Thursday, September 25, 2008

Breaststroke, Backstroke, Butterfly and Free – Oh My!

I’ve always known technique is one of the preeminent factors in determining how fast someone can swim. Yet despite this as time passes and I learn more its importance continues to climb. That’s an opinion many of the world’s top coaches share. Way back when I first swam as a youngster technical skills weren’t really on the radar for me. I simply assumed there were those who couldn’t swim very well, others that could, a handful like me who could swim really fast, and then the rare few who could swim really, really fast. I thought it was all in the genes so to speak. Now in hindsight I can wonder if my early success was more due to the fact I was coached my first year by Archie McKinnon, a George Haines-like figure in Canadian swimming, than my own innate talent. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

No surprise then on my return I was happy to take advantage of the team’s coaching by attending every clinic offered by my club. Yet always underlying my efforts was the idea that, aside from my fly of course, I only needed to tinker with my strokes. In this I was sorely mistaken. Just how mistaken was driven home one practice where we did a set of freestyle stroke counts in a long course pool. I finished the first pair with counts of 39 and a 53 for fists only, which turned out to be significantly better than the numbers the rest were announcing as their own. I was figuratively patting myself on the back when, with our set resuming, our coach leaned over to Doug standing next to me and in a normal voice asked him what his own counts were. “Ah, 28 or so swim ... and 40 fist” he responded. A simple nod was Brad’s only response, his casual acknowledgment providing ample proof he’d fully expected those numbers. It came as a profound shock someone could be so much more efficient at swimming than I. My deficiencies meant I would never compete along side our elite masters with what I had; and made it blindingly clear wholesale changes to my strokes were necessary – mere tinkering was not enough. So a couple of weeks later I bit the bullet, ripped my strokes apart, and started from scratch with several suggestions for each stroke from Brad.

A year later has seen some progress. My breaststroke kick has shown a profound improvement to the point where it’s now a ‘good’ kick technically speaking. Much of the improvement has to be credited to Alexander Technique which has made huge strides in bringing back my hip flexibility and thus allowing me the proper kicking motion. My pull, on the other hand, requires considerable work to bring it to a point where my drag coefficient becomes acceptable. Overall body position is also a problem, as is getting both pull and kick together into a cohesive and fluid undulation that moves me forward rather than up and down.

If my breast has shown solid improvement my back has been the opposite. I’ve better technique in the various individual facets of the stroke such as catch, pull, arm placement, finish, kick, etc. but, like breaststroke, I’ve been unable to tie them all together into one synergistic motion. Paradoxically I believe the fault lies here in the fact my natural backstroke comes the closest to the ideal out of all my strokes, resulting in conflicts and/or confusion for me when I unconsciously relapse into habit during a race. Of course lots of work remains; especially in delivering a solid, rearward directed pull and inducing more shoulder roll for my catch. But integrating all my separate parts is my primary goal for now. Also my lack of strength is very evident in my pull, often causing me to deliberately fall away from proper form just to give my muscles some rest. Hopefully with time and more work this will pass.

Now my fly. Jeepers, what can I say? Originally I planned on spending five weeks to master the basics of the stroke. Two years later I can only say I’m confident this will be the year it all comes together and I’ll finally have a legitimate 100 fly. I can boast a real dolphin kick now, even if it pales in comparison to the kick of an actual fly specialist, and my integration of pull and kick is reasonably fair. Emphasis this season is on my head position, pulling rearward rather than down immediately after my catch, and staying on a flatter plane in the water. But my lack of strength really shows up here.

Finally my free. My coach has told me he believes this stroke will eventually become my most competitive when I can work out my problems. That might be some time away. Besides it's hard to believe when I can’t even come close to breaking a minute swimming short course meters. On the other hand watching a video of me trying to swim arms swung out flat and elbows low with a pronounced lope I can see there’s considerable room for improvement. It has meant a major effort in redesigning my pull but I can sense progress slowly coming my way. I’ve even come around to understand what Brad means when he refers to incorporating a “shoulder shrug” in my stroke. Plus, in addition to the above, I also need to induce more body roll and better coordination into my stroke, and finish with my hands by my hips. Right now, however, everything feels very artificial and forced. Much, much work remains.

A lot to push through, but I feel I’m in the right place for my long term plans. Because of the efforts I’ve been putting into revamping my strokes I wasn’t going to be setting impressive new personal bests whatever I did. With speed work not being conducive to mastering new techniques, and the need to practice my new strokes as much as possible, I think my 30,000 meter weekly target is very compatible with my immediate needs. More pounding away in the pool will be good for building my strength up too. So onward I paddle. Time will tell if I’m on the right path.


Joel / the17thman said...

Ahh...freestyle. For one stroke we seem to do lots of various drills. The high elbows get worked on with finger tip drag. Rotation can be worked on with catch up drill and swordfish drill. The catch and pull gets it's work on with the fist drill.

One thing I'm learning to do during our warm up sets is too slow up and think. Do the drills right and not to worry about an interval.

As for the distance per stroke you don't even want to hear how many strokes it takes me to get from one wall to another. My turnover is fast and short. Very ineffective with lots of wasted energy.

For your clinics do they record your swimming under water? If so you should upload them and allow us to see. I realize of late I'm watching people swim around me to see how they swim. It's helping me as I notice bad habits in others I realize that I do the same thing. And we I see someone swimming flawless I try and see what I need to change to be like them.

I figure in about 20-30 years I'll have mastered the freestyle stroke as long as I continue to swim 5 days a week. So in about 5200 workouts from now I'll let you know how I'm doing.

Scott said...

Yes, we do record underwater technique in our clinics; and no, other than Brad and me no one else is ever going to see it if I have my way. Perhaps I can envision using the recording for comparative purposes if I ever review my stroke progression in a post later on. But that will only happen if I can use 'pointers' or 'markers' to show the problems I had to correct. I believe there's considerable benefit in seeing how the very best swim their favorite strokes but I'm absolutely against watching someone butcher their stroke without an immediate follow up by one of those aforementioned instructional DVDs. I don't want to be blamed for creating problems for innocent viewer, nor do I especially want to the object of schadenfreude. Tony's blog is excellent for posting videos and pictures of both good and bad technique. My personal favorite freestyler is Alexander Popov - he has a beautifully long extended reach and he can do it in an all out 50 sprint. Amazing!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be down... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please answer to my post if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.


Anonymous said...

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Continue the fantastic work!

Anonymous said...


I have a message for the webmaster/admin here at

May I use part of the information from your post right above if I provide a backlink back to this website?


Scott said...

For any who wants to know the proper etiquette for using other peoples' work it’s pretty straight forward. If it's marked copyright the writer expects to be compensated for any use of the material – you’ll have to contact the writer/organization. Otherwise once the “Send” button is pushed it becomes public property, free and available to all to use as they see fit. To avoid charges of plagiarism, however, you should credit the source when you use it and, if you are prepared to take the time, bloggers around the world will be delighted if you provide a link as your acknowledgement.

Scott said...

Hello William - I checked all my links including the Popov video and they seem to be working so keep on trying. But you don't need to rely on my old blog for videos of Alexander Popov, there's plenty out there for the interested viewer.