26 April 2007

Don’t call it a breakthrough… yet.

Posted by Brad Hefta-Gaub under: Fitness; Ironman; Swim; exercise; triathlon.

So, I’ve have some sort of a developing injury in my foot… no worries, it gives me a good reason to focus on my swimming. No more excuses. So I’ve been thinking more about my slow (albeit easy) swim stroke, and a couple of concepts have been bouncing around in my head lately… so I’ve been doing some experimenting… and I think I might have found something out about my swim stroke.

Is it possible that I’m cheating myself? Is it possible that my slow speed is the result of something small that would be simple to change? Hmmm….

I was chatting with Brooke, co-owner of Speedy Reedy — my favorite local triathlon shop — a couple months ago. I was complaining about how slow I was. She had lots of suggestions… join a masters swim program, practice practice practice, get a coach, etc. She also reassured me that a 1:27 Ironman swim split isn’t anything to be ashamed of… but she understands that I want to improve, and she agrees that I could trim 10-20minutes off of my time.

By the way, this reminds me about one of my excuses for not focusing on my swim time. I’ve used the excuse that since the worlds best are swimming in the 0:50 range and the top age-groupers are in the 0:57-1:07 range, that improving on my 1:27 would only give me 20minutes more on the field. I’ve always told myself that my relaxed easy 100bpm swim at 1:27 prepares me to gain much more than 20minutes on the bulk of the field in my bike and run. But here’s the problem with this logic… what if I could swim a 1:07 swim split and still make up that 20 minutes on the rest of the field on the bike and run? Well… that means I could be cheating myself out of 20 minutes… that’s a huge waste.

Ok, so there is a good reason to work on my swim…. what can I do about it?

Here’s the thing, a have received a lot of “compliments” on my “good form”. Just today after my swim a swimmer in the lane next to me asked me about TI (I was wearing a TI swim cap)… he said “You have really good form, I was watching you, you look so effortless, you’re gliding through the water, you’re perfectly vertical”. Hmmm, that does sound good, I wish I could see that… so why am I so slow?

Well, Brooke asked me something a couple months ago, and it’s been swimming around in my noggin. And Karl also mentioned something on his blog that along with Brooke’s question has got me wondering if there isn’t at least one place in my swim stroke where I may be cheating myself. Specifically - stroke count per breath.

Ok, so a little background. If you are struggling in the water, then you have to breath a lot more than if you are relaxed. That makes sense of course. And since Total Immersion is all about not-struggling in the water, about the idea of having an effortless swim, then someone who is swimming the TI technique well should not need to breath as frequently. Or put another way you should have far more strokes per breath. And, as I’ve said in the past I have a pretty effortless stroke. I am very relaxed in the water, and I really don’t feel as though I am putting much effort into my stroke. In much of the TI literature there are reports of typical stroke/breath rates of 7-9 strokes per breath.

But I am still swimming along at 3 strokes per breath. Now mind you, that’s not bad pe se. I mean, I do effortlessly swim breathing bi-laterally (every other breath on every other side of my body), which is a sign of good form. Bi-lateral breathing has many advantages. First of all, if you are easily able to breath bi-laterally then it means that you are “comfortable” on either side of you body… a good thing. Also, bi-lateral breathing means that you are evenly distributing the effort of “breathing” to each side of your body… what? I mean, that the extra energy (although let’s hope it’s not too much extra energy) of lifting your arm and lifting your head “out of the water” is distributed to both sides of your body. This reduces fatigue, and allows you to swim comfortably longer.

Bi-lateral breathing, also means you’re probably not rushing your stroke, and therefore you’re conserving energy by staying in a clean rhythm. But one other significant benefit of being a comfortable bi-lateral breather, is that if times are tough (huh?) then you can choose to be a uni-lateral swimmer on either side. What? Yeah. Let’s say you are swimming in the ocean, along the shore, and you have swell or waves breaking on one side of you — the uni-lateral swimmer who is only comfortable breathing on one side of their body might find themselves in a frustrating, demoralizing, or possibly dangerous situation.

The point is, I am a comfortable bi-lateral breather… but at only 3 strokes per breath. So what’s wrong with that? Well, a couple things. Breathing does slow you down. Even when you do it in a clean effortless TI manner, you are still pausing when you roll to breath, and you are losing your propulsion. The more strokes you take per breath the fewer pauses over total distance.

Another problem (at least for me) is that although I am a bi-lateral breather, I am not 100% symetrical in my breathing. I take just a little bit longer on one side than the other… I don’t even know which one… in fact it may change throughout the swim… but the point is that some of my pauses are a little longer on one side than the other. So what, you ask? Well, a little longer pause means a little extra or a little less drift to one side or the other… which means I don’t swim very straight. In the pool (especially a 17 yard per lap pool) you’d never notice… but in the open water… uh… yeah… you notice.

In fact, I think my Ironman swim last year was probably 2.7 miles considering how many times and how far off course I swam. At one point in the race I drafted off another swimmer, not for the free glide but simply for the benefit of having someone else steering. I wanted a guide not a glide. But after about 10 minutes, he wanted to switch places and draft off of me… I didn’t mind, and I took the lead, but he quickly realized that it was a bad idea to follow me because I was going WAY off course.

Ok, so what is the breakthrough you ask? Well, like I said, don’t call it a breakthrough yet… but I decided to try to take more strokes per breath. Why don’t I up it to 5 or 7? So this week, in all my swimming sessions I’m trying to focus on swimming with more stroke per breath. Now, I don’t mean swimming hypoxic… which is a different training technique. No, I simply mean swimming comfortably, but not breathing so often… can I do it?

The first couple times I did this, my brain was screaming out at me that I was going hypoxic. But then I realized something rather simple (and a little silly). In an effort to “breath out under water”, which is of course what every swim coach will tell you to do… I was breathing out alot of my breath within the first two strokes. So what if I just held my breath more? Huh, it turns out I can swim 5 or 7 strokes easily. Go figure. But if I hold my breath the whole way, and only breath out at the 6th stroke, then I started to feel a little over carbonated. ;)
The next thing I tried was to hold my breath much longer than on my 3 strokes, but actually breath out a tiny stream of bubbles on strokes 2 and 4, and 6 if I was going to 7… and then of course a big breath out on my last stroke. What I found was that this technique was actually much easier, and almost as effortless as my 3 strokes per breath. Now that is a big deal.

In fact, it was a big enough deal that on a couple of my lengths of the pool it only took me 8 or 9 strokes total to complete the length… my typical stroke count (for this short pool) is 11 strokes. Assuming those stroke counts weren’t flukes, and that if I reduce my breath count to one per 7 vs. one per 3… then I could see a 20% improvement in my stroke length. That’s huge!

At this point in the game, I’m not timing myself. In fact, I was making a point of trying to concentrate on form, not speed. But I am hopeful that this new found higher stroke/breath rate will result in swim speed improvements.

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5 Comments so far...

Don't call it a breakthrough... yet. « ZappoMan.wordpress.com - Fitness Blog Says:

26 April 2007 at 8:31 pm.

[...] Read the rest of this article on ZappoMan.com [...]

Greg Says:

27 April 2007 at 9:55 am.

It’s a breakthrough! :)

zappoman Says:

27 April 2007 at 1:36 pm.

I said not to do that! ;)

Jenny Says:

28 April 2007 at 7:38 pm.

Unrelated to this post, but you must check out this NYT article (but I think someone else will already have sent you the link…)


Oanh Says:

1 May 2007 at 12:04 am.

Hmm, interesting technique. I’m gonna have to try it too. :)


About Brad

Me in 2002 - 200lbsThis is my fitness blog. Some people who knew me a long time ago may wonder, what the heck I'm doing writing a blog about fitness. Many of them wouldn't imagine that I'd have anything to do with fitness. You see, up until age 34, I treated my body very poorly. I sat around at home, at work, at play. I ate junk food and lots of it. And the result was what you'd expect 5'4" and 200 lbs with 36% body fat. (more...)