Swim Straight! How to Master Sighting in Open Water
When swimming in open water, sighting is a crucial skill that allows you to keep a straight course and stay on target. Seeing the horizon is more than just looking up; it is also about minimizing disturbances to your swimming rhythm while spotting the horizon efficiently. We’ll discuss how to incorporate effective sighting techniques into your training routine in order to navigate open waters with precision in this article.
1. Quick Spotting:
You can spot your reference points while swimming by taking brief, quick glances forward without interrupting your stroke when you sight. As you continue swimming, let your visual cortex process the information while you glance forward and return your head smoothly to the water instead of holding your head up for extended periods.
Try this on dry land first when you arrive at your swim spot, whether it’s a pool, lake or ocean. First close your eyes and generally face a direction that has some interesting objects in the distance. This could be the buoys on your swim course, a marina, a parking lot or a group of people. Don’t study the area first before closing your eyes…that’s cheating! Close your eyes first and then rotate your body to facd the direction you’ve chosen, or you can have a friend help point you the right way, while taking turns.
You can also try this right where you are reading this article…when you’re ready, do NOT look up from your screen without first closing your eyes. Close your eyes THEN lift your head to face any direction that you know has some objects in front of you.
Now with your eyes closed, open and close them as quickly as you can and keep them closed. Don’t open your eyes, look around and close them again, you’re simply going to blink once, eyes open then closed again. With your eyes closed, you’ll have a visual memory of what you just saw even if you can’t identify specific objects. If you are doing this with a partner, describe what you saw. If on a swim course, you’ll probably want to identify the buoys right? Now decide what additional information you want to gather for your 2nd blink. Do you need to rotate your head a little to face a specific direction so whatever you’re trying to gather information about is more in front of you? Did you see colors but you’re not sure what the colors are? Did you see a car but thought there may be more?
Repeat the blink again, keeping your eyes closed when you’re done. You can blink at a speed that allows you to “see” more, but remember that after you close your eyes, you continue to “see” what was there. If the lighting is bright enough you may even notice a literal impression on your retina after your eyes are closed. it takes several seconds for the cells on the back of the eye to revert back to their neutral state, and during that time, you’re brain is still getting the signal of what was imprinted on the retina.
Ok, try it a 3rd time and gather any additional information that you can. Finally, open your eyes and survey what is in front of you. How accurate was your minds eye after your eyes were closed? Keep this in mind when sighting. You don’t have to “see” or even “look” for navigational cues while swimming…just use your visual memory after a quick peek (or even a blink) during your peek above the surface and you’ll save energy and swim much smoother.
2. Identify Contrasting Elements:
Look for things that are easily distinguishable, such as bright orange or yellow buoys, fellow swimmers’ caps, tree lines, or areas where water meets land. Try to spot any contrasting objects in front of you first, then refine what you see on a subsequent sighting opportunity by focusing on a narrower target in the direction you are going to swim. Like the blink exercise above, you may notice that high contrast leaves an imprint on your retina after you close your eyes. You’re not only remembering what you saw…but even after your eyes are closed, you can still “see” what the retina was exposed to as if the scene were on the back of your eyelids.
3. Maintaining Proper Body Position:
Keep your mouth and nose below the waterline when sighting, ensuring only your eyes and forehead break the surface. Maintaining a streamlined body position keeps your head low and keeps your hips from dropping, allowing you to swim efficiently. Breathing can be incorporated in two basic ways after the sight. The first option is my preferred way – after sighting with the “alligator eyes” relax your neck muscles and regain your balance in the water by letting your face fall back towards the bottom of the lake / ocean. Then take a normal breath on a subsequent stroke. This reduces the amount of disruption in your balance and alignment since you have a chance to regain perfect body alignment after the sighting, and before the next breath.
The second way is best for people who already have good to great swim form, can take a breath in the pool (under still perfect conditions) with their goggles splitting the water surface and breathing behind your bow wave, and who do not have any neck injuries, chronic neck pain, disc issues or neck arthritis. After your quick “alligator eyes” peek, simply rotate your face away from your lead arm to take a breath before finishing that stroke.
Experiment with both ways to find what’s comfortable…but be willing to spend time finding out what’s not comfortable about your less preferred choice. Why? Because often what’s most comfortable in swimming is what keeps the head above the water the longest. This most often creates a poor body position with sinking hips and knees, and makes the underwater stroke portion inefficient. For that reason we teach all of our swimmers the “peek, stroke, breath” pattern, rather than the “peek, breath, stroke” pattern.
What’s your preferred way to stroke? Leave a comment below and let us know!
4. Timing and Rhythm:
You maintain a seamless and efficient swimming motion by incorporating sighting into your stroke rhythm.
You should time your peek at the same moment your lead arm extends forward, just before your catch phase. This allows you to relax your head back into the water as or just before initiating the catch. Trying to catch while you sight creates a “doggy paddle” or “tarzan” style stroke that is inefficient.
One incredibly helpful tip that works great for turning yourself into a sleek open water swimmer who is the envy of all around you is to maintain your torso rotation during your sighting. Instead of a flat body position while sighting, maintain your rotation to the side of the extended arm. This will lengthen your body, and allow you milliseconds longer to gather visual information. When you let your head return to the water, the weight of the head movement coordinates both the recovery arm and the catch occurring together, and you’ll maintain your speed.
5. Utilizing the Underwater Stroke:
When sighting, use the latter half of your underwater stroke to minimize speed disruption. As your stroking arm is lengthening backwards, your lead arm extends just below the surface, just as you reach your peak rotation. This allows your eyes to pop up briefly without significantly affecting your speed. Be careful however not to use the pushing phase of your stroke to force your head above water, it’s simply a cue to help you time the alligator eyes. The same time your arms are moving in opposite directions your forward speed is still close to its stroke to stroke max. Use the momentum and the lead arm is a “wing” in front to help pop the head up briefly. This technique ensures a smooth transition between sighting and swimming, enabling you to maintain a consistent pace.
Mastering the art of sighting is essential for open water swimmers wanting to swim the course without getting too far off track. By practicing the techniques outlined above, you can develop a sighting method that minimizes disruptions to your stroke while providing the navigational cues you need to complete your swim. Practice incorporating these skills into your training sessions to gain confidence and enhance your open water swimming performance. So, embrace the art of sighting, and conquer open water with confidence!
Whether you’re a triathlete doing an Olympic distance / International triathlon or a runner, racing a 10K or longer distance requires not only determination and consistent training but also a mindful approach to avoid injury and optimize recovery. While interval and speed work are commonly suggested methods, it’s crucial to tailor your training based on your current abilities, goals, and overall health. In this blog post, we’ll delve into specific factors to consider and provide a multifactorial approach to help you achieve your running goals.
Assessing Your Current Abilities:
Before embarking on any training program, it’s essential to assess your current abilities and set specific goals. To establish a baseline, consider the following questions:
Recent Performance: Reflect on your last 5K run. Was it a solo effort or part of a triathlon? What was your actual time? This information will help gauge your current fitness level and set realistic goals.
Rest and Recovery: Consider whether you felt well-rested for your last 5K race. Adequate rest and recovery are vital for maximizing performance and preventing overuse injuries.
Course Conditions: Evaluate the terrain of your previous races. Was it a flat course or did it involve inclines and declines? This knowledge will assist in tailoring your training program to address specific challenges.
Current Training Regimen and Endurance Background:
To enhance your performance for longer distances, it’s important to understand your current training regimen and endurance background. Answer the following questions:
Consistency: How many days a week do you currently run? Consistency is key for building endurance and improving overall fitness.
Injury History: Assess your injury history to identify any recurring issues or areas of concern. Prior injuries may require additional attention or modifications to your training routine.
Joint Problems: If you have joint problems or orthopedic issues, seeking advice from a foot and ankle physician or sports medicine specialist can provide valuable insights for adjusting your training program.
Considering Weight and Health Goals:
While weight is a sensitive topic, it’s worth addressing when it comes to improving your running performance. Here are a few points to consider:
Power-to-Weight Ratio: Increasing your power-to-weight ratio can make you faster. Assess whether your weight is appropriate for your health and running goals. Consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian to determine if weight management is necessary.
Nutrition: Fueling your body with a balanced diet, focusing on nutrient-dense foods, can optimize your performance and overall well-being.
A Multifactorial Approach:
Improving your performance for running a 10K or longer requires a comprehensive approach that takes into account the specific factors mentioned above. Here are some additional suggestions:
Training Plan: Work with a running coach or use established training programs to structure your workouts effectively. Incorporate a mix of interval training, tempo runs, long runs, and recovery days to build both speed and endurance.
Video Analysis and Footwear: Consider getting a run video analysis to identify any biomechanical issues or form imbalances. Additionally, ensure you have well-fitting shoes that provide the necessary support and cushioning for your feet.
Cross-Training: Include cross-training activities such as strength training, yoga, or swimming to improve overall fitness, prevent injuries, and enhance muscular balance.
Recovery and Rest: Prioritize recovery and rest days to allow your body to adapt and rebuild. Adequate sleep, stretching, foam rolling, and other recovery techniques can aid in reducing muscle soreness and improving performance.
Improving your performance for running a 10K or longer requires a thoughtful and well-rounded approach. By considering your current abilities, training regimen, injury history, weight management, and other factors, you can develop a training plan tailored to your specific needs.
Remember, the journey to becoming faster and more efficient in longer distances is a gradual process that requires patience, consistency, and a focus on both physical and mental well-being. Seek guidance from professionals if needed, listen to your body, and make adjustments along the way. With dedication and a multifactorial approach, you’ll be on your way to achieving your running goals and conquering the 10K or longer distances with confidence and enjoyment.
Change your thinking from strokes per minute to seconds per stroke. Instead of frequency, think period. This allows you to do faster analysis of your swimsperiments. 20 strokes @ .9 sec/stroke = 18 seconds. Vs 20 strokes @ 68spm = ?? (Can’t do that math in the pool quickly)
You need to test/ train tempo in a measured setting before you can use it in open water since you can’t measure progress very well
Since pace is the result of stroke rate x Stroke length, paying attention to those 2 variables will help you learn a lot about yoru technique without timing yourself (you can always multiply them to get the time, or look at your watch) But you can’t look at yoru watch until you’re done with a set, so learn to count strokes well.
Each hand entry counts as a stroke (the watch is inaccurate, except for how variable you are, the actual numbers are not helpful)
Some experiments to start with.
Use a comfortable tempo (70 spm = .86 sec/stroke), and swim 2 sets of 3 x 25. (So 6 x 25 total)
No breath, right breathing only, left breathing only, repeat. Rest for 5-10 beeps between repeats
Count your strokes.
Be sure to start your first stroke underwater after a consistent # of beeps off the way (3-5 find out what’s comfortable, and be consistent so you can compare)
Progress to 50s if you can taking 1 breath per 50 plus 1 at the wall (open turn on all 50s for comparison) Count your strokes.
This is a fun simple experiment that will usually tell you what you may already know…that breathing reduces stroke length, and that one side is better / worse than the other. You may have to practice counting strokes before you can be consistent with yoru experiments. A poolside notepad with a ball point pen is great for tracking different things.
Now with data, you can create a hypothesis…
Example (after warmup)
Tempo .85 sec/stroke
6 x 25 as Breath Right only, breath left only, no breathing, repeat. Rest 5-10 beeps between repeats, 5 beeps off wall before first stroke. count strokes.
Stroke Counts by length:
4: 21 SPL
2: 18 SPL
5: 19 SPL
3: 17 SPL
6: 18 SPL
Results show left side breathing adds 3 strokes every 25 yds compared to no breaths At .85 sec/stroke, you’re adding 2.55 seconds / 25 yards due to the slowing down from breathing left. Over 1 mile that’s 2.5 minutes. Right side is better than left side, saving .85 seconds / 25 yards if you only breathed right.
You’ve learned a lot from this simple experiment.
if I practiced alternate breathing I’ll save 1 stroke / length (as opposed to same side breathing). Test it!
If I improved my breathing form I’ll save 1-3 strokes per length. Choose a skill, and practice incorporating it into your stroke with and without a breath. Practice without a tempo trainer ,then practice at a slower tempo (since thinking about your skills will take longer). Maybe add .15 – .2 seconds to drill with the TT and practice. You can repeat the test set above at this new tempo and while the stroke cont will / should be different, you can still measure the results and see if you’re improving without having to have a coach, video or time yourself.
This is just 1 test set and 2 ideas that emerge from it. There are infinite numbers of tempo sets you can do as part of improving your technique. Kirsten or I can share more, but try this one if you havn’t yet and see what you can learn.
You don’t have to swim faster to beat your best time in a triathlon
You just have to swim better than you are right now.
Many triathletes go to the pool with a soggy workout printed off the internet and a bag of pool toys like paddles, fins and a snorkel But what most end up being frustrated by is not knowing if their work with the drills and toys translates to better swimming.
When you begin to realize that just doing a drill doesn’t mean you’ve learned a better swim skill, you’ll start to pay attention to the quality of your training plan.
it’s better to have a specific body based focus that you can pay attention to while swimming.
Let’s take just one example. most triathletes carry a lot of tension in their neck which impacts their streamlining, efficiency and breathing. Here’s one way to approach improving this micro skill and improve awareness.
“25 kick, 25 swim”
Does this look familiar? “25 kick, 25 swim”. This is an extremely common example of a freestyle drill set for triathletes. It would seem that the main intent is to practice kicking, right? But without further direction or a coach on deck, it’s unclear and doesn’t give you the focus you need to improve your freestyle swimming for triathlon.
Instead of “25 kick, 25 swim”, let’s add a specific thought to direct your muscles while doing the drill.
“Relax your neck” while kicking with one arm extended for 25 yards. Stroke once to breath or roll to the sky for a breath. Then swim 25 yards while maintaining your relaxed neck. Does your neck feel relaxed with and without arm strokes?
Aside from using a few more words, what’s the subtle difference between these two drill sets? The second set addresses a specific issue that impacts your swimming in both drilling and full stroke freestyle. You see most people will tense their neck and instinctively pick their head up a bit to look ahead. This creates tension in the neck and creates misalignment. Both issues require more effort to swim, and create an even bigger problem when trying to breath.
Great swim practices move your attention instead moving body parts
By removing the arms and just kicking (with or without fins) you can move your attention to your neck and experiment with different levels of relaxation and tone. When followed immediately with swimming it’s easy to compare the results of the new focus and attention to the neck.
Since new movements feel awkward and foreign, a drill set that addresses a specific thought (“relax the neck”) rather than an exercise (“Kicking”) is a supercharged way to increase your learning speed and adopt better swim skills faster.
Next time you go to the pool and are faced with a drill set, try substituting a body awareness focal point, or simply layering it on top of the drill. Some examples
One armed swimming becomes “Stroke with your Left (Right) arm, while keepign the neck relaxed and the spine aligned during the entire arm cycle.”
Cat & Mouse drill becomes “Keep your neck relaxed while exploring how much overlap is in your stroke while playing cat & mouse. At what point in your overlap can you keep your neck most relaxed?
12 Weeks of Better Swim Practices
If you’re ready to apply these principles to your own training, my dedicated triathlon swimming plan for Olympic or Half Distance races contains 12 weeks (32 unique workouts) of practical swimming workouts just like these. Just head on overhere to purchase a dedicated triathlon swimming plan to prepare you for an Olympic or Half Distance Triathlon.
(You can apply this plan over top of any other training plan you’re currently using and just swap out the swims)
SWOLF is a contraction of the words Swim Golf or Swimming Golf. This article will help you understand what it is, how it is measured and how you can experiment with different ways to “play” swim golf in order to improve your swimming. When you understand the different ways to use SWOLF, you can create a variety of interesting and engaging swim workouts that will help you become faster.
What is swim golf (or swimming golf)?
Swim golf is a fun way you can add some gamification to your swimming workouts in order to see if you are making improvements. Just like in regular golf, a lower score in swim golf is usually better.
How is SWOLF measured?
Your swim golf score is the total of the number of strokes you took, plus the time in seconds. It doesn’t matter if you are swimming in yards or meters, and it doesn’t matter what length the interval is, as long as you are being consistent with your own measurements.
For example: If you swim 50 yards in 45 seconds, your swim golf or SWOLF is 50 + 45 , or 95.
If you swim a 100 meter interval with a total of 40 strokes and swam it in 65 seconds, your SWOLF would be 105.
How do swim watches measure SWOLF?
Many swim watches such as the Garmin Forerunner models, Garmin Swim 2, Moov Now, the Apple watch, Swimovate Poolmate, and many more will automatically calculate a SWOLF score for you.
These swim watches calculate the swim golf score by counting your strokes and time per length of the pool. So whether you swim in a 25 yard pool, 25 meter pool or 50 meter pool, the calculation is based on 1 length of that pool.
For example: with a 200meter swim interval in a 50 meter pool, the software will show 4 SWOLF scores for that interval, one for each length.
On the other hand, a 500 yard swim in a 25 yard pool will show a graph of 20 SWOLF scores for the entire interval.
Here is an example of multiple swim golf scores shown in a graph after downloading the data to the watch’s software. The red filled portion with the heavier red outline is the SWOLF score for each length.
This graph represents a swim set of ten 100 yard repeats with a very short rest between them
In order to “play” swim golf, you would want to lower your SWOLF score over time. These could be short term goals within the same workout, or longer term goals over time.
If your score is the sum of your strokes and your time, then there are two ways to decrease your score. You can either lower your strokes (ie take fewer strokes to complete your interval), or swim in a faster time. The tricky part is that in order to actually get a lower sun, you need to prevent the other score from increasing.
For example, these two swims would result in the same score for a 50 yard swim: A) 43 seconds in 52 strokes or B) 45 seconds in 50 strokes. Both of them result in a score if 95 for a 50 yard interval.
Two ways to lower your SWOLF score
Take fewer strokes in the same amount of time
For example if you swam 25 yards in 22 seconds with 18 strokes, your score is 40.
In subsequent 25s, you would try to swim in 22 seconds while still taking fewer than 18 strokes, for a score less than 40
Since stroke count is half of your swim golf score, and stroke count can change based on a persons height or wing span, it’s hard to compare your score against anyone else’s score. Everyone has different physical features that can influence their strokes per length. The best way to use SWOLF is as a personal measure of change or improvement.
How can I Incorporate SWOLF into my swim workouts?
You can create sets like the examples above to add some focus to your swims that are centered around using SWOLF to improve your swimming.
For beginning and early intermediate swimmers, usually the best bang for the buck is to try to lower stroke count first in order to lower your score. This is because most of these swimmers have several technique areas that when improved, can reduce drag and lower the number of strokes needed to get across the pool.
Intermediate swimmers may enjoy trying to hold their SPL the same, while trying to swim faster. This means that they are traveling the same distance with each arm stroke ,but because their time is faster, they are taking each stroke at a slightly faster tempo.
Alternatively, intermediate swimmers can experiment with different ways to prevent SWOLF from climbing, but trading a stroke for a second. That means that by allowing an extra stroke during the length, you can often gain a second…so it’s an even tradeoff. When there are multiple ways to achieve the same SWOLF score, it’s worth spending time evaluating the effort required at different stroke counts. Your goal would be to use the score combination that results in the least effort as a target for practice and improvement.
More advanced swimmers will enjoy trying to lower both scores…swim faster AND take fewer strokes This requires precision technique as well as properly applied power in your stroke.
Can I track SWOLF without a swim watch?
Of course you can! What do you think coaches and swimmers did before swim watches were available? Many swimmers ask if you should count one arm only or both arms. I teach my swimmers to count each arm entry as a stroke. This is because you will get a more precise number instead of estimating 1/2 cycles.
But you’ll have to remember that your swim watch usually counts cycles…one arm through the whole stroke cycle. So when YOU count two strokes (right arm entry, left arm entry), your swim watch is counting 1 cycle (right arm entry to next right arm entry).
Counting strokes is a great skill to learn to make improvements to your swim, so it’s time well spent.
When I am totally race fit, I don’t worry about breathing or technique – they take care of themselves. -Frank Shorter
Breathing isn’t optional, but it IS a choice.
It is one of those body functions that your brain maintains whether you’re aware of it or not…like your heartbeat. However there are many circumstances in which you can choose to breath in a different pattern…faster, shallower or just differently.
Imagine how hard it would be to sing or even have a conversation if we had no willful control of when we breathe in and when we exhale? When speaking or singing, we’re able to use breath control to create phrases, delaying an inhalation until the end of a musical phrase or sentence in speech. Yet, as soon as we’re done with that activity, the brain immediately takes over again and continues respiration, in and out, indefinitely as long as we’re alive.
It’s one part autonomous, one part reflex and one part choice. When we swim we get to choose how and when we breath…and also why. My goal with swimming is to make my breathing seem so seamless that I get a sensation I’m breathing under the water. My breathing no longer becomes a conscious choice, nor an instinct of survival, but an automatic part of my stroke matched with my effort at that time.
Rocky Mountain Swimming High
I recall the first time I experienced this sensation and it was a direct result of TWO things combined that might have otherwise derailed me for that summer. The first was dislocating my thumb on my first day of work in Colorado. The second was the fact that I was working and living at 7500 feet of altitude…thin air for sure!
With the thumb injury, I was unable to ride a bike or go fly fishing for several weeks while my hand was splinted. The occupational therapist I saw made me a waterproof splint I could wear for working and swimming, so off to the pool I went for my daily exercise. Two new problems cropped up once I was int he pool. However I was so in love with swimming that I couldn’t imagine these stopping me. Instead i found a way to make these into assets for improving my breathing.
The first problem was the altitude. At 7500 feet, most folks who do not live there and are acclimated will experience an increased breathing rate both at rest and while exercising. That’s no consequence when you’re riding a bike or fly fishing. It happens and you don’t have to think about it. However in the pool, where I chose to get my main exercise those first few weeks of injury, having to breath more often was almost enough to make me question if I should even bother.
My breathing wasn’t bad by any measure, but it wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t realize how many flows there were until I was forced to breath every stroke even when swimming easily. Essentially I had created an environment not dissimilar to a beginner in which they feel the need to breath every stroke not because of a lack of oxygen, but because they are swimming inefficiently and using up a lot of oxygen…basically the same situation I was in.
While i hadn’t noticed any major flaws in my breathing before arriving at altitude, once I was there, the errors were many!
Breathing Skills Practice – Intermediate to Advanced Skill Level
Here are some of the skills I practiced during those weeks of recovering from my hand injury and adjusting to the altitude. There was no other time in my swimming career where my breathing improved so much, because I was forced to work on it under those circumstances.
Breathing Skills Practice: (total ~ 2000 – 3200)
Practice tall posture, pulling up through the crown of the head, draw chin back just a bit since most of us tend to slouch a little bit. Check your posture from the side with a selfie, in the mirror or with your back against the wall.
Look for these checkpoints:
Are your ears over your shoulders? (if not where are they?)
Are your eyes looking directly forward? (if not where are they looking?)
Can you inhale fully drawing air downward through your diaphragm?
Are your glutes engaged with your hips over your heels?
Bonus points: Can you stand on your tip toes without losing balance and posture?
Finally… are you relaxed and comfortable?
If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, don’t worry, nothing is wrong, you’ve just highlighted some elements of your posture, flexibility and build that may need to be addressed through some daily exercises (or physical therapy). But now that you’ve practiced that in the locker room head to the pool
Tune up: (150)
4 x 5 yards – head lead tall posture, gentle kick. I call this “toy soldier” because it reminds me of a wooden nutcracker toy, tall and toned.
4 x 10 yds – start with arms extended, tall posture, gentle kick for a 5-10 seconds then add a few strokes
4 x 25 yds – Start as above with soldier drill, arms extended, then swim to the end, gently focusing on posture
4 x 50 “Catch & Push” Drill, alternating right arm and left arm focus. (200)
1st 25 down: With each push extend the lead arm and let your chin rotate towards the air along with your hips and shoulder on that same side. When you need to breath, take a full stroke with each arm and breath to the same side.
2nd 25 back: Swim full stroke freestyle breathing to the same side as the first 25. Try to stay relaxed in the recovery arm while extending the lead arm as you breathe.
4 x 150 (600)
Within each 150, swim as follows:
1st 50 breath every 4 to the right on the way down, and every 4 on the left on the way back. Easy effort
2nd 50 breath every 3rd stroke for the entire 50. note that you can increase your speed a little since you’re exchanging air more often
3rd 50 breath every 2nd stroke to the right on the way down and to the left on the way back. You can increase your effort even more since you’re exchanging air every time you stroke.
2-4 Rounds of (200 + 2 x 100 + 4 x 50) (1200-2400)
200s Swim very easy breathing every 4 strokes to the same side. Alternate right and left every length. Compare your posture in breathing strokes with your posture in non breathing strokes. Do you still feel tall and aligned like in the dry land activity?
100s Swim moderately breathing every 3rd stroke (alternating breathing sides regularly). Note that with a slight speed increase your body must rotate around a skewer in order to maintain access to air on each side.
50s Swim faster, breathing every 2nd stroke, switching for the 2nd half. Again note that your posture remains tall and with even more speed, you’ll have a better pocket to breath into making it seem as if you’re almost breathing under the surface of the water.
For me, I’ve just always loved being in the water and playing games with my friends. Starting from when I was 7 or 8 years old, I walked to our neighborhood pool, met my friends, and we played cards during adult swim, and sharks & minnows when there were enough of us there, and I swam on the swim team until I was 15 years old. The swimming pool was the fabric of my summer existence.
During & after high school, other priorities came up, other sports, other interests, academics and eventually a job. My first job out of college was with Voyageur Outward Bound School where we took groups of teenagers on backcountry wilderness canoe trips. We taught them life skills and expedition skills. But my favorite days were teaching the kids whitewater kayaking skills. It seemed that again, water became the fabric of my existence. It’s a miracle I never developed trench foot during a 3 week expedition in which it rained every day but one.
Dusting Off the Clubs
By the time I was 26 I longed for work that was more meaningful and impactful and in a roundabout way I decided to try to get into medical school. The day I took my MCATs (Medical College Admission Test), I thought to myself, “If I’m going to become a doctor, I need to learn how to golf.” So I dug around in the garage, found some dusty old clubs that my parents had owned and enjoyed when they were 20 years younger, and took myself and a few balls up to the ballfield that I had played in as a kid…the same ballfield that was on the way to the pool from my youth.
Let’s just say that it didn’t go well. I decided I would be a non-golfing doctor.
Diving Back in…
Fast forward five years, I had matched into residency, and somehow made the bizarre decision that training for a triathlon, rather than pure running for exercise, would give me more free time. What was I thinking?? I started riding my bicycle to the rec center and took up swimming again after about 10 years away from the water sports I’d loved during my childhood and those first years after college.
It was…just as I had remembered it. Smooth. Silent. Silky. Weightless. Magical. Mystical. Mysterious. Consistent. It was an activity where I could both disappear from the demands of Emergency Medicine training, and immerse myself into something familiar and comforting. “You have a nice stroke,” was something I heard often.
Let’s fast forward again. Since then…Back Surgery. Total Immersion. Pain free Swimming. Triathlon Coach. Youtube Host, interviewing legends like Mark Allen, Terry Laughlin, Gwen Jorgensen, Leanda Cave. Did I mention Mark Allen? Kirsten Sass. Volker Winkler. (Look them all up)
My pursuit of triathlon became it’s own career path, and throughout it all the water was my place that was both familiar and challenging. Endless improvement and ingrained patterns from my youth. New friendships and YouTube “fame” had people introducing themselves to me at the World Championships…”You’re Suzanne Atkinson, I love your podcasts and interviews.”
Holding Things Together
The water was the glue. It always brought things back together. Even things that had fallen apart, like my body from a bucket tear disc injury, back surgery, car accident, physical therapy, ankle arthritis (those soccer moves!), and most recently being a temporary caregiver for my partner who had a cardiac arrest (he’s fine now, 1 in 10,000 survivor of 3 cardiac arrests…now we train together), and navigating my mothers progression with dementia, aricept overdoses, and the relentless march of time. I submerged myself in the water and the water made me whole again.
At 50, I suddenly feel fit and fresh. I’m not in the same physical shape or the same weight I was at 47, or even 48…but 50 feels different. It feels fresh. It feels ready. It feels forward. I’m optimistic. The water is still there as it has been the past 45 years of my life.
What do I love about swimming? Everything.
What do YOU love about swimming? Post in the comments…
Every once in awhile we get to talk with some fantastic racers and amazing athletes who seem to be able to train and race consistently year after year, race after race, in multiple distances.
How do they do it? What’s going on inside their head?
From the outside it may seem like it’s all smooth sailing, but in reality they are constantly working on getting better, eliminating the rough spots, and paying attention to where they can focus better.
In Episode 8 of Tri 2 Listen, Suzanne Atkinson (head coach of Steel City Endurance, and also host of the podcast) talks with Kirsten about what was going through her mind on race day when she sealed her spot at Kona by winning her age group.
Listen to this audiogram to hear how Kirsten divides the race into three major components (no, not swim, bike and run, lol)
You can hear the entire episode with Kirsten and her father Volker at Tri 2 Listen or on iTunes, Apple or Spotify podcasting apps. Just search for “Tri 2 Listen”, or click below.
Well, if it’s too high of course. 😉 So how do you know if it’s too high?When swimming at an easy pace, ie, not adding much power or force, you should be able to move forward through the water with relative ease indicating that you’re well balanced and streamlined in the water.
Everyone will find a limit where either swimming easier turns into drilling, or there is a lower limit to how slow you can swim before you feel you start to sink. Just above that point…what’s your stroke count?
You can reduce Stroke Count or (strokes per length) by reducing drag or increasing power. Stroke count is only a reflection of two competing forces water resistance vs stroking force.
These are some additional ways to think about balancing two swim skills to achieve speed in swimming:
Streamlining vs power
Flexibility vs Mobility
Slipperiness vs Strength
Based on your height, an “ideal number” for your stroke count can vary. For a 5’2″ person, maybe 18 is a conservative lower end target. For a 6’2″ person, perhaps 15 a good lower end target. If you can’t hit those targets at ANY speed…there are streamlining and /or balance issues…basically problems with drag.
As you increase your tempo, time between strokes decreases, travel distance decreases and stroke count goes up. What’s the upper limit of the number of strokes where you still feel smooth and in control? For me…around 21-22 SPL in a SCY pool when swimming comfortably fast.
Can you choose your stroke count at will? This would indicate that you’ve got great control over your form. Does your stroke count vary widely (maybe more than 2 SPL) when swimming at the same sustainable pace ? This suggests poor technique or technique that’s not wired in…as an 18 stroke 25 yd swim at 30 seconds is a very different stroke than a 16 or 20 SPL 25 yd swim at 30 seconds.
The stroke rate ramp test is a good test…but it only shows you your current comfort level. It doesn’t help you diagnose if your SPL and tempo ranges are good for you…only what feels good to you now. Unless we all have perfect technique, what feels good can always been improved.
FWIW at 5’3″ I can swim equally comfortably at 14 SPL or at 22 SPL…the difference is speed. at 14 SPL I’m swimming 1:50/100s easily and relaxed. at 22 SPL I’m swimming 1:30s and getting tired. A sustainable 1000 yd swim for me is around 1:40/100 and 18/19 SPL…unwavering from that narrow range.
Finally, if tempo stays the same, lowering your SPL (by either improving streamlining or adding efficient propulsion) will make you go faster!
Lots of good reasons to consider lowering SPL as part of a well balanced diet of swim practice and improvement exercises.
Note: This originally appeared in the USA Triathlon Coaching email forum in January, 2013. Going through and cleaning up old emails I thought it was worth sharing here.
Due to a large number of questions from my athletes who are aging up into their 50s or older, I am undertaking a series called “Tri over Fifty”. Each article will discuss a different aspect of participating in our wonderful sport for those fifty years of age and older.
Is it safe for athletes over fifty to train for triathlons?
The answer is almost certainly a resounding “Yes”. However, let’s discuss some of the benefits and risks of this type of training. The benefits of physical activity in aging are well demonstrated and include improved cardiovascular, pulmonary and muscular systems, as well as improved brain function.?1? While aerobic fitness doesn’t improve cognitive ability in people without any difficulties, there is a definite relationship between those with regular, habitual physical activity such as masters athletes.?2? But along with the benefits of regular physical activity come risks, such as injuries from either overtraining, acute trauma and cardiovascular events. ?3?
Why 50? Well, to start with, I just joined this decade of life, so I can identify with the many challenges that come with it. Some are common to younger decades as well such as family commitments, caring for kids who may still live at home and being in prime earning years of your job. However, others have more in common with the decades to come, such as problems with arthritis, menopause, andropause, development/arrival of chronic health problems such as heart disease or cancer. Fifty marks a point in our lives when we may no longer feel youthful, but we are far from old age.
The most recent question I received was from a 54-year-old athlete, Dan B., who asked: “How can I remain injury-free at 54 years old while training for triathlons?” Without knowing more about Dan’s specific background, I am going to make some assumptions for this series.
You’re interested in maintaining an active lifestyle whether it’s in triathlon or another sport
You’re worried about the best and healthiest way to train, given your lofty goals
You’re tolerance for certain activity levels or recovery strategies is narrower than it used to be
You’ve been training for triathlon at least since your 40s, and have noticed changes in your body
You’ve had previous, minor injuries that may be nagging or take longer and longer to recover from
In this article, I want to discuss the most important of these three first…issues related to the heart.
Is Triathlon Training Healthy for the Heart?
Exercise and regular activity are some of the best prescriptions a physician could write for her patients! In this modern world of a pill for every problem, you’d need a dozen or more different pills to even come close to the benefits of exercise, and it still wouldn’t be close. People who are routinely active have up to 50% fewer cardiac events in middle life than their sedentary comparisons. ?4?
Some additional benefits include decreased depression and anxiety, lowered risk of dementia, stronger bones, fewer falls, lowered blood pressure, better lipid profile, fewer strokes, lowered risk of multiple types of cancer and more. Feel free to download the infographic here and share, or print it out and use it as a reminder of why you should exercise.
Cardiovascular Issues from Endurance Training
The benefits of exercise on the heart are well known. The heart accommodates and adapts to the demands we place on it in the same way our muscles adapt as we lift weights. Initially, there is some minor damage, and after recovery, the muscle rebuilds and repairs itself to be stronger and able to handle more stress. Some adaptations are normal and beneficial like the ones we already discussed. But others may be harmful and lead to sudden death, chronic abnormal heartbeats, or inability to pump blood adequately.
The amount of endurance training that leads to abnormal heart problems is still not completely known, but there does seem to be a sweet spot of about 20-30 minutes of moderate activity daily (ie a 15 minute/mile jog or walk, cycling at 15-20mph).?5? Triathletes, marathoners and other endurance athletes often train 5-10 times more than these beneficial durations. Below I list several different types of abnormal adaptations from an abundance of endurance exercise. These fall into three categories of issues related to muscle tissue, blood flow, and electrical conduction.
Problems with Blood Flow
Sudden blockage of an already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or leading to cardiac arrest
Already narrowed arteries which may cause angina. Often early signs of angina are ignored or unrecognized.
Problems with Muscle Tissue:
Thickening of muscle fibers causing blockage of blood flow (Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy)
Scarring of muscle tissue causing myocardial fibrosis
Stretching of muscle tissue causing cardiomyopathy or atrial fibrillation
Problems with the Electrical Conducting System of the Heart
Atrial Fibrillation, often chronic, that may contribute to fatigue or cause strokes
Ventricular Fibrillation caused by a heart attack. This results in complete collapse and loss of consciousness called a Cardiac Arrest, which is often deadly…more often than not.
Risks of Sudden Cardiac Death in Triathletes
Two case series articles have been published that sought to gather and categorize deaths occurring in triathletes. One was published a few years ago and at that time was the most comprehensive article dealing with the topic.
In the US, all identifiable deaths during USA Triathlon races between the years 1985 and 2006 were analyzed. The overall risk was 1.74 per 100 000 (2.40 in men and 0.74 in women). The rate did not seem to differ based on the type of event. Most of these deaths occurred during the swim leg. At autopsy, nearly half had cardiac-related abnormalities such as narrowed arteries or an enlarged heart.?6?
In February of 2020, a similar case series was published in the UK that looked at triathlon related deaths between the years The overall risk of triathlon-related deaths in the UK was 0.5 per 100,000 participants. Of these half were thought to be due to pre-existing cardiac conditions.?7?
The risk of dying during a triathlon due to a heart-related condition is not zero but it’s fairly low. Nevertheless, age is a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you have not had a cardiac evaluation by your primary care doctor, please make an appointment as soon as possible. Screening tests may include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), an echocardiogram or an exercise stress test. If you have anyone in your family that has ever had heart disease make sure your physician knows this as well, as it increases your own risk.
Silent heart disease in athletes has been the cause of death in two personal friends of mine, and a third friend was successfully resuscitated after a bicycle ride. All had been healthy & active their entire lives, and their endurance activities most likely prolonged their lifespan. So please don’t let the fact that you’ve been active stop you from getting a checkup and screening with your physician.
Thank you so much for reading this far. Next up in my “Tri over Fifty” series, I’ll discuss the muscle-related side effect of aging called sarcopenia, and again will discuss the benefits of triathlon training in combatting this monster.
Young J, Angevaren M, Rusted J, Tabet N. Aerobic exercise to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD005381. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005381.pub4
Schott N, Krull K. Stability of Lifestyle Behavior – The Answer to Successful Cognitive Aging? A Comparison of Nuns, Monks, Master Athletes and Non-active Older Adults. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1347. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01347