Ed. Note—Swim month concludes this week with a two-part series on why you shouldn't focus on "gliding" when you're swimming. Paul Newsome, co-founder of Swim Smooth, joins us with an impassioned (and well-supported) case to consign this style of swimming to the dustbin of history.
Look, we get it. YouTube videos of swimmers 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 mesmerizing and we’d hasten to bet you’d love a bit of that yourself? Such swimmers look smooth (and some of them are even fairly fast), graceful, and effortless to us, but is this really the case? We might get sold on the idea of “ease” for our aging 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 mix 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.'"
So how does copying your favorite 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:
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.
Ready for more? On Thursday we will return with the five things you can do to get away from pausing-and-gliding, with some more supporting material from the guys at SwimSmooth.com.