of course and slowly loosen off those tight areas. As you'd expect, the Swim Smooth Guru contains a full stretching routine to achieve just that (subscription required): www.swimsmooth.guru/streamvideo/cLi/qC/ankle-calf-hip-flexibility/





2. Q-Angle And Toe In

A second key difference between men and women is the natural angle of the feet and hips.

When we kick we want the toes to be turned inwards:


This toe-in position (also commonly called being "pigeon toed") increases the effectiveness of the kick. Many women naturally revert to being pigeon toed when they are not thinking about it (e.g. when standing) whilst the default position for men tends to be toed-out:


Partly that's due to women's better flexibility in their hips, knee and ankles but it also comes from the fact that women tend to have wider hips and so the legs naturally angle inwards towards the feet creating natural toe-in. In the jargon this inwards convergence is known as Q angle and on average women's Q angle is 4.6 degrees more than men's*.

Of course there's not much you can do about the width of your hips but when you swim you can focus on what your feet are doing and where they are angled. If you think about turning your feet in and brushing the big toes as they pass you'll be in a good toe-in position. Maintain this focus even whilst you are breathing to the side (when you may find your legs have a tendency to separate):




But Does Your Kick Really Matter?

You might well have heard that as an adult swimmer you should be looking to develop nearly all of your propulsion from your arm stroke and very little from your legs. Your arm stroke being a far more efficient and effective way of creating forward drive.

At Swim Smooth we certainly agree with this - as an adult swimmer the main purpose of your leg kick is to lift you high in the water (reducing the drag of your body) with minimum effort and with minimum drag introduced by the kick itself.

So if you are bad at kicking (from the reasons given above) does it matter? Actually yes it does because not only will making these improvements give you a little propulsion from your kick but much more importantly they will also lift you higher in the water with less effort and reduce drag from the kick itself.

In other words, improving your flexibility and kicking technique is sure to make you a better swimmer - not just during kick sets.


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Five Ways Fins Can Improve Your Swimming (Without Using Them For Drills)

Perhaps the single best tool you can buy to help you develop your freestyle swimming is a good pair of swimming fins (also commonly called flippers). Swimming with fins gives you extra propulsion and support in the water, allowing you to focus on developing a particular area of the stroke much more easily.

Elite swimmers use fins for "overspeed work", allowing them to swim faster and really work their kick hard in doing so. For that reason they often use short "zoomer" style fins:



Whilst short fins fit more easily in your swim bag, generally we don't recommend them for age-group adult swimmers as they don't provide enough propulsion for most adults and their stiffness can place unnecessarily stress on your ankles.

Instead, we recommend a longer rubber fin such as the Finis Floating Fins:
These are long enough to provide good propulsion but the rubber is highly flexible, reducing the pressure on your ankle joint. You can see them in our swim shop here: https://shop.swimsmooth.com/products/finis-floating-fins

(Note you might have a pair of long plastic diving/scuba fins in the back of the cupboard but these are best avoided as they will be very stiff and place a lot of stress on your ankles.)

Using Fins To Improve Your Swimming

Fins are probably most famously used for performing Swim Smooth drills such as 6-1-6, Broken Arrow and Javelin. However, even without performing any specific drills there are some great benefits you can gain from swimming with fins during your sessions, especially for relatively new swimmers.

Here's five benefits:


1. Practise Breathing Bilaterally

As we discussed here breathing every 3 strokes (bilateral breathing) is hugely beneficial to your stroke but many find it challenging at first. Breathing every 3 becomes considerably easier with the support of the fins whilst you adapt to it.

Use fins to practise bilateral breathing the next time you swim but don't overkick with the fins on (it's tempting) or you'll burn a lot of oxygen and place pressure back on your breathing. Focus on a nice smooth exhalation into the water and kick gently but with a nice rhythm.


2. Keep Your Head Low When You Breathe

If you are quite new to swimming and feel you are still working on the basics of freestyle, then it's likely you are lifting your head clear of the water to breathe:



Doing this causes you to press down on the water with your lead arm (losing you propulsion) and it lifts the whole front end of your body up, sinking your legs (adding lots of drag).

Instead you should keep your head low when you breathe and use the trough of the bow-wave to find air:



The support from the fins will help you develop this technique as it can feel strange and disconcerting at first. You'll be moving quicker with the fins on too which makes the bow wave bigger and easier to access.

Find out more about bow wave breathing here: www.everyoneactive.com/content-hub/swimming-swim-smooth/bow-wave-breathing/


3. Kick With A Straighter Leg

Many adult onset swimmers bend their knee excessively when they swim:


This sinks the legs low in the water and burns a lot of oxygen and energy.

Instead you should kick more from the hip with a straighter leg, keeping a slight softness at the knee to allow a small amount of bend:


The good news is that swimming full stroke freestyle with fins naturally pushes you into a straighter leg position. Swimming steady paced freestyle with your fins on for 200 to 400m allows you to get the feel of a better leg kick technique.


4. Gently Stretch Your Ankles

Not only do fins help you keep a straighter leg when you kick, they also push your feet into a straighter (plantar flexed) position:



This reduces drag and helps bring the legs higher in the water.

As discussed above, stiff plastic fins will force you into this position aggressively, so are best avoided. However a pair of soft rubber fins will apply a light stretch and gently increase your ankle mobility over time. After a few months of regular use (little and often) your ankles will be better able to achieve a good kicking position.


5. Experience "Overspeed"!

Just like elite swimmers by swimming with fins you too can experience moving through the water significantly faster than your normal pace. This helps you feel the water better, get an appreciation of streamlining your body more effectively and helps you develop a sense of "purpose" to your stroke.

Overspeed work should only be performed for short distances (perhaps 50 to 100m at a time) but if you feel a bit "one paced" in your stroke it can help you break out of that rut to faster swimming.


But What If My Pool Won't Allow Fins?

In some countries around the world (notably the UK) it is common for pools to not allows fins in public lanes. If you're in this predicament then it's well worth asking the pool staff if there is a session during the week where fins are allowed - perhaps an evening sessions with adult-only lanes. If not then ask your pool manager to create one.

For those pools that have a blanket ban in place then it's well worth travelling a little further once a week to find a pool where they do allow fins - they really are that beneficial to your development in the water!


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SS Podcast Episode 19 Anna-Karin Lundin - Swim Smooth Coach And The World's Smoothest Swinger!

We've just released a new episode of the Swim Smooth Podcast for your listening pleasure on your favourite podcasting platform:

Episode 19 - Anna-Karin Lundin, Swim Smooth Coach and the world's smoothest Swinger!

Today we speak with legendary Swim Smooth Coach and Olympian from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Anna-Karin Lundin. The interview takes place in sunny Mallorca, Spain immediately after the BESTFest 2019 of Open Water Swimming, of which she won a few of the age-group events outright against some very strong competition.

If you've never seen Anna-Karin swim, start off by viewing this *awesome* clip here:


We talk candidly about Anna-Karin's early successes in swimming (primarily as a breaststroke swimmer), her participation at the 1988 Olympics as one of the youngest swimmers at the entire event, her early burn-out and retirement, and then her renaissance through her coaching in Gothenburg and venturing outdoors into the open water swimming arena!



Paul and Adam (above with AK) also discuss her development as a coach and how she came to join the Swim Smooth team:

www.feelforthewater.com/2017/07/new-video-anna-karin-turns-to-dark-side.html

We hope you enjoy listening to this episode as much as we enjoyed recording it! You can find out more about Anna-Karin's background and her coaching services at www.simcoachen.se


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The Waterpolo Drill - Add Some Punch And Rhythm Into Your Stroke

When moving from pool to open water swimming, the number one mistake swimmers make is to think open water is just pool swimming but without the walls. It's actually anything but!

Open water swimming requires a distinct set of skills, including:

- Being comfortable swimming close to other swimmers
- The ability to swim straight without a black line to follow
- Being able to navigate accurately around a course
- Knowing how to execute effective drafting behind or alongside other swimmers
- The ability to cope with disturbed water conditions

The last of those - coping with waves and chop - is very important but often overlooked. Traditional swim coaching teaches swimmers to develop a long stroke technique, minimising the number of strokes taken. More often than not this is a bad thing to do in the pool but in open water it can be disastrous because it lowers your stroke rate (cadence)  - killing the rhythm of your stroke.


Developing A Better Stroke Rhythm

To excel when swimming or racing in open water you need a good sense of rhythm in your stroke. This helps you punch through disturbed water, either from waves, swell and chop from the prevailing conditions, or that generated by other swimmers around you:



Try and use a long smooth stroke in these conditions and you'll hugely underperform because you get stalled when a wave hits you in the gap between your strokes and have to reaccelerate your whole body mass again on the next stroke. The more efficient way to swim is to apply propulsion continuously from one stroke to the next.

(Thinking of avoiding this by seeking out clear water? And as we discussed here, you actually can't, even on an otherwise flat lake: www.feelforthewater.com/2014/01/like-it-or-not-you-cant-avoid-yellow.html)

So as part of your preparation for open water swimming, you need to work on developing good rhythm in your stroke. But what's a good way to develop it?

A key drill is Waterpolo, watch Swim Smooth's interpretation of this exercise here:




Waterpolo involves swimming with yours eyes above the surface of the water as you would expect. However, with Swim Smooth's version of the drill we only perform this over short distances (start with just 10-15m) but at sprint pace. In this way you push the pace very hard and swim at a high cadence/turnover.

Focus on maintaining a strong tempo, getting into each stroke quickly at the front. If you struggle to perform the drill at all, try using a large pull-buoy or don a pair of fins to help bring the legs up at the rear.

Perform Waterpolo regularly in your training and your ability to increase and sustain a higher stroke rate will improve, whether you are swimming easy, steady or hard pace.

The footage above is taken from the Swim Smooth Guru. Subscribers can see all 44 Swim Smooth drills (and discover exactly how and when to use them) here: https://www.swimsmooth.guru/subsection/dg/drills/

Subscribe to the Guru today and get to work improving your swimming! : https://www.swimsmooth.guru


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SS Podcast Episodes 17 & 18 - Recovering From Injury And Our Mallorca Mashup!

We've just released two new episodes of the Swim Smooth Podcast for your listening pleasure on your favourite podcasting platform:

Episode 17 - Insights Into Dealing With Injury And illness In Swimming And Triathlon

After a two month hiatus owing to Paul dealing with a very bad back injury and some reflections and adjustments to his day to day schedule, the boys are back with a podcast recorded two months ago on sunny Mallorca. We strongly recommend this episode for those of you struggling with work / life / training balance as well as those of you currently dealing with injury and illness, and are maybe in a reflective state yourself. If you're going great guns at the moment, you might want to skip this one or send it over to a friend who might benefit from our musings.


This show was meant to go out immediately after recording but sadly a big relapse of his back injury has seen Paul out of action for a further two months. It's a little ironic, as the aim of this show was to talk about some of the insights and research Paul and Adam had gleaned over the years with respect to sleep, HRV, over-training, injury and illness which has further spilled out into everyday life for Paul in particular.

Given that the show includes some snippets and insights from Paul's first dip back in the water and what that felt like with the view to showing you how you might also return to activity after a hiatus (for whatever reason), it felt prudent to hold this episode (and the next two) back until this blip was properly overcome. But we're now there (fingers crossed and thanks for your patience), so on with the show!

Related links:

Oura Ring: ouraring.com
Peter Attia / Matt Walker (Why We Sleep): peterattiamd.com/matthewwalker1/
Dan Plews: www.plewsandprof.com/our-story


Episode 18 - The Mallorca Mash Up!

Recorded in June 2019, this is a "mash up" of interviews and snippets of advice from open water swimmers and coaches enjoying the fabulous BEST FEST of Open Water Swimming in Colonia Sant Jordi, Mallorca:



Including interviews with legends of the swimming world such as Jazz Carlin (double Olympic silver medallist) and Jack Burnell (open water swimming extraordinaire and Olympian). Recorded live on the beach prior to and immediately after several of the events, this is sure to tickle your taste buds for jetting off to amazing locations to swim in azure waters with hundreds of like-minded souls!

Find out more about next year's event at: www.bestopenwater.com

See you there in 2020!


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