Swimming mania


You may recall that I found a place to swim back in June. I started out with a few tenuous laps, worked up to slightly longer stretches in the water, then had the good fortune to swim with Jeremy, who knows what he's doing and loves the water more than anyone I've ever met.

To my utter embarrassment, he watched me carefully and gently corrected my stroke. I owe him a debt of gratitude. Although at the time I wanted to sink to the bottom of the pool and hide, I did listen to what he explained and after breaking some of my bad habits, I swim heaps better.

My arms describe a sinuous path through the water. My shoulder extends and my hand enters the water far ahead of my head, then pulls back though the water nearly skimming my body, brushes past my hip, and breaks the surface elbow first. My kick is a slow hip driven 1-2 beat opposing my arms. It's nearly as easy as walking.

The coaching session with Jeremy was about six weeks ago. I bought a monthly pool pass shortly after that and now get in the water every morning or pay the consequence of being antsy all day. I swim for 45 minutes or so then come home and bore Tod by talking about swimming while we have lunch together. Tod doesn't swim.

But my sister swims, as it turns out. So we compare our lap times and laugh about how slow we are. I do 50 meters (two lengths of my 25m pool) in a mere 58 seconds--about the same speed as competitive 80 year olds. Next time Jenn & I are in the water together, we're going to race. She'll win; she swims 50m in 54 seconds.

Today I increased my distance per stroke, taking it down to 16 strokes across 25 meters. Usually I do 18 strokes per length, so shaving off two is a big change. I don't know if it made me any faster, but it felt good. I'm not consistent, though. I need more strokes as I tire. I definitely must work on my stamina.

I'm by no means a good swimmer, but I'm learning and improving every time I get into the water. And that's all that matters. That and beating Jenn when we race.


What the heck? You will win. I'm a good distance swimmer, not a fast one.

"Anything you can do, I can do better..."

Yesterday the pool was filled with youthful fraternity boys. Fifteen or so of them, frolicking with every beachball from the toy closet. H. and I felt like we were trapped in some Greek myth.

16 for 25 is a not a bad stroke count at all. 50m world record holder Alexander Popov takes 34 for 50 (race after race). Matt Biondi, from whom Popov took the title at the Barcelona Olympics, took 37 in their showdown race, so there's obviously something pretty useful about keeping stroke count low. (Energy consumption increases as a cube to muscle movement: moving your arms twice as fast requires 8 times the energy.)

In his book "Total Immersion" swim coach Terry Laughlin gives a good variation of one of Popov's training routines for lowering stroke count and maximising efficiency. (Remember: don't work on speed, work on efficiency. Speed is a happy byproduct of truly relaxed, slow swimming!)

Here's what you do. Figure your average stroke count (SC) for a length. Let's say it's 36. Shave a little off that -- your SC is now 34 -- and promise yourself that you will not take a single extra stroke to hit the far wall. Try a couple of slow lengths and you'll probably find you can get there in 34, but pretty soon you'll find you're still a few metres away when you pull that last stroke.

Do not take stroke 35! Turn on your side and kick to the wall (in abject shame, I find). As you tire, your stroke becomes less efficient and you start shortening it, slipping back into bad old habits. But that propulsion has to come from somewhere, and it has to occur within 34 strokes or fewer, so where does it come from?

Look at golfers or tennis players or baseball batters as they take a stroke. These people hit balls hard and far and they do it by winding into the stroke from their hips and butts. Their arms are really just the final delivery means of power generated low down in the torso. This is why Ian Thorpe has taken up boxing: that twisting into a punch increases torso flexibility and strength.

Once you start sensing that the power is coming from your hips, a few things happen: you realise you don't need your arms so much, so you won't be thrashing them about and tiring yourself out. And you increase your stroke length because you're using more of your body to stretch with. You start to be able to feel the entire side of your body opening and closing like a trap. You can then start to feel yourself 'crunching' into the stroke (it's abs and obliques workout time!) and because you're using more and larger muscles (rather than just your arms or shoulders), you start to get much better mileage out of each stroke.

So these are the things to think about as you do Popov's routine. What he does is to start out swimming very slow lengths to his set stroke count. Then he gradually increases speed, never taking more than the 28 strokes he gives himself (34 for races, 28 for training!). He tries to get as close as he can to his race speed -- a phenomenal 21.64 seconds is the record -- without breaking the 28 SC. When he can't go any faster without taking an extra stroke, he drops back to very slow lengths and builds up to speed again.

He's the fastest person ever to sprint down a pool largely because he's the most efficient swimmer ever. But it's an efficiency that can be learned by us mere mortals, and it will not only make you faster, but will make your swimming much more enjoyable as well.

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  • jh: 16 for 25 is a not a bad stroke count read more
  • Jenny: What the heck? You will win. I'm a good distance read more