One simple swim stroke change to give you a monumental breakthrough

 November 19, 2016

By  Mikael Eriksson

Have you been taught swim technique completely wrong?

Swim stroke - improve your technique

For decades, swimmers and triathletes have been taught the importance of pushing through the swim stroke to the very end. Conventional wisdom says that your hand should push past your hip and exit the water next to your thigh.

Until recently, I’ve never questioned that. But that changed during one of the sessions of the Global Swimming Summit. (Check it out, there were tons of excellent presentations)

In one of the keynote sessions, World champion, International Swimming Hall of Famer, and swim technique guru Karlyn Pipes presented several compelling arguments for why this conventional wisdom may be false and why triathletes should get rid of this catch-killing long stroke.

And to give you an example of the results you can get, a recent case study of Karlyn's is "absolutely freaking out as her 50m times are five seconds faster and her 100s eight seconds faster." And that client was already a decent swimmer to begin with. 

Triathlon swimming summit notes

Karlyn's presentation was so good that I had to take pages and pages of notes!

In this article, you’ll get a summary of the points that Karlyn made in her presentation. Besides a new perspective on the push phase of the stroke, you’ll learn about Karlyn’s take on hand entry and rotation.

In both cases, it differs from what traditional schools of thought would have you do.

If you’ve always swum the traditional way, I encourage you to try out this alternative approach and see whether it works for you.

I’m still experimenting with the technique taught by Karlyn myself, and so far it seems very promising. I do believe there is a lot to it, although I don’t yet have a strong opinion either way.

The point I’m making here isn’t that there’s any absolute right or wrong way to execute the swim stroke. But if you feel you’re stuck in your swimming, you shouldn’t be afraid to try out something new for a while. Let the results be the decider for which stroke technique to use.

The problem with pushing your swim stroke all the way through

According to Karlyn, pushing all the way back to your thigh is the number one mistake most swimmers do (or at least try to do). She’s come to this conclusion based on observations of countless coaching clients in her endless pool.

The idea of pushing back all the way is based on outdated information from a time when the S-shaped stroke was still all the rage. Karlyn even used to teach swimming this way of herself up until the year of 2000.

What’s the problem here?

The long push at the back-end of the stroke sets a whole chain reaction in motion:

  1. Most swimmers with a long stroke back-end lose their balance in the water that final part of the stroke.
  2. To compensate for this loss of balance your lead arm (the one in front of you that you’re gliding on while the other arm works) drifts inwards and falls down.
  3. When this happens your hips drop as well. Uh oh, no bueno.
  4. What comes to the rescue? Your legs! They split apart to keep from sinking and completely losing balance. This creates a lot of extra drag and loss of momentum. The result? Slower, more ineffective swimming.

Now, of course, split legs is often touted as a common swimming mistake people (especially triathletes) do. But looking at this series of events, the split legs are just a symptom of a completely different problem, not a root cause problem in itself.

An analogy to help illustrate this issue would be cycling in too big a gear at too low a cadence. Or overstriding in running with too low cadence, for that matter.

You are probably aware that mashing too big gears in cycling and overstriding in running are problematic, and cause all sorts of issues. Knee problems spring to mind. And it simply isn’t the most effective way to move.

The long back-end of the stroke may be doing you similar disfavors.

The solution: what we take away from the back we add in the front

So if you’re not supposed to push the stroke all the way through, how can you expect to keep up your pace?

After all, you do lose a big and powerful part of the swim stroke.

Karlyn proposes making just the front one-third of the stroke the power phase. What we take away from the back end of the stroke, we add to the front end, and make it count!

"Reach big, pull short" -Karlyn Pipes

Think about it:

When you reach big and make your stroke long and powerful (we’ll get to the powerful part in a minute) in the front and short and quick at the back and in the recovery phase, what do you feel?

Probably a bit less powerful in your stroke as a whole. And you probably feel fewer accelerations, that you’d normally feel in the powerful back end of the stroke.

And that’s great because feeling fewer accelerations (that always come with complimentary decelerations) means you’re swimming better and more efficiently. It’s the exact same thing as fuel economy when driving.

"Quick in the back, long in the front" -Karlyn Pipes

So how do you get enough power in the front third of the stroke then?

Well, this isn’t any ground-breaking news - it’s just the good ol’ high elbow catch:

Just make sure you really make it a good high elbow catch, as Karlyn demonstrates in the video. Otherwise, you’ll decrease the amount of power you apply during your stroke.

Karlyn was kind enough to send me the below still shot of a beautifully executed high elbow catch. Notice the long reach with her left arm just before setting up her left arm catch. And the right arm has the elbow bent at a105 degree angle (I'm guesstimating a bit here), so her elbow is high and she can apply a lot of force. 

Karlyn Pipes High elbow catch

To sum it up:

  • By changing your stroke to be front-end focused you can get rid off loss of balance issues that lead to big increases in drag.
  • You can move the power you lose at the back end of the stroke to the front end to not lose out on power either.

And this means that, you guessed it, you can go faster and increase efficiency.

This video of Karlyn swimming illustrates all the things we've been discussing perfectly. Have a look: 

Common mistakes with hand entry and body rotation

Karlyn made two other very interesting points in her presentation:

  1. If you’re like most triathletes, you should probably make your hand entry a bit wider, a bit outside of the line of your shoulder.

    This will improve your balance in the water, and make it easier to maintain a high elbow catch and apply more power in that all-important front third of the stroke.

    Note that the hand doesn’t and shouldn’t stay wider than the shoulder for long. It will drift in to be in a straight line with the shoulder soon after your hand entry. But your actual entry should still be wide for the improved balance you’ll get from it.
  2. Karlyn says that you may have been taught to rotate too much. The problem with this is that to keep your balance your leading hand will drift too far into the center.

    And as we just discussed, that will make it difficult to maintain that high elbow catch and apply power.

    So while you definitely shouldn’t be like a barge in the water, you shouldn’t roll like a log either.

How to try this swim stroke out and see if it works for you

Do contrast drills.

That’s how you can easily try these three swim stroke changes out and see whether they work for you or not.

When doing contrast drills you simply emphasize one stroke component (the hand entry for example) and take turns using the old technique and the new technique.

For example:

Swim 25 m using your old hand entry technique. Rest 30 seconds. Swim 25 m using your new hand entry technique. Rest 30 seconds. Repeat 4 to 8 times.

Focus is critical when doing contrast drills. Focus on doing both the old and the new style as well as possible.

Pay attention to the differences in all your swimming when using the different styles. Not just in the stroke component you’re comparing. Remember that changes to one component of your stroke can have significant effects on completely different aspects of your swim technique.

You have to give it some time and practice these things before you’ll know of course. There’s no way you’ll be able to tell after just one or two swims.

It’s a wrap

I hope this article has given you some thoughts and ideas to try out in your swimming. Especially if you’re stuck in a swimming rut.

There are a lot of different schools of thoughts on swimming technique out there. To say that that one is better than another is very difficult, if not impossible. In a lot of cases, it just comes down to individuality.

That said, many of Karlyn’s thoughts really resonated with me, and she has done her due diligence in observing swimmers in her endless pool.

And she’s definitely not the only modern swim coach going against conventional swimming wisdom. An increasing number of triathlon swim coaches agree that antiquated pool swimming methodologies don’t translate well to triathlon. And definitely not to triathlon age-groupers.

So give it a shot - I know I will!

Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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