This is a timely question and one that many of the Purple Patch athletes will benefit from understanding. Let’s go through a little exercise of theory-into-real-world application, hopefully creating clarity for you, but also framing the best mindset when it comes to improving your swimming.
The distance per stroke debate. Traditional triathlon swimming instruction was long obsessed with the phrase, “distance per stroke,” with each stroke being the time from which the hand enters the water in front of your head to when it exits the water by the hip. The pathway to success was always to get as far with each stroke as possible -- hence the goal of reducing the number of strokes that it takes to get across one length of the pool. This became gospel and the pathway to improvement. On the surface, it all sounds great. You get more from each pull and, therefore, more efficiency and effectiveness.
The problem is that the approach only addresses one piece of the puzzle and is no different from a running coach instructing their runners to aim to lower and lower the number of steps to get around the running track. We would be watching the squad take giant and slow-bounding leaps -- looking like they are jumping over puddles -- all in the pursuit of greatness. You would laugh at the sight, more than being inspired by it.
This is the same mindset you should have with swimming. We aim for a solid and connected distance per pull, but combined with a balance of optimal number of revolutions (or strokes) that we hit per minute. It is an index of propulsion per pull (while getting as streamlined as possible) against the rate that you take the stroke. Your optimal return on investment is to retain length of stroke as much as possible while being able to ramp stroke rate as intensity increases. The truth is that most triathletes and those newer to swimming maintain a slower than optimal stroke rate -- either due to focusing too much on the distance per stroke or due to lack of conditioning to maintain a faster tempo.
Stroke rate and rhythm: As you develop as a swimmer, you will become more aware of the rhythm of a good stroke. There is a real flow to a highly connected and fluid swim stroke, so please do not mistake the quest as simply increasing the stroke rate. We don’t chase faster for faster sake. The mission is to be able to sustain a really good rhythm of swimming, where your pulling arm is connected and in sequence with the rest of your body and the rotation of the hips to maximize power. Hang onto that word -- “rhythm” -- as it is important.
As we increase effort, we want to increase resulting speed, and to do that most effectively, the mission will be to retain most of the length of stroke, retain the rhythm and timing of the stroke, but simply up both:
- The Force of Pull on the Water
The faster we go, the faster the stroke rate and the more force we aim to generate, but we want to do this without losing connection or rhythm. This is central to why you get asked to ‘not force it’, ‘stay connected’, ‘remain supple’ and ‘find easy speed.’
These are the pieces of the puzzle that go into utilizing a tempo trainer and awareness of increasing stroke rate. You don’t get ‘ugly’ and avoid ‘forcing things.’ The truth is that the tempo trainer is simply a tool to aid awareness and provide quantitative feedback. It is an accountability and honesty tool, but still just a tool. Success will come in feeling it. Many successful athletes do not use a tempo trainer, so don’t panic if you don’t have one. Equally, the actual metric and number is not overly important. Remember, we are not measuring with a lens that under X strokes per minute is failing and over Y is success. The metric is individual and a simple feedback tool. When it comes to the swim sessions, please don’t obsess and simply get into rhythm and concept of it all. Retain awareness and appreciation of the quest that you are on.
I hope that helps.
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