Here’s a case study of one of my triathletes, who is training for IM Lake Placid. His swim is the weak link, so we are doing a lot of focus in the winter months here on technique with most of his swim training focused on skill and a monthly in person swim lesson (I’d prefer more often but that’s what we can fit in). His swim set started with a 500 yard technique focus, followed by a 10x 50 swim tracking SPL & time. Here is his (brief) report.
GC: I did the 50s in 55-58 seconds with SPL at 20-21. Still feel like I am using mostly arm and little trunk.
What’s striking me here is his relatively high SPL and comment about using mostly arms. Here is my response:
Suzanne: Speed is the product of tempo and # of strokes.
Foundations are the # of strokes which indicate how well you reduce drag and convert effort to forward movement … small effort, lots of forward movement will result in fewer strokes, but speed may be slower .
That’s a normal part of the process.
I’m sure there is a part of the brain that triathletes especially have a hard time deprogramming that is always looking at speed and comparing “today’s” effort with how fast they went. But until you’ve gotten a good handle on technique, chasing speed will always limit improvement in the long run.
Here’s a great chart that you can reference for a “personal stroke count range”. Don’t worry about speed right now let’s focus on finding that smooth coordinated swimming you had good glimpses of at our last lesson.
Chasing Swimming Speed vs Letting it Come
In working with adult onset swimmers and triathletes who tell me that they’d like to get faster, I always collect information from them about their swim. Ideally this happens in person so I can see their stroke, take video and help them make technical corrections. It’s those technical corrections that result in SPL changes and eventually speed.
One problem that often arises however, is that the triathlete’s mind is typically focused primarily on speed, on pace and on yardage. I’m fine with triathletes swimming a lot of yardage, but only if their stroke is nicely tuned up. Otherwise swimming more repeats of poor strokes just results in fatigue and calories burned.
What follows is feedback I received from a swimmer about 2 weeks after we did a lesson in which he had some great moments of smoothing out his stroke, and converting from an inefficient windmilling stroke to a much smoother stroke, with better timing that got him across the pool easily with surprisingly less effort. The swim workout I gave him included a 10×50 at a moderate effort, here is his response:
GC: I did the 50s in 55-58 seconds with SPL at 20-21. Still feel like I am using mostly arm and little trunk.
This athlete was down to 16 strokes at our last lesson and swimming 25s at less than 30 seconds with little to no effort. Why would his SPL climb to 21 to swim a 50 at only 58 seconds? Maybe a better question is that in his pursuit of 55 seconds or better…did he sabotage his improved technique causing SPL to go back up to 20? While 20 is better than his previous 22-23 strokes per 25 yd length, something is amiss with his swim, and we can determine it from the numbers.
Speed vs. SPL what’s the missing link?
Knowing our GC’s metrics from this swim, 55-58 seconds in 20-21 strokes, let’s do some simple algebra to estimate his tempo.
SPL x Tempo = Swim Time
Factoring in pushoff time as an estimate allows us to get a pretty good job estimating tempo. There are a couple of ways to estimate pushoff, but I like to add 3 to SPL to account for strokes that were missed. If you have no pushoff, an adjustment of 1 is fine. A poor pushoff 2 is fine, and a very long pushoff, like one might use in competition swimming could account for 4-6 strokes not taken. 3 is just fine for an estimate.
Tempo = Time/(SPL + 3)
Since GC’s times are for 50 yards we could divide the 50 time by 2 or multiply the SPL side by 2. The math works out the same.
Tempo = 55 seconds / (20 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.19 seconds/stroke
Tempo = 55 seconds / (21 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.06 seconds/stroke
Tempo = 58 seconds / (20 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.26 seconds/stroke
Tempo = 58 seconds / (21 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.20 seconds/stroke
His tempo range here is 1.06-1.26 seconds per stroke.
Here’s what I see happening with GC. When he tries to swim faster, say the 55 second effort, his tempo goes up to 1.06. This is a fairly fast tempo for an adult onset swimmer with swimming as his weak leg. At that tempo the swimmer needs to have great execution of every stroke hitting streamlining moments and propulsive moments at just the right moments. GC’s muscle memory from his lesson is far to fresh and new to try swimming at this tempo. But that doesn’t mean his 55 second 50s are out of reach.
During GC’s lesson he was swimming at 16-18 SPL. Let’s project these SPLs to the times he hit in his session:
Tempo = 55 seconds / (16 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.44 seconds/stroke
Tempo = 55 seconds / (18 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.31 seconds/stroke
Tempo = 58 seconds / (16 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.53 seconds/stroke
Tempo = 58 seconds / (18 SPL +3) x 2 = 1.38 seconds/stroke
Notice his tempo range with this improved stroke is now 1.3 to 1.5 seconds per stroke. If you’ve used a tempo trainer and are not a beginner…this is a pretty leisurely stroke rate.
Letting Speed Come to You…How it Happens
OK…now lets see where the magic can happen. If GC can stop focusing or worrying about his speed during the next 4-6 weeks and work only on reviewing our lesson…in which speed was not a priority at all, he’ll develop muscle memory to get that improved form to stick.
Then if he starts to work in tempo, using a tempo trainer, he’ll see speed start to magically appear.
Tempo range of 1.06-1.26 seconds per stroke with a 25 yd SPL of 16-18 can yield this times (pushoff estimate is added, but for simplicity not written out here, comment below if you need clarification)
16 SPL @ 1.06 = 40 seconds
18 SPL @ 1.06 = 44.5 seconds
16 SPL @ 1.26 = 48 seconds
18 SPL @ 1.26 = 53 seconds
Every one of these combinations is faster than his most recent result, and I’m sure would thrill him. In order to make this happen, however, he first needs to let go of pace/time as a measure of ability. Noting that time is slower is fine, but assigning an emotional component to the time is dangerous.
Creating Training Plan Mesocycles with these Techniques in Mind
With this type of connection using the “missing link” of tempo, triathletes can start to free themselves of the need to chase the clock all the time, and rather than distinctly separate a single workout into “drill set” and “main set” involving speed, a better approach might be to assign mesocycles of 4-6 weeks or so achieving specific targets of balance & skill reflected in lowering of SPL into a good target range. IN the following mesocycle, gradually introducing tempo and allowing speed to simply come to you, rather than chasing speed. Chasing speed tends to override the fragile muscle memory required to make changes permanent and result in the speed everyone seeks, including me!
For reference, here is a height guided SPL chart, also pasted above, from work done by Terry Laughlin and fellow coaches at Total Immersion, based on his observations of both elite and recreational swimmers amongst a cohort of Total Immersion coaches. This chart converts height (or wingspan) to a %age of height. GC is about 5’10” tall, so a good target SPL for him is 14-18. 14 would be his lowest target SPL at very easy swimming or warmup speeds and slow tempos. 18 would be at faster efforts for shorter distances. His recent lesson of 16-18 SPL at an easy effort is a big step in getting him into this rage. Exclusive focus on length for a few weeks is GC’s best route of improvement at this point…following which tempo is added back into the mix.
With the rise in swim watches that use accelerometer devices that can count strokes, detect how many lengths of the pool we’ve swum and keep track of our pace and time for every lap and repeat, triathletes and swimmers are now asking questions about what they can do with the information obtained.
The two most popular sites that currently track and report this type of data are teh sites of the watch makers themselves, Garmin and SwimSense. Training peaks also can import this data but as of this writing they lack a robust reporting feature.
The most easily obtainable and somewhat interesting metric reported is the SWOLF score. SWOLF is an abbreviation for “Swim Golf” , and is a score obtained by adding together your strokes per length, and the time for the length.
e.g. 25 yards swim at 30 seconds in 20 strokes is a SWOLF score of 50.
Below is a screen shot of such a reported metric from Garmin Connect:
And here is a similar example from Finis, the makers of the Swim Sense.
So this begs the question…what can SWOLF tell us ?
It’s been suggested in the past by many coaches that SWOLF is a measure of efficiency…that a lower SWOLF score is a more efficient stroke and we should strive to get SWOLF as low as we can. However that line if analysis is misleading for two reasons. In the rest of this article I’m going to discuss these two reasons and at the end suggest a better way to use SWOLF…and possibly better ways to use your free time out of the pool.
The first reason that the SWOLF score is not a very good measure of efficiency…if it can be considered a measure at all, is that efficiency is relationship between the amount of work energy that goes into an activity relative to the work output, or forward movement achieved. For example, if we could measure how much oxygen a swimmer was consuming while swimming in a flume at a specific speed, then we could measure his or her efficiency. External measuring tools of oxygen consumption are needed. So while we can’t get an actual efficiency number from a swim watch, what we can do is incorporate certain clues that may tell us something about the efficiency of the stroke.
But more interesting is the second reason that SWOLF can’t tell us much about the efficiency. Even though SWOLF is derived by adding two parameters together…namely Strokes per length (SPL) and the time in seconds for the length, we still need to know both the SPL and the TIME independently to make any sense of the SWOLF number.
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.
Let’s create a possible matrix of SPL and Time parameters, to keep it simple let’s just use HIGH and LOW for SPL and time and see what may happen to SWOLF and what it means. If it seems confusing at first, keep reading…please…you have to trust me…
Here are four hypothetical scenarios which I describe in a bit more detail after each one.
If if SPL * rate = time, then we are curious about what SPL + time or SWOLF can tell us?
A) SPL is high and time is high = high SWOLF and inefficient swimming
B) SPL is high and time is low = medium SWOLF and improved efficiency
C) SPL is low and time is high = medium SWOLF and very efficient swimming
D) SPL is low and time is low = very low SWOLF and inefficient efficiency
A) high spl and high time (ie slow) suggests a lot of drag and or inefficient catch. Scenario A swimmers can learn a lot from tracking SWOLF and watching it improve because experiencing either a lower SPL or a faster speed suggests they are improving swim efficiency
B) as speed increases an expected and normal response of efficient swimming is for SPL to increase (SWOLF may stay the same). Scenario B swimmers can expect to see a lower SWOLF for their easier swimming and a higher SWOLF for their faster swimming, and should strive to find a more sustainable faster speed…and be happy with a higher SWOLF. (but to discover what it is, or more specifically what their SPL & Pace targets are for various training distances and /or race settings
C) suggests very low stroke rate with lots of glide…little energy being put in compared for forward movement. Physiologically speaking a very efficient stroke (SWOLF may be the same is in scenario B). Scenario C swimmers should strive to increase their SWOLF, more specifically by increasing their tempo as they already have a very efficient stroke.
D) The ability to swim quickly and hold a low SPL requires high power, high strength swimming, and can be seen in Jai’s 2nd video here: SWOLF will be low but true efficiency is low. However if this is a race, fastest time, not highest efficiency wins. Scenario D swimmers are very skilled, fast powerful swimmers, and can pick and choose the stroke suited for their task.
In that video Jai swims two lenghts. Both have the same SPL, but in the 2nd length he adds effort and speed to reduce his time. Here are the numbers:
Length 1: 16 strokes 31 seconds SWOLF 47
Length 2: 16 strokes 18 seconds SWOLF 34
The slower length is actually the more efficient stroke considering the amount of effort compared to the forward movement. it takes Jai more energy to swim the faster length. Even without having the external measuring tools to determine true efficiency, it should not be difficult to believe that Jai could sustain the first length’s effort for quite a long time…the second length for possibly 100m or less.
A graph would be interesting here… plotting combinations of Speed vs. SWOLF at different SPLS/rates and seeing if there actually is a relationship we can glean that would be useful as a self-coaching tool. My guess is that there is not…we still need to know each metric…at least two out of the three (SPL, Time or Speed) in order to analyze data and know how use it to improve our swimming practices.
I find SWOLF most as a quick measure of consistency, rather than a measure of efficiency. When i look at my athletes watch data, the SWOLF graph can reveal if they are swimming with too much rest or too easily. Or conversely if they are improving their ability to be consistent with a given set (eg. 10 x 100 as an example). Pace alone doesn’t tell us, SPL alone doesn’t tell us, but SWOLF alone does not tell us either.
e.g. if I see a set of 10 x 100 with a SWOLF that does into change AND an SPL that does not change, they are swimming consistently which is good. I still need either pace or SPL along with SWOLF to learn anything about their swimming, it doesn’t stand alone. If I want them to swim faster and get fitter as a triathlete (my main market). SO I can reduce the rest, increase the repeat distance, increase the pace (which is possibly going to change the SWOLF ).
Hopefully that gives you more insight as to what some of the metrics mean and what you can do with the information.
I still find that practicing SPL ranges at will, finding your SPL, changing your SPL and holding your chosen SPL, layered with the use of the tempo trainer (steady, ascending, descending, etc) gives the coach and athlete much more control and direction than SWOLF had the possibility to do.
IN a follow up article I will use some specific watch data graphs to help walk through an analysis of a swim set’s execution and plan further practice sets for improved skill.
Please let me know in the comments section what your thoughts are and how you use the watch data you collect.
Last week I wrote about a test set that we enjoy doing at Total Immersion coach workshops called the Pace Maintenance Set. In this set the swimmer swims a ladder of increasing distance intervals while trying to maintain the same pace as well as the same stroke count. If you haven’t done one yet, You can read more about this swim test here. Now that it’s done, you might be wondering how to interpret the information…
Here are 3 case studies with actual results of a 100-200-300-400m Pace Maintenance Set
Swimmer one pretty much swam this set exactly as described. She had a consistent pace with every 100 of every repeat, AND her stroke count was maintained within a fairly narrow range, especially when you consider that this was a 50m pool. She has no trouble holding this pace. If she is a long course athlete, she may want to take this pace, 1:31/100m and extend it and test if she can hold it for a 1000m time trial, or even 1500m or longer. It’s definately a pace that is not too faster for her given her current technique. However we might be wondering if she took it too easy on this set and if there is more she can offer to the swim.
Next time around she may want to subtract 2-4 seconds off this pace and see if she can mantaiin say a 1:28/100m pace for the same set, or plan sets like 10 x 100 on 1:28 with the stipulation she hold the SAME stroke count for the whole set.
Swimmer #1s Improvement opportunities include
- Increase the distance of the set
- Decrease the rest interval of the set (or turn it into a straight TT)
- Increase the tempo or pace of the set (while holding other parameters the same)
Swimmer #2 started off great with a consistent pace through a full 800m of this set. Halfway through the final 400m set, her pace began to drop off markedly. She DID however, keep the same stroke count. This swimmer was mostly focused on that aspect…holding the same stroke count she had started with (more or less) but when fatigue set in, her arm speed turnover (tempo) slowed down. While she still took 44 strokes per 50m length for the final 200 yards of her swim, she swam those legs several seconds per 100 slower. Or thinking conversely, her TEMPO slowed down as fatigue set in.
A great prescriptive set for her would be to find the tempo she is currently swimming and using a Finis Tempo Trainer to have her listen to for the duration of the set, or similar distance. As she nears that 800 mark, she can focus on keeping pace with the beep. Doing so will “force” her to use the long strong arm stroke, but hold a slightly higher rate even with fatige.
She could also just shorten the set, taking 2-3 minutes before repeating the set, and training that for awhile.
Good options for swimmer #2 include:
Using a tempo trainer to increase the swim rate
Swim shorter distances at the pace of the first 800, and allow enough time for full recovery between them.
We can learn a lot from elite and professional triathletes by simply observing what they do. Sometimes you may not know exactly what to look for in order to emulate and improve your skills. I took some of the guesswork out of this for you by grabbing some screenshots of a recent open water swimming video posted on YouTube by Chris Leito. The clarity of the water in Kona provides a fantastic opportunity to study the strokes of those who have worked hard to get to the Ironman World Championships in October.
Watch this sequence of still shots where you can clearly see the same excellent swimming technique that we teach in Total Immersion swimming programs. These fundamentals are key…if you can get a video of yourself or a partner to watch you, see if you can match these three swimming ‘checkpoints’. Can you get a ‘stroke score’ of three out of three?
Stay Long on Wide Tracks
In this still shot you can see several things going on, the most important being that his lead arm remains on a wide track, and waits there while he ‘cultivates’ his grip on the water. In the side view at nearly the same point in the stroke, you can see his palm ‘searching’ for a solid feel, and waiting until the momentum of moving forward creates solid leverage in his stroke.
Side view at same moment in the stroke. Visualize the lead arm still remaining on a wide track here as shown above.
Front Quadrant Timing
Here we see Chris’ left arm having just entered the water, and his right arm is still in the front part of the stroke. Both arms remain (mostly) on wide tracks. Front quadrant timing has a range of variations that you can see displayed be different swimmers, and you should experiment with the amount of overlap, or when you begin your stroke. You’ll find that at different speeds, your stroke timing may change in order to maintain a fluid stroke and minimize slowing down between strokes.
The same moment in the stroke viewed from the side. Notice the tips of Chris’ left fingers just entering the water, and the position of the right arm still in the front quadrant. (Arm is still in front of the shoulders or head). When viewed at this moment in the stroke, you can see how the arms “trade places” in the front quadrant, assisted by body rotation. You can read more about how to develop an “Early Vertical Forearm” without strain on “When to catch the water”.
As he finishes his stroke and begins the right arm recovery the legs remain streamlined behind him. At this point in many swimmers strokes, they experience some lateral instability and the legs will compensate for balance by ‘scissoring’. As you look at the image below, visualize how this feels in the water. What muscles do you need to activate to keep legs streamlined? What soft tissue structures need to be mobile to allow this to happen? Finally, even though they are out of the frame, where do you visualize his arms being? What arm positions will allow this streamlining to take place while maintaining the flow of the stroke ?
So does Chris have the perfect stroke? No, but everyone will always have things to improve upon, even Michael Phelps.* If I were Chris’ stroke technician, there are a handful of things that we would work on, but this article is intended to highlight the elements of good triathlon swimming that we should be trying to emulate.
Total Immersion Coaches have a keen eye and an effective methods of teaching you how to incorporate these elements into your swimming. If you are looking for a good coach, look for a Total Immersion certification or a good recommendation from a technically sound swimmer on a good coach. Feel free to contact me to arrange private lessons or a full video session for yourself or your group. (I travel to teach clinics as well, contact me for fees)
*Phelps even stated in his post-race interviews in the 2012 Olympics that he took his (poor) turns and finishes from practice with him to the Olympics this year