Lately, everywhere I go I hear people discussing the swimming in the Olympics. I’ve been thrilled watching some of the events (wasn’t that 4×100 relay something else?), especially with the underwater camera angles.
Should we as triathletes be studying these Olympic freestylers for some stroke ideas?
Four years ago I wrote an article after the Athens Olympics on how to get the most out of learning from the stroke technique of the best in the world. I’m including that article again as I think it’s worth reviewing in light of the swimming mania going on right now in Bejing (Thorpe’s name could be substituted with Alain Bernard, but otherwise the information still applies!).
To Laughing at the Water,
“Spectacular achievements are always preceded by unspectacular preparation.”
Olympic Swimming vs. Triathlon Swimming
While watching the swimming events in the Olympics last week, I started thinking about how different the freestyle stroke is (or should be) for Olympic sprinters and amateur triathletes.
Many people in the triathlon world think they need to just emulate Ian Thorpe to have a faster time, or have a similar stroke to Michael Phelps to cruise through the swim. For most amateur triathletes, trying to learn from these swimmers is like trying to learn Portuguese when you really want to learn Spanish. There are similarities, but not enough to get you by.
Don’t get me wrong. Thorpe, Phelps and many of their major competitors have some of the best freestyles in the world and parts of swimming science are based on the things these guys do in the water.
The problem is, most of the freestyle events in the Olympics are actually sprints.
The 50 is over before you can blink, the 100 is an all-out sprint, and the 200 and 400 are both controlled sprints. The 800 is more of a middle distance event, while the 1500 (mile) is really the only pure distance swim in the meet. So can we learn from the mile swimmers at the Olympics? Yes…a little. The swimmers generally have lower stroke counts, and aren’t relying on their kick as much as the sprinters.
But those swimmers don’t have to worry about a long bike and run after they swim!
So, they can put everything into their swim, and their strokes come out looking a bit different than what we are teaching to the beginning level, non-swimmer triathlete. Although we can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to freestyle strokes, there are many aspects I have pointed out that have helped triathletes all over the world that don’t come from a swimming background:
- Keep a low stroke count.
- Rotate the hips.
- Reduce the intensity of your kick.
- Keep your elbows high.
- Glide with each stroke.
These same tips do not all necessarily apply to Olympic level swimmers. These swimmers have reasons for doing things differently:
- They may have a fast turnover rate and a high stroke count for sprinting.
- Their hip rotation is not as pronounced – they don’t have as much of a need to “conserve energy” as a triathlete does.
- The kick may be very intense and strong, especially for the shorter events.
- Most of the Olympic swimmers have been practicing for many years and some have perfected a stroke that is less than ideal for a non-swimmer doing a triathlon (i.e. Janet Evans is considered one of the best female swimmers of all time, and she has a unique straight-arm stroke that very few have been able to master).
So watch and admire these world class athletes, but be careful what you try to emulate and don’t feel bad that you’re not moving through the water with the same ease and grace they are!