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Go Postal!

Dateline: 1/17/98 — Yesterday I did the One Hour Postal Swim for the first time and learned something about my stroke count, especially in long swims. My “brain off/normal” stroke count has always been around 18 strokes per 25 yards (s/l) of free (I am embarrassed to put that in writing since I am 6'2'' tall). When I get tired (usually about 150 yards into any swim) I fall back on my high turnover/inefficient stroke to try to keep up, thinking it is faster.

In the postal swim, I made an effort to vary my stroke count, and keep it as low as possible. When the adrenaline was pumping, I started out with 16 s/l and a pretty high turnover for the first 2 minutes and had 38 second splits for each 50 yards. Then the adrenaline was gone (I used to be a sprinter), and I realized I would not be able to swim for 57 more minutes with that high a turnover rate, and needed to slow the arms down (actually, they slowed down on their own).

From the 200 yard mark on, I tried varying stroke counts. I did everything I could think of to make my stroke more efficient (counting strokes, full arm pull, glide between strokes, head in line with body, hip rotation starting with the legs, kick, streamline off the walls, get in close on the turns for better push offs, etc.). For most of the swim, I held 16 s/l. Sometimes I would zone out and have 18 s/l. During the 20 to 50 minute portion of the swim when I was tired I did the majority of the laps at or below 16 s/l, dropping down to 12-13 s/l on occasion. During the last 10 minutes, when I knew I would survive for the full hour, I picked my arm speed back up but held my stroke count around 16.

When I got out, I expected that my splits would be all over the place because of the different stroke counts. I was very surprised. The first 200 I held 38 seconds/50yds (@ 16 s/l), from 250 to 4050 yards I held a surprisingly consistent 40 seconds (@ 12 to 18 s/l), and from 4100 to 4525, where I finished, I dropped my splits to 39 seconds (@ 16 s/l).

Things I learned:

  1. I went faster and further with lower stroke counts than I would have swimming normally.

  2. The quickest way to get faster from here is to develop more stroke efficiency and then build up the turnover rate.

  3. By using different stroke counts, I was able to avoid fatigue in a long swim because I could change strokes and use different muscles. Having a variety of stroke lengths gives you more options (Need to experiment and find when to change).

  4. Everything else being equal, fewer strokes is better. The fewer strokes per length I took the less energy I expended, and my times did not change that much. By putting more effort into each stroke and using fewer, I used less energy and swam faster than I would have doing extra less efficient strokes faster. Conversely, when I took more strokes and thought I was getting faster, I really wasn't faster. It only works if the stroke efficiency stays the same.

  5. Put another way, stretching out for the extra two inches per stroke takes a lot less energy than doing an additional stroke. Using the same principle, I experimented with longer strides in my three mile runs this week and have already knocked 2:00+ minutes off my times.

  6. In a long swim, you will find every way to make your stroke more efficient. One hour of stroke counting is a unique opportunity to improve.

Go Postal! Do the Postal Swim next year!

Warning: After swimming for an hour straight counting strokes, you will probably find yourself counting steps as you walk, the times the turn signal clicks, etc. for the rest of the day!

Coach Emmett Hines's Notes: Rob first recounted the essence of this experience to me right after the swim. I encouraged him to write up his experience in his own words to share with all of you.

What was surprising to Rob—the ability to swim more effectively when primarily employing skill strategies instead of just working harder and faster—is, to me, a foregone conclusion. It is so thoroughly obvious to me that this is the pristine path to swimming success that I sometimes take for granted that everyone who's been around our program for awhile sees the same obvious thing. Yet, I am occasionally brought back to reality when a veteran, accomplished swimmer has a "revelation" of this type.

A primary goal of my coaching is to help swimmers improve their fundamental skills to swim any given distance with fewer strokes. A swimmer that has put enough peices of the "puzzle" together to be able to swim low stroke counts (even if they are at a slower pace) has a powerful weapon in his arsenal.

The ability to exercise options in swimming is, perhaps, the accomplished swimmer's most valuable asset. Having the ability to swim at very low stroke counts doesn't mean he chooses to swim at the lowest stroke count possible in all situations. It merely means that the swimmer who figures out how to swim at 8-10 s/l relaxedly, fluidly, apparently effortlessly — and still make it look like swimming instead of drilling—has a much greater range of options in choosing a stroke length and tempo combination to swim with than does the swimmer who has never figured out how to go under 20 s/l without drilling.

Picking a particular stroke count and a particular tempo is (and always will be) a tradeoff between effort and efficiency. Too few strokes and you don't have enough opportunities to make propulsive motions. Too many strokes and you waste a large amount of the propulsive forces you apply to the water. Always being aware of and experimenting with these tradeoffs, in all strokes, distances and speeds presents a huge field of very fertile ground to be turned, planted, nurtured and harvested.

Rob's reminiscence points out, among other things, that if you spend the first parts of the race using the muscles needed for long strokes, later in the race, when you'd love to have some "fresh" muscles to work with, they are there. By opting for a slightly different s/l and tempo combination you shift some of the workload to different, fresher, muscles. In a long race you can do this often. The game then becomes one of choosing those combinations that are "good" tradeoffs. A "good" tradeoff is one that is sustainable over the distance you wish to swim. A "poor" tradeoff is one that results in you "dying" before the end of the swim. It is no accident that the best swimmers in the world at every distance and every stroke are also the ones who have mastered the art of taking fewer strokes at all speeds, thus maximizing their tradeoff options.

While a sprinter obviously makes different choices than does a distance swimmer, the fact remains that having more options from which to choose gives you a greater potential for success—regardless of what distance you choose to swim.v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000


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