March 13, 2014 | Posted in:Swimming

After reviewing my swim metrics after last weeks Swim LT-Test I discovered a number of things. One, when I am swimming  am completely oblivious to what I am doing in the sense of technique, stroke rate, balance, head position etc. I just swim andstop the clock when I’m done. Two, my stroke rate per minute is down at 30 on the Garmin site which I have found out is pitifully slow. And Three, I know not very much about swimming at all even though I have been doing it consistently for 3 years now, have had lessons and countless coached drills sessions.Time to consult the experts I think…

First, from the point of view of technique and what you should be looking for and thinking about when swimming from a website by a guy called Jesse Kropelnicki who can be found at Below is Coach Kropelnicki’s overview of swimming and the most common issues that most swimmer encounter:

Developing World class Swim Mechanics

Of the three disciplines in triathlon, swimming is the most difficult AND critical to master the mechanics of. Much of the confusion is born from pool-trained swimmers or coaches, focusing on a longer glide phase and lower stroke count. Open water swimming, in choppy waters, requires a strong back end of the stroke, with a follow-through that pushes beyond the hips. Athletes having a long glide phase in their stroke, tend to be slowed by open water chop while in this portion of the stroke, being re-propelled with each pull phase. Unfortunately, a long glide phase typically results in a slow turnover and, therefore, fewer pull phases per minute. Fewer pull phases mean fewer opportunities at forward motion, because of not being re-propelled through the water. Based on these facts, rough open water swims require a higher turnover than their pool-based counterparts.

The above can be evidenced by pool swimmers who see a major de-couple, relatively speaking, between their pool and open water swim times. Although their graceful glide and strong front-end propulsion results in fast and efficient pool swimming, once offered to the unrelenting chop of the open water, these attributes are quickly minimized. This can be especially frustrating for those who race at the Professional level, come from a swimming background, and typically crush their competition in the pool. Come race day, with mass starts, and bodies in front, behind, on either side, and sometimes on top of you, the front end is the first part of the swim stroke that gets lost in the flurry. With people and feet occupying the space where a nice, long, and gliding swim stroke might occur, it becomes nearly impossible to get a strong catch and pull within the front quadrant of the stroke. This leaves the mid to back end of the stroke as the critical piece for maintaining any forward momentum. Since the back end of the stroke and follow-through are protected, no matter how crowded the swim is, it only makes sense to apply a strong focus of our attention here, for top-level triathlon swimming.

These two points explain why pool-born swimmers can be very graceful and fast in the pool, but may have a good deal of difficulty translating this in-pool speed to the open water. It is the front-end focused swimmers, having a long glide, strong catch, and low turnover/cadence who are most efficient in calm, smooth, non-crowded waters. However, this same group is often out swim, time and time again in the open water by the high turnover crowd, who thrashes through the water with a strong back end to their stroke.

One of the most frustrating aspects for swimmers with poor mechanics is that many spend countless hours in the pool, swimming hard, 5,000 meter workouts with masters groups, but fail to make any significant progress in their open water swim speed. This equates to a misappropriation of the athlete’s “stress budget”, because a good deal of stress is utilized with little or no return on the investment. In a case like this, the stress spent on swimming is likely better spent cycling and/or running, where speed is less dependent upon mechanics, and gains in fitness are much more likely to directly impact race speed. As such, the athlete may be able to consider backing off on swim intensity, to focus on the mechanical issues that are impeding gains in speed on race day.

Using the above points as a backdrop, let’s discuss some of the most common issues that can be seen in the swimming mechanics of triathletes. We will discuss these in the order of importance, with the numbers in brackets indicating the approximate percentage of athletes who can be seen exhibiting the issue.

Poor Balance [20%]

This issue is indicated by hips that drop, causing the swimmer to become increasingly vertical in the water. This creates a significant amount of frontal area and hydrodynamic resistance, both of which must be overcome, before the body can make any forward motion. It is very similar to riding your TT bike down the Queen K, in the upright position. This resistance is so large that it is really not worth working on propulsion, or even fitness, until this body position is addressed! A good test, to determine if this is an issue for you, is to swim without doing any kicking, at all. If you struggle to make it through 50 yards, then you likely have some balance issues that are worth addressing. The key to working on balance, for open water swimming, is that once you have improved your in-water balance, stop doing the balance drill sets! These sets tend to reduce stroke cadence, increase glide, and create front-end swimming.

Missed Catch [90%]

It is estimated that only about five percent of triathletes actually have a true catch in their stroke! The catch allows the creation of an anchor for your arm and hand (the paddle), before engaging the lats, in any significant way, to create forward propulsion. Without the catch, engaging the lats and rotating at the shoulder tends to push the water downward and body upward. This exacerbates any existing balance issues, and creates small forward propulsion. This issue can be a double whammy, because it increases resistance AND decreases propulsion.

Poor Timing and/or Low Swim Cadence [50%]

Ideally, your leading arm should be leaving the front quadrant, just as the fingertips of your trailing arm are entering the water. This sort of timing creates more constant propulsion, forward momentum, and leads to an appropriate swim cadence. Swim cadence, refers to strokes per minute, NOT strokes per length. The ideal swim cadence is very dependent upon your height and swim speed. Typically, at a pace of 1:50 per 100 yards, an athlete will take between 55 and 65 strokes per minute. At 1:20 pace, we are looking at about 65 to 80 strokes per minute. In each of these, taller athletes should fall at the lower end of these ranges.

Upward Glide/Extension [40%]

Upon entry into the water, the leading arm is extended with an upward glide. This not only increases frontal area, but it also inserts a delay into the swim stroke. This delay can allow the trailing arm to catch up to the leading arm, which creates a timing issue similar to that discussed above. This delay also reduces the number of propulsive phases per minute, and therefore reduces forward momentum in a rough open water swim.

Straight Arm Recovery [20%]

Many coaches say that they don’t care what the recovery of their athletes’ strokes look like. However, this can adversely effect timing, entry, and extension! Unfortunately, this is almost always the case! A straight-armed recovery often results in a straight-armed entry, with the shoulder entering the water first, followed by the elbow, and THEN the hand. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of resistance created, as the arm “rolls” into the water. The time required for this type of recovery often results in the leading arm getting much further along in its stroke, much too soon. This can create a timing issue that is the exact opposite of front quadrant swimming, wasting energy, because maximum propulsion is created as the body is thrust into a flat position.

Weak Back End [80%]

This is quite specific to triathlon, or open water swimming, versus pool swimming. A good back end of the stroke should see the wrist crack, just as the elbow becomes aligned with the body. This is done in an effort to maintain a perpendicular bearing between the palm and the body as the hand moves along the body and completes its follow through. This effectively increases the length of the “propulsive zone” during by maximizing the back end of the stroke. Many swimmers do not crack their wrist, instead pushing upwards on the water with the back of their hand, thus missing an opportunity for continued propulsion.

Cross-Over [30%]

Many swimmers develop a cross-over at some point during their stroke. This will typically occur at either entry/extension, or during mid pull. At entry/extension the forearm is the first thing presented to the water, causing an increase in hydrodynamic resistance. This also tends to produce a zig-zag effect as swimmers move through the water like a snake, again increasing frontal area and hydrodynamic resistance. When viewed from the front, entry and extension should occur directly in front of the shoulder with the index finger and thumb entering first. The palm should then be rotated to horizontal (vs. outward), creating space for the remainder of the body to rotate into.

On the other hand, a cross-over at mid pull reduces the swimmer’s effective paddle area, reducing the strength of the pull. Swimmers with this issue tend to either have relatively weak shoulders, or are suffering a cognitive disconnect with the proper mechanics. At mid pull, the palm should be vertical, below the armpit, or just slightly outside of that position.

Over Rotating When Taking a Breath [70%]

Swimmers who show their entire face, when taking a breath, tend to do so by over rotating their head. This is very closely related to a weak back end, as discussed just above. You will often see the palm drive outward, searching for an anchor that the body can use to “push” off of to get that big breath. Rotation of the head should be just enough to gain that breath by biting at the air, with no more than a single goggle lens breaking the water’s surface.

Disconnected Shoulders and Hips [15%]

While this issue tends to be less common, it certainly does rear its ugly head now and again. This often presents itself with the hips rotating well before the shoulders. This decreases the body’s ability to be well streamlined. From a side-looking view, the shoulders and hips should be connected, as if one. When the hips rotate, so too should the shoulders. When the shoulders rotate, so too should the hips. They are all interconnected!

Strength Limiters [15%]

Relatively low BMI athletes run the risk of being strength limited, in the water, from both a propulsive and mechanics standpoint. Many swimmers struggle to produce an appropriate cadence, because they lack the lat strength to pull through the water quickly enough. It can also be the case that weak shoulders will prevent the athlete from holding a good arm position at mid pull, creating the cross-over effect discussed above.

I would make a point of checking out the video below which bring together a lot of the points made above.

Another site that I found is one called which is a very very popular site within the world or swimming and swim technique in particular. There is a great page ( in which you can enter you strokes per minute and pace and ascertain where you sit within the correct pace (remember if you have a garmin you need to double to SPM as the device only counts one arm). You can see mine below:

My Swim Stroke Rate

The site gives you great tips on how to increase your speed depending upon where you sit within the graph. I am somewhere in the middle but will be concentrating on the slower swim stroke advice in the short term. You can find both below.

Developing your swim if you have a high stroke rate:

Developing your if you have a low stroke rate:

Thanks again


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