STROKE OPTIMIZATION

By Nenad Rodic
posted 04/05

I think you’ll agree that there an overabundance of advice that coaches and “experts” give through magazines, videos, and other mediums on what a perfect stroke is. It gets confusing and the everlasting search for the secret formula for fast swimming just becomes more elusive. Why is this? There are two possibilities. First, perhaps everything you’ve read so far has no merit because the people who wrote it do not know what they are talking about. And second, that there is no such thing as one perfect stroke or a perfect piece of advice that applies to everyone.

I would have to go with the second option. I have read many articles written by great coaches and people who possess great knowledge and have achieved great success with swimmers. The problem, I believe, is with generalization. Unfortunately, we live in an era of statistical analysis, when every bit of research and "truth" needs to be within the 5% margin of error. An even bigger misfortune is that people accept findings of these so-called researchers as valid and somehow applicable to their own lives, even though it is clear that anyone can fall into that 5% of the population to which the theory does not apply. When it comes to swimming things become even more apparent. I have read articles that suggest that an average triathlete should try to swim like Ian Thorpe or Alex Popov (guys who kicks 50 m free with a board in 27 seconds). Just because Popov’s stroke proved to be the most efficient way to sprint in freestyle does not mean that 25 strokes per 50 meters will be the way to go for someone else. Do not get me wrong. There is a lot we can learn from great swimmers like Thorpe or Popov, but when trying to emulate their ways there is a time to draw the line and say: ”This is as far as I’ll get with this approach”. This is due to our uniqueness as human beings and our unique physical and mental constitution. For example, I can try to swim like Alex Popov and train distance per stroke and kick for as long as I live but it will be to no avail for a variety of reasons, some of which include the fact that Popov is five inches taller than me, my VO2 max is 75 ml/kgmin, which indicates a low percentage of fast twitch fibers in my muscles, I cannot gain muscle mass (again an indication of the lack of fast twitch fibers), and ultimately Popov has a feel for the water that is one in a billion (mine is just average). So, instead of my ego being my limitation, I choose what I consider to be a more intelligent approach to this whole issue of stroke and have my physiology be my limit.

This intelligent approach is what I call stroke optimization. Basically, it is you feeling what your strengths and weaknesses as a swimmer are and trying to use them. For example, you have all seen long distance swimmers breathe every other stroke while your coach always suggests alternate breathing. If you look closely at a guy like Grant Hackett and then observe yourselves, you might notice how much stronger one side of your body is. In addition, it seems that one arm has a better feel and catches more water than the other. Many coaches would look at this as a faulty stroke. I look at it as an intelligent use of your strength. By breathing every other stroke, you get more air. If you can accompany every breath with a super strong kick and a good glide and catch with the arm that’s already stronger so you don’t loose speed and height, maybe breathing every third stroke and going into oxygen debt after two minutes of a twenty minute race is not the best option after all. This is one example of how a popular theory is often not the best way to go.

Another example is people who can’t kick, and yet they try to be sprinters. One of the basic principles for optimizing your sprinting is having an enormous kick. Without a strong kick there will be no distance per stroke, height in the water, low resistance, and every portion of your arm stroke will suffer due to inadequate angle at the start of the stroke. So, if I ever wanted to be a sprinter I would build my stroke from my kick, and optimize my arm stroke based on leg drive. If I cannot improve my kick, (which is impossible) I would give up this idea of being a sprinter.

When taking this approach to swimming, you need to be very cautious. There is a fine line between using your genetic advantages and overdoing some things to the point where they become errors and thus impede your swimming. That example of long distance stroke, long glide, and a breath always on the same side is also a perfect example of the danger of this approach. If you are not aware of what you’re doing, breathing on the same side can also create a huge disproportion in strength between the muscle groups on different sides of your body. It can also create huge stroke errors, like crossing over, early breathing and dropped elbow. On the other hand, these are the things your coach can notice and warn you about. What a coach cannot know is how something feels to you. These subtle differences and aberrations from “the perfect form” is what I call stroke optimization. It is basically a stroke adapted to your particular body type. A coach cannot be responsible for creating the optimal stroke for you. What a coach can do is prevent errors and possibly suggest what your optimal stroke might look like. It is up to you and your ability to feel the water to create this stroke.

One of the reasons why swimmers train over twenty hours per week is this quest for optimal stroke. Considering the aerobic demands on swimmers, a top class swimmer could get away with 6-8 hours of training per week; however, this amount of training is insufficient for finding the optimal stroke through fatigue. Since we don’t have this kind of time to train, it is up to our awareness and attention during every swim to create this optimal stroke.

I apologize for not giving you any answers, but that’s the way it is. It is we who try to stay healthy and in good condition. We don’t expect a doctor to take care of everything; we seek their counsel when we feel that something is wrong or periodically, just in case. The same should apply to swimming. Accept responsibility for what happens and how things develop, and a coach will check periodically and offer help if something is truly wrong. You know more about yourself than any coach ever will, so use that knowledge to better yourselves.

That’s about the best advice that I can give you. Back to top

By Nenad Rodic, founder of triathlonplace.com