English Channel 3: Make Every Stroke Count
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 15th, 2009

On Thursday 9/10, Wednesday’s pattern repeated. In the morning, I struggled with the chop and couldn’t keep up with my compadres, despite repeating my behavioral adjustments and visualization from the previous afternoon. But in the afternoon I felt transformed, smooth and strong, and able to match their pace. I began to feel that – at least for a few days — I might spend the morning swim retuning my stroke and neuro-motor program for the unfamiliar rough water.

The phrase “tuning your stroke” seems particularly apt for open water. In the pool my stroke never changes. I might employ different stroke thoughts to heighten my awareness of one part or another – trapping water on the catch at one point, keeping my elbow near the surface at another, “nudging” my hips, or focused on synchronizing foot-flick to hand-spear at another – but the stroke doesn’t change. But in rougher water, depending on the height and frequency of waves or swell, I’ve made many, and sometimes significant, adjustments, trying to find a stroke adaptation that allows me to feel more effective.

My main stroke thoughts in rougher water are:

1)    Keep my bodyline sleek. Maintaining a long, low-drag bodyline, gives the waves less to push around or hold back.

2)    Pierce the waves with my entry-arm. Spear a “hole” in the wave with my right arm, then align the right side of my body to follow it through the hole. Repeat with the left.

3)    Get a grip. When the water is sloppiest, it often feels as if you find an air pocket, rather than dense water, on the catch, causing your arm to collapse helplessly back, rather than move you forward . So I give extra attention to having a high elbow, moving hand and forearm into a semi-vertical position early in the stroke, then applying “patient pressure” to gain some purchase on the turbulent water.

On a calm day in Mirror Lake, in Lake Placid, using my most efficient stroke, I can cover the 25-meter intervals between buoys on the 1.2-mile Ironman cable course in 22 to 23 strokes. I.E. I travel about 1.1 meters on each armstroke. If there’s even a slight wind chop, my stroke count can quickly increase to 25 per 25 meters, or 1 meter/stroke. This is a loss of only less than four inches of travel, which seems trivial, but can add up quickly over a longer distance. At 1.1 meters per stroke, it would take me just over 3400 strokes to swim the 2.4-mile (3.8km) Ironman swim distance. At 1 meter per stroke it would take me 3800 strokes to cover the same distance. And remember, each added stroke doesn’t represent just lost efficiency, it also means added time.  At a stroke rate of 1 stroke per second, 380 additional strokes adds nearly 3 and a half minutes to your time.

To put this in English Channel terms, if I average 1 meter per stroke for 23 miles (assuming a less-than-laserlike course) it will take me 36,800 strokes to reach France. If I average 60 strokes a minute, I can complete the swim in just over 10 hours. But the turbulence I should expect to face will undoubtedly have a significant effect on how far each stroke will propel me. Each tenth of a meter (about 4 inches) in lost distance per stroke will add an hour to my time! (In fact if I have a very good swim, I’d be pleased to complete it in 12 hours.)

Therefore, I appreciate the turbulence I seem to encounter every day in the Harbor as it gives me more opportunities to try out stroke adaptions and find those that work best. In other words, I’m continually adjusting and expanding my Neuro-Motor Program (NMP) for Channel swimming. Because conditions can change frequently and drastically the more flexible my NMP, the better prepared I’ll be.

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