A Longer Stronger Stroke

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    Admin Mediterra
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    Aiming For Optimal

    When considering how long our stroke length should be, you want to become capable of and use a stroke length that is not too long, not too short, but just right, for your body and the event that you are swimming. Or, rather, you want to use a small range of stroke lengths, so you can shift between those like shifting gears on a bicycle, adapting to different needs and conditions.

    We can use these stroke count indexes in Optimal Stroke Count to estimate where we might need to be in terms of our stroke count (which is a form of measuring stroke length) in different standard length pools. But this is only an estimate to get you started in the process of exploring then testing what your optimal stroke length may be. 

    You do not aim to use extremely long strokes for regular swimming, but there is very good training purpose to working with longer-than-comfortable stroke lengths for limited amounts of time.

     

    Value Of Longer Strokes

    If you (and your coach) determine that your stroke is not quite long enough to be efficient and suitable for your body and event, then working on longer strokes is taking you in the direction you need to go. If you are already working within the range of your optimal stroke length, then this approach is going to make you even stronger in that range.

    When you try to swim with longer-than-comfortable stroke lengths (assuming you are using a 2 Beat Kick or a minimalist flutter kick so you are not cheating), your balance, stability and streamline skills are going to be challenged to a great degree. And it is to your great benefit to expose weaknesses in those skills so that you can make those areas stronger. 

    There are three main ways to create a longer stroke:

    1. Reduce drag further (improve shape)
    2. Conserve more momentum (transfer power smoothly, effectively)
    3. Increase power per stroke

    #1 and #2 are about conserving energy, or in other words, becoming an efficient swimmer. Efficiency then enables you to use that saved-up energy to swim farther, or swim faster. Efficiency also corresponds directly to safety in your joints. No matter the kind of swimmer, it is in your interest to become a more efficient swimmer.

    The more you want to be an efficient swimmer, the more you want to improve at #1 and #2 before you add #3, more power. However, even with best form and timing, there comes a time in your progress that adding more power is necessary for improvement. Around every skill there must be strength to suppose that skill. The most skill, and the more specific strength around the skill, the faster and longer lasting you will be in the water. So, it is desirable that your practices eventually push you to work on all three of those solutions.

    When you do practice sets that require you to use longer-than-comfortable stroke length, you are putting your brain and body into a challenging position where they must figure out a way to create that longer stroke and then maintain that longer stroke. The easiest (for attention), but short-lasting solution is to add more power. It is much harder to focus the attention and look for ways cut drag and tighten up or smooth out connections in the moving parts of the body. As fatigue sets in, it gets harder and harder to hold attention on these critical parts of the stroke!

    But this is exactly what you need to subject yourself to in order to urge the brain to get smarter about your body position and movements, and get stronger at maintaining them. Delaying fatigue and delaying muscle failure becomes a powerful motivator on a deeper biological level.

    What happens is that from working on longer-than-comfortable strokes for a while, when you come back to using your normal stroke length, it feels so much easier. In a single practice you may feel this pleasing neurologic effect. Over a series of practices you may notice an improvement in muscular strength – you’ll be able to maintain a consistent stroke count over longer distance than you could before. By working with longer-than-comfortable stroke length, you are making yourself stronger at your current SPL and setting up the skills and strength you need to move up to a longer stroke (if that is what is appropriate for your body and event).

     

    Like Lifting Weights

    Another way to view sets that make you work with longer-than-comfortable stroke length is like lifting weights. In the gym a good trainer is going to start you with light or no weight and teach you to hold perfect form on each lift because errors in form are dangerous under loading. Once you are consistent with unweighted lifts, then you can start working on being aware and consistent in good form on lifts with moderate weight with lots of repetitions. Eventually, when you’ve been tested for good form and consistency on moderate weights, then your trainer may consider putting you on heavier weights with fewer repetitions, where the margin of error is very small. You MUST maintain good form with higher loading.

    To translate that to swimming, when you swim slowly, or swim with light intensity, that is like lifting light weight. Once you have ‘good’ form (= sufficient for joint safety, but not necessarily perfect for efficiency) and can hold that consistently on longer swims – up to 1000, for example – then you are ready to start challenging that stroke with higher loading. In the water, your way of ‘adding more weight’ is to ‘lengthen your stroke’ (or decrease your stroke count per length).

    If you’ve been training and regularly use about 21 strokes per length in a 25 meter or yard pool, and occasionally you can hit 20 or even 19, then it may be time to get into practice sets that challenge you to use 20 or 19 SPL. That’s going to be tough for your brain and your muscles, and that is the whole point. It will challenge you to refine technique and fitness on a new level.

     

    Examples Of How To Progress 

    If you are swimming with N SPL (strokes per length) and occasionally, with your best concentration and energy you can hit N-1 SPL, then use N-1 SPL as your assigned stroke count for these sets.

    Note: it is very common, because of feeling rested and a bit energetic on the first push off, that your SPL on the first length will be lower (stroke length a bit longer) than your SPL on the subsequent lengths. You may consider your stroke count on the second or third lengths of your swims to be a more accurate measure of your current SPL capabilities.

    Start off working with just challenging yourself over a series of short repeats for a few practices:

    • 12x 25 with ample rest between
    • 12x 25 with 15 seconds rest
    • 4x (25 + 50) with 15 seconds rest

    Then gradually increase the distance of the repeats and total volume to increase the loading on the skills and muscles:

    • 4x (25 + 50 + 75)
    • 2x (50 + 100 + 150)
    • Open ended swim: 25, then 50, then 75, then 100, then 125, then 150 and so on until failure
    • 4x 150
    • 3x 200
    • 2x 300
    • 1x 600

    Once you can swim 600 continuous with consistent N-1 SPL, then it’s time to consider going through this progression again using N-2 SPL!

    If you are not yet within your optimal stroke length range, from this process, you may notice that your current comfortable N SPL will shift and N-1 will become your new comfortable, consistent SPL.

     

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