Friday, February 15, 2013

75 Reasons Ian Thorpe Was A Great Swimmer

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Listen to each of these three beeps in turn and decide which is the stroke rate of Ian Thorpe winning his five Olympic golds:
A: B: C:
(Imagine the beeps corresponding to his hands entering into the water, so it's "beep" = left hand enters, "beep" = right hand enters etc.)

Which do you think?

Ian Thorpe was considered by many coaches to have a
"perfect" freestyle stroke.

The correct answer is C, the fastest of the three. This is 75 strokes per minute (SPM) and if you own a Tempo Trainer Pro and have tried to swim at this rhythm yourself then you'll know it's a very fast stroke rate. Far too quick for there to be any pause-and-glide in his stroke.

Many swimmers remember Thorpie as having a long slow technique but this was an illusion brought about by the length of his stroke and his silky smooth movements. In fact he had a long and fast stroke, which is why he was so devastatingly quick of course!

(For reference, the other two audio tracks are at 55 and 65 SPM.)

A Brilliant Stroke

Here's a fascinating quote from Thorpe's autobiography This Is Me, where he talks about counting his strokes per lap in a 50m pool:

I've got it down to 24 per lap, which is about as low as I want it to get. I could reduce it by another four strokes but the danger is that I'd get to the point where I'm gliding rather than swimming efficiently.

In the quote above, Ian's talking about deliberately taking fewer strokes per lap during a technique set but the interesting point here is that when swimming in a race he actually took 30-32 strokes per 50m. A full 10-12 strokes more than he could if he wanted to.

This highlights the fact that while Ian developed a brilliantly efficient freestyle stroke, he didn't do so by making his stroke as long as he possibly could. Instead, he found the right trade off between the stroke length and stroke rate given his height, build, flexibility and fitness level. And you should do the same.

(Hint: unless you're 6'5" with size 17 feet and have swimming all your life, expect to end up at more than 32 strokes per lap!)


Many swimmers have been taught to add a deliberate pause-and-glide in their strokes but this is something we fundamentally disagree with here at Swim Smooth, even for novice swimmers. As Ian highlighted, by trying to artificially elongate your stroke you'll experience a big drop-off in your efficiency and once ingrained the pause-and-glide habit is a very hard one to break.

By studying slow motion video of Ian swimming we can see that any perceived glide in his stroke is an illusion. The gap between one of his strokes finishing at the rear and the next starting at the front is just 0.15 to 0.2 of a second - less than the blink of an eye!

The classic Overglider strokes very slowly indeed, in the region of 45 SPM (listen to that here). If you visualise swimming at that stroke rate you can appreciate how you would start to sink low in the water and lose any sense of rhythm.

If you're an Overglider and have tried to lift your stroke rate then you might have found it hard to do. What's normally happening here is that you're keeping the deadspot in place and trying to increase the speed of every other movement! Instead, lift your stroke rate by removing the pause. Keep things smooth and continuous at the front of your stroke, either extending forwards, catching the water or pressing backwards, never pausing.

Swim Smooth!

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