The S stroke

There now follows a particularly non-scientific post about swimming, so if technical swimming stuff really is your thing, then politely look away now.

One of the things that triathlon throws up, for new folks like me, is that I really don’t know an awful lot about any of the disciplines. Or, put another way, when you find a new fact and place it carefully with all the other, hard-earned knowledge, you realise after a while that you are pasting these into a scrap book, and like some bad dream (or an excel spreadsheet) that book has endless blank pages to be filled.

A case in point. Swimming. All of us journey to triathlon from different starting points. I have no stats on this, so I will make some up, on the basis that 68.4% of statistics are made up on the spot anyway. I suspect quite a few triathletes come to the sport from the cycling community. And if you look at the breakdown of the races, strong cyclists tend to have an advantage over the other two disciplines. It’s down to simple maths, and how long each event takes, in comparison to the others. You have more time on the bike – maybe twice as much as on the run leg – so if that’s your strong area, then you will get a better advantage from this, time-wise, than the guy who came out of the water a minute ahead of you, or can run a 5k in 20 minutes. If you have 5 minutes on this Speedy Gonzalez, it doesn’t matter if he’ll beat you every time on the run. There’s no way he can make up that 5 minute deficit.

graphAnyway, I’m just griping really. I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really have any strong discipline. Looking at a bell curve of the Athy Olympic results, I come right near the top. This means I am absolutely spot-on average. No complaints really. I did the Sprint last year in 1.21:18 and the Olympic in 2.49:20, so allowing for a doubling of your Sprint time plus a 5% allowance for the longer distance (plus an ageing frame) then this is about right. All my times were fairly average, and if there is one area where I might gain a slight advantage, it’s the run. This is the area I came to triathlon from, and though I am not a strong runner, I seem to be better at running than the the swim or the bike. But as I say, the bell curve doesn’t lie.

Anyway, swimming. As with all disciplines, you realise the more you know, the less you know. I got chatting to a seasoned triathlete in the local pool. ‘Good kick’, he offered, ‘but you are bringing your hands under your body on the stroke.’

I had noticed this over the last year as I gained some confidence in the pool that my arms were starting to wander under my body. As I perused the internet and YouTube in particular, I came to realise quite quickly that yes, I know bugger-all about swimming, and that the S stroke is quite a contentious thing.

Conventional wisdom in swimming would suggest that after the ‘catch’ (when you reach out and ‘grab’ the water in front of you), you should pull back with a bent arm at the elbow (where else?) and then power away for the stroke, all the way until your hand leaves the water. The longer the distance, the more inclined you will be to lengthen your stroke, and build in some ‘glide’ into your swimming. As with the bike and run, you have cadence, or in this case, distance per stroke, or stroke count. But that’s another day’s work. Suffice to say, you can see the wisdom in efficiency terms of being able to lower the number of strokes it takes to do a length, assuming you can lower the number whilst maintaining and hopefully improving your time, and also admitting that a few great efforts for five minutes and then realising you’re banjaxed is not really the idea either. It’s all about sustainable pace, no matter what you are doing. But I digress. That stroke…

I had inadvertently built an S stroke into my swim. When I started to do some research I realised that there was no ONE way to stroke, though most coaching systems would seem to disfavour any stroke that allows your arms to wander under your body and stray off the straight path.

I can’t follow all the technical jargon that abounds online on this debate, so I will settle for now on a historical fallback position: coracles. If you have ever tried to row one of these cunning traditional boats, which only come with one oar, you will understand the technique that I think partly explains the S stroke technique. Coracles are round, and if you paddle at the side, you will simply whizz around in circles like a whirligig beetle. Most first-time coracle paddlers do this, to the great amusement of those that know how to move this simple craft forwards. You must counter-intuitively put the paddle out in front of you and scoop the water towards you, all the time describing an S stroke. It’s not a theory I’ve read anywhere, but I like it, partly because I love coracles and boats in general. That, plus I know I have a small issue with being told what to do, and I reckon if my body started doing S strokes, maybe it was telling me something…

The proviso here is, lest I bore you with repetition, I am no swimmer. But I do enjoy swimming, and I am getting slightly better at it. The swimming I enjoy best is in a pleasant and secluded lake when you can skinny dip away to your heart’s content on a warm summer’s evening. But there is also fun to be had in the ocean with a wetsuit when you have 2k ahead of you (and most of the competitors too, ha, ha!).

So, whatever stroke works for you is probably the best one.ScreenHunter_21 Jun_ 08 19_09

(Image robbed unashamedly from

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