I was inspired to write a few essays on this topic of stroke length because of my open-water swims last week. I was working with a Tempo Trainer, concentrating on my stroke-lengthening skill over 3km distance- increasing tempo, while holding stroke length. Stroke length is perpetually being attacked by water resistance (which increases with speed), fatigue, distraction, waves, chilling water, etc. It is a skill that can never be practiced too much and I felt the need for some tuning myself.

Let me return to the question: how do we build a longer stroke length? And not just a longer stroke but a longer stroke at higher tempos?

Here’s the quick answer: create stroke overlap.

Here are some tips:

  • Keep a patient front arm, one that is reaching farther forward, lengthening the body line while the recovery arm is coming all the way forward.
  • To fit the stroke into a faster tempo don’t shorten the front half of the catch to gain time, quicken up the recovery instead. Keep that catch steady and strong, not fast.
  • To gain even a little more time shorten the back half of the catch, pull out sooner, and get it back up front as soon as possible. If you have a high elbow catch you’ll have already gotten your best thrust accomplished in the front half. Just protect that front half of that catch- higher elbow with steady hold on the water.

We can speed the whole sequence up LATER. But in the beginning weeks and months we simply want to build the neuro-muscular connections that will make it EASY to execute an overlapped stroke at higher tempos, rather than muscling our way through it from the beginning. Our whole goal with TI is to swim faster and farther with ease, so that there will be no limit to where we can go.

How much overlap? That depends on several things, though we’ll work on one that fits our chosen SL x SR combination for our desired pace. We should aim to get as much overlap as we can in that SL x SR combination- done well there is no danger of a ‘dead spot’ in the stroke. Sprinters, cranking at extreme tempos, will be working down near (what might appear to be in normal speed video) a zero-overlap, while distance swimmers will be better served by a more obvious overlap and moderate tempo. Of course, ‘fast’ and ‘moderate’ are relative to each swimmer’s conditioning. Take a look at what Finis found for tempos of elite level swimmers.

Here’s a demo of me swimming at about a 1.12 temp0. A warm-up tempo for me. You can see a dramatic overlap. I practice a long overlap at slower tempos which gives me room to spare at higher tempos. I am very challenged below .80 second tempo but working on it.

Stroke overlap is fairly easy to work on at lower tempos, and we start there. But it becomes very tricky at higher tempos, near our personal tempo-limit. This is defined, not by the maximum tempo a swimmer can spin the arms, but at what tempo the swimmer can just maintain best technique. This is most easily measured by stroke counting.  At what tempo the stroke breaks down (when stroke count starts to jump) is the current limit.  This is where we need to work. (More on stroke counting and tempo in the next essay.)

A Tempo Trainer becomes a great tool for working on this skill. Instead of synchronizing the beep to the catch and thinking about driving water back, synchronize it to the moment the recovery hand is poised at the head ready to spear into the water and forward. Think about driving your body’s force forward through the those fingertips. It’s an amazing psycho-somatic technique: the change in focus will change the response of the whole body to the forces involved. And then require your front arm to hold it’s position reaching forward until that recovering hand is poised to spear forward and take its place. This is what we mean by ‘Patient Front Arm’. At the moment of the beep, the recovery hand drives forward AND the lead hand dips into the catch as the elbow turns up, and core body rotation empowers both actions at the same moment. This is the perfect timing we are aiming for- where the whole body from toes to fingertips is synchornized, all bodily force being transferred forward.

Start slow and work in smaller steps as you get near the tempo limits of your best-held technique. The closer to the limit, the more incremental your steps should become so your brain has time to adapt. As you get near your limits the tendency is to set the catch earlier and earlier (while the recovery arm is farther back in the cycle). This will make your stroke count go up. This is what you want to prevent for as long as possible. Water resistance, fatigue and loss of concentration will keep working against the long stroke, trying to break it down- so maintain full concentration and best relaxation.

Let’s stop there for now and in the next essay I’ll share what I did in my practices last week to develop stroke length working with a Tempo Trainer in open-water and give more detail on how to do it in the pool.

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