This summer marks the 40th anniversary of my first experience with open water racing. I joined the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps in 1973, and–as one of the better open water distance swimmers at Jones Beach–began to represent the Corps at lifeguard tournaments on the East Coast. I fared far better in 500- to 1000-meter races in L.I. Sounds or the Atlantic Ocean than I had in races of similar distance in college meets in the pool. I also enjoyed them far more.
I initially credited my success in open water to “natural endurance” and to having an instinct for racing without walls and lanes that others lacked.
I left the ocean behind after moving to Richmond VA in 1978. When I resumed swimming in open water in the early 1990s, I picked up where I’d left off—competing successfully in open water with people whose ‘wake I’d eaten’ in the pool.
In 2001, turning 50, I began to think of myself as an “open water specialist.” In part because the ‘sky lakes’ in Minnewaska State Park, became available for wide open swimming after years of being restricted to roped-in areas, not much bigger than a pool.
Committing to ‘Open Water Technique’
At the time, I trained in Masters workouts and swam pool meets occasionally. It occurred to me that the stroke I used in open water races—mostly between 1 and 3 miles—felt long and integrated, while the stroke I used in the pool–especially in the heat of a race (including with teammates in training)–felt more hurried and choppy.
Since I’d had my greatest success in open water races, I thought I should ‘put my eggs in that basket,’ using my open water stroke exclusively, even when racing teammates on short repeats. This meant limiting the number of strokes I would allow myself in training to 15, while keeping my average SPL between 13 and 14.
My stroke limit of 15 strokes put me at a disadvantage on 25- and 50-yard repeats, when many of my Masters teammates would take 20 or more
Thought I trailed significantly at first, before long I began closing the gap on high-revving teammates. Taking fewer strokes forced me to get more out of each stroke, but I adapted fairly quickly. And on longer repeats or sets—where I’d always finished near the top of the group–I saw even more improvement.
In 2002, I swam the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon, completing it with far longer, and more leisurely, strokes than any other competitor. From then through 2004, I had strong results in races of all distances. But it wasn’t until reading an article in 2005 by Jonty Skinner—at the time Performance Science Director for USA Swimming–that I realize how uniquely suited were the techniques I’d been practicing for open water.
Hip-Driven vs. Shoulder-Driven
Skinner’s article analyzed the contrasting techniques employed by freestylers who were more successful in Short Course (25y/m pools) vs. those who shone in Long Course (50m pools). Because the Olympics are held in Long Course, success in a 50m pool is highly valued.
After studying video from 20 years of national championships in both courses, Skinner observed that elite Long Course freestylers swam with longer, lower-tempos ‘hip-driven’ strokes. In contrast, elite Short Course freestylers swam with shorter, higher-tempo ‘shoulder-driven’ strokes.
Skinner explained the disparity this way: Among elite freestylers, in a 25-yard pool, the ratio of swimming to non-swimming (turns and pushoffs) is approximately 2.6 to 1. In a 50-meter pool, the swimming to non-swimming ratio rises to nearly 8 to 1.
I.E. During a minute of Short Course swimming, an athlete could spend as little as 43 seconds swimming and as much as 17 seconds “not-swimming.” In a 50-meter pool, he or she would spend about 53 seconds swimming and only 7 seconds “not-swimming.”
As Skinner explained, a shoulder-driven stroke allows the swimmer to achieve higher tempos and generate higher arm forces. This can create more speed in short bursts,but has great potential to cause fatigue. Frequent ‘rest breaks’ received by the arms on turns allow the swimmer to recover sufficiently to sustain a fast pace for distances up to about 200 yards.
But in a 50m pool, and when swimming over 2 minutes continuously, the hip-driven stroke proved to be the far better choice.
Upon reading Skinner’s article, I instantly recognized that what provided a significant advantage in 50-meter pools ought to be even more advantageous in open water, where the swimming-to-recovering ratio rises to infinity.
‘Lose’ the Pool Repeat to Win in Open Water
My instincts had already led me in the right direction. To complete 25 yards in 15 or fewer strokes, I had to use the hip-driven style. At 18 or more strokes, my teammates were shoulder-driven. After reading Skinner’s article, I redoubled my commitment to hip-driven technique. (I also put more focus on understanding and teaching techniques which would maximize the advantage of hip-driven technique. I’ll note those in the next installment of this series.)
And of course since most open water competitors and triathletes do the majority of their training in 25-yard pools—and especially if they race others, as in Masters workouts—the pace clock and their natural competitiveness provides a strong incentive to revert to shoulder-driven strokes. It requires a conscious decision to limit stroke count–and strong restraint when swimming next to a shoulder-driven swimmer—to hardwire the hip-driven style.
Back in 2005, I was willing to ‘lose’ the 25-yard in the present moment to be better prepared for an open water event that might be several months in the future. The following year I won the first of six National Masters open water titles and broke two national age group records. I feel certain none of this would have been possible had I not committed to the hip-driven stroke.
This article has been excerpted, in part, from the ebook Outside the Box: A Program for Success in Open Water
Or learn open water technique, strategies and tactics at any TI Open Water Camp.