Why you shouldn't be trying to pause and glide when you swim
I got to catch up with my old uni mate and training buddy Paul Newsome at the Triathlon Show in London this weekend.
Paul's the founder and head coach at Swim Smooth, who offer coaching and tools to help you improve your swimming technique. I'm racing the ÖTILLÖ Swimrun World Championships with Paul in September and, needless to say, he's a stronger swimmer than me.
So I often read Paul's blog to make sure I'm up to date on the latest theories on how to be my most productive in the water. This post caught my eye and Paul's kindly shared it with us...
Look, we get it. Youtube videos of swimmers doing demonstrations swimming down a 25m pool in 11 strokes look very visually appealing. Someone in a flume tank swimming at 1:03 per 100 yards with an incredibly low stroke rate of 43 strokes per minute looks mesmerising and we’d hasten to bet you’d love a bit of that yourself?
Such swimmers look visually smooth (and some of them are even fairly fast), they look graceful, they look like we want to feel and they seem effortless to us, but is this really the case?
We might get sold on the idea of “ease” for our ageing non-elite bodies and shoulders with these strokes, but what has simple maths, physics, physiology and biomechanics got to say about this - you know, those really important logical, evidence-based parameters that get so easily overlooked when we are simply blinded by aesthetics?
Watching the awesome spectacle of the Winter Olympics this week I happened to converse with one of our squad swimmers, Dave, about the men’s moguls and how the Canadian Kingsbury had beaten the Australian Graham into the silver medal position.
I relayed to Dave how speed down the run was a key component of where you placed, but so too were the skills demonstrated during the two aerial manoeuvres where you gained points to aid your score if you attempted something fancy. Dave doesn’t mince his words and didn’t like this, “I prefer the simplicity of who crosses the line first - he/she is the best in my book”.
I had to agree, certainly for swimming of course as there are no prizes for who looks the best in our sport, just who crosses the line first. By virtue of where the truly elite swimmers in the world finish in their event, we have to simply acknowledge and respect that efficiency and effectiveness have many different facets than simply what the swimmer looks like or how many strokes they are taking down the length.
3-time Olympian (in three different sports) and Olympic gold medallist swimmer Sheila Taormina from the USA says it best:
"You may be able to take the same number of strokes to get across the pool as does Ian Thorpe [insert your favourite swimmer here], but are you taking twice the amount of time to do those strokes? It may appear that the top swimmers are gliding out front after the catch, but they are not. When the hand catches the water the work begins immediately. It's difficult to tell this observing from above the water, but the fact remains that if you have a hold on the water, then the hand is locked on the water out front and the body begins to glide forward over the hand. No top swimmer takes a break during the front part of the stroke by virtue of a "glide phase.” (source Slowtwitch.com 2012)
So how does copying your favourite over-glider’s stroke really hold up for the “everyman” of any height / build / swimming background when tackling the variety of swimming environments in which you’re likely to be attracted to?
At 5’5” tall are you ever going to be able to swim less than 40 strokes per 50m length like John your mate who’s 6’3” with the wingspan of an albatross? Sure John feels good about his “technique” - he’s impressed the masters coach who’s told him that the benchmark of efficiency of where the “wheat and chaff” are separated is this magical number 40, but you’re much faster than him, right?
Especially in the open water. Even if you’re not faster than John yet, could something be amiss if all we ever base our assumptions on whether someone is efficient or not is on how few strokes they can swim a length in? Are we chasing here an impossible dream and one which in reality doesn’t even hold true for the truly elite swimmers in the world? Do top swimmers actually even swim without effort in the first place?
We all want to look nice and impress our friends of course when we swim, but surely true, tangible improvements to your swimming speed and efficiency is what you’re really chasing and that cannot be quantified by stroke count alone (or even SWOLF: SWim gOLF - adding your number of strokes to your time in seconds per length).
The promise and allure of a lesson or course that will have you “taking 25% fewer strokes by the end of the session” certainly sounds appealing but is this really that effective if you start swimming slower in the process? How long are you going to persist with this task…a week, a month, a year, more? Is the "holy grail" of the longest possible stroke really how the best swimmers in the world swim?
Could this single notion of gliding more and trying to swim like this actually harm your efficiency rather than help you improve it? Moreover, are the authors of the articles and videos you’ve read and idolised over still encouraging you to do these things, or has there been a shake-up of the status quo in recent years that you might not even be aware of, especially if you’ve only just started following us? Why is that? What can you learn from this 180º about-turn? We’ll answer that for you now...
But first, we’d encourage you to look at the true beauty of really effective swimmers, like Anna-Karin Lundin, Swedish Olympian and one of our top Swim Smooth coaches below. She’s been hard at work refining her stroke technique to optimise it for efficiency and flow in the open water:
See the full video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LDbps7O5Ps
Notice how truly effective and rhythmical that stroke actually is. There’s no stochastic glide-pause-accelerate about it, it’s just truly smooth and oozes momentum.
And here’s Jono Van Hazel, another Olympian. These guys really know how to move in the water. They don’t just look good, they are good. And what’s more, despite their godlike status in our books, it’s important to recognise that you too can develop a truly efficient stroke so long as you can understand that they’re not achieving their brilliance by gliding endlessly down the pool - they could both glide a lot more if they wanted to!
Why You Shouldn't Be Trying To Actively Glide When You Swim
So here’s 5 reasons why you shouldn’t be blinded by aesthetics in the pursuit of a long, gliding stroke when you swim. That’s not Smooth, it’s often just plain slow...
1) Water is 800 times denser than air
That means that if you pause the cycle of your stroke and chant silently to yourself "Enter, e-x-t-e-n-d, pause and pull” in the hope of reducing your strokes per length to a lower number, you’re simply going to slow down.
That’s not us saying that, them’s the laws of physics my friend! It takes significantly more effort and energy to reaccelerate yourself after each glide than it does to keep the momentum up and keep yourself moving forwards.
The godfather of swimming biomechanics Doc Counsilman was warning about this some 50 years ago to the day in his seminary work, The Science of Swimming, it’s just a shame so many elected to ignore the Doc’s logic as he was perfectly correct...
2) Opinions change over time
The following three articles by the same author in the popular US triathlete magazine show why it's important to...
a) know when an article was written (Google ranks on popularity, not necessarily chronologically)
b) know what the current sentiment of that author is
c) recognise that whilst it is fine for us to all improve and evolve our methodology over time, sometimes 180º U-turns just cause plain confusion for the reader, i.e. you.
Sara hits on a really good point here about the semantics of language and how the term “glide” is vastly misinterpreted, hence the reason we’ve stated that “Glide Is a Dirty Word” ever since we started way back in 2004.
3) The world’s best swimmers are the least efficient
That's if you use the same SWOLF metric that your swim watch measures as your sole measure of efficiency.
As we discussed in much greater detail in this article, Katie Ledecky, Gregorio Paltrineiri and Adam Peaty (multiple Olympic gold medallists, world record holders and world champions between them) actually score the lowest level of efficiency in their respective Olympic Games finals despite coming out on top overall!
As the very best swimmers in the world at this point, surely we should be sitting up and taking more notice? The data below was collated by the expert team at www.tritonwear.com. It’s hugely insightful as to how the best swimmers really do it from an objective standpoint:
4) Even our gliding heroes acknowledge that they don’t glide when they swim efficiently
Remember how Sheila Taormina elected to use Ian Thorpe as an example of what people perceive to be a long, gliding stroke worth copying? Well Sheila and Thorpie competed at the same Olympics in Sydney 2000, but notably after she’d made a transition from Olympic Gold medal swimmer in 1996 at 5’3” tall, to brilliant triathlete and 6th place finisher in the world’s inaugural Olympic triathlon event.
Sheila was super dominant in the swim discipline as you might expect but she’d be the first to say that her height / build wasn’t to her advantage in the pool compared to the towering Thorpedo. Still, she made her attributes work well for her and even went on to compete in Modern Pentathlon as her third Olympic discipline in 2008 - crazy cool hey?
Back to the point though, there’s no one who loves and appreciates Thorpe’s dominance of the era and his truly smooth stroke more than us, but even we were relieved to read in Thorpie's 2012 memoirs that he was not more efficient than everyone else because he glided more and took fewer strokes.
It was because he would actively take 50% more strokes (yes 50%!) than he was capable of swimming at in order to be truly efficient and maintain the very same continuous momentum that Doc Counsilman told us about way back in 1968...
5) The best triathlete in the history of the sport gives scant regard to how he looks.
When you’ve got two Olympic Gold Medals under your belt and multiple WTS wins to your name, it’s fair to say you know a thing or two about what it takes to be truly effective when you swim in the open water.
When we met up with Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee a few years ago we spent a while chewing the fat about what makes a truly efficient stroke for triathlon. Alistair had this to say (excerpt from their brilliant book “Swim, Bike, Run”)...
Interestingly enough though, when asked about their perception of the aesthetics of their strokes, Jonny had this to say...
So how do you know if you’ve been blinded by aesthetics and the lure of the longer-is-better cool aid? Simple really - as a really easy starting point, cross reference your number of strokes per minute (get a friend to count each stroke for 15 seconds during a 400m CSS / threshold pace swim and multiply by four) against the average pace of your 400m swim and plot yourself on this chart...
Where do you sit? Massively in the blue zone? Read this: www.feelforthewater.com/2015/12/curing-overglider.html. And then follow this: www.swimsmooth.guru/sequence/Ge/curing-the-overglider/
Still in the red zone and fighting the water or just spinning like crazy? Read this: www.feelforthewater.com/2015/11/whats-your-swim-type-arnie.html. And then follow this: www.swimsmooth.guru/sequence/xa/taming-the-arnie/
Or, do you sit nicely within that white region? Good job!
Remember to heed Thorpie’s words, “the way I swim is largely about the way I feel” and of course "Feel For The Water" is the name of the game here... 😉
Paul Newsome, Head Coach, Swim Smooth