In praise of backstroke

In praise of backstroke


photo credit: Santa Barbara News-Press, 1997.

Is there any good reason for a marathon swimmer to train strokes other than freestyle?

It’s fairly uncontroversial, I think, that training in multiple strokes makes one a better athlete, in a general sense. Each stroke works a unique set of muscles, giving swimmers more “balanced” power in the water. Eddie Reese (multi-time U.S. Olympic coach) is well-known for promoting IM training for all swimmers, including sprinters and single-stroke specialists. Multi-stroke training is also less likely to lead to over-use injuries.

Think of it as in-water cross-training.

What about open-water and marathon swimming? Or triathlon? Is there any point to training other strokes when you’ll never race anything but freestyle? If (like most working adults) you have limited time to train, isn’t that precious time best spent optimizing your freestyle? That certainly has been my approach. Not surprisingly, since I started focusing on open water, my other strokes have suffered.

Recently, I’ve been rethinking this position – especially with regard to backstroke. For one, there are technique benefits. The principles of balance, body position, and core rotation are much the same between backstroke and freestyle. To the extent you can develop efficient backstroke technique, your freestyle should benefit.

But I’m thinking of a more practical reason. Specifically, backstroke is a natural recovery motion for freestyle. While similar muscles are engaged in the two strokes, they’re moving in opposite directions. After a hard freestyle effort, backstroke helps you almost literally “unwind” your shoulders.

At Point Vicente. It was all I could do to raise my arms even this high...

How is this relevant to marathon swimming? Two words: shoulder fatigue. For me, this was the limiting factor in all my big swims this year – Tampa, MIMS, Catalina, and Ederle. My cardiovascular fitness was never an issue; my energy levels stayed high, thanks to a well dialed-in nutrition plan. The only thing holding me back was shoulder pain.

(Re: shoulder “pain,” I should clarify: I’m not talking about rotator cuff inflammation, which is dangerous and typically the product of technique flaws. Just fatigue/over-use of the shoulder muscles.)

This is especially true for shoulder-driven swimmers such as myself. So… what can I do to get beyond the brick wall of shoulder fatigue? A few obvious ideas:

  1. Train more – so my shoulders are better able to tolerate the abuse. (But do I have time?)
  2. Take more (or stronger) drugs. (Is that safe?)
  3. Develop more of a hip-driven stroke – distributing the effort away from my shoulders, toward my core and legs. (But how much speed will I sacrifice, given my short stature and weak kick? — not ideal for hip-driven technique.)
Backstroking somewhere in the Harlem River. Photo credit: Hannah B.

Here’s another idea: do more backstroke. I already do some backstroke during marathon swims – usually a few strokes after each feed. At MIMS, I backstroked under every bridge.

How far can I take this idea? What if, instead of just a few strokes per hour, I swam on my back for an entire feed cycle? Unnecessary for a 5-10 hour swim, perhaps, but what about a 15-20 hour swim? Could I extend the useful life of my shoulders by “unwinding” them for 20 minutes each hour?

It seems even more relevant in my case, because I used to be a backstroke specialist. In my younger, pool swimming days, my main event was the 200 Back. Compared to most, I give up relatively little speed on my back.

To quantify this, I went through my results archive and compared my backstroke and freestyle times through the years at the 100 (yards+meters) and 200 (yards+meters) distances. At both distances, I consistently gave up about 6% of my speed in backstroke, compared to freestyle. (This estimate includes a 2-second correction for the disadvantage of an in-water start in backstroke.) By comparison, the difference between the world records in the 100m freestyle (46.91) and 100m backstroke (51.94) is 9.4%.

6% is really not that much. If my ultra-marathon freestyle pace is 2.5 mph (just under 1:30 per 100m), that means theoretically I should be able to swim backstroke at 2.35 mph – still a very reasonable pace. I give up 6% of my speed, but I’m willing to bet it’s more than offset by delaying shoulder fatigue.

Food for thought…

7 Responses to “In praise of backstroke”

  1. Steven Munatones

    2011-11-30T12:08:23+00:00

    I absolutely endorse the incorporation of butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke in everyone’s open water swimming regimen. I devoted several pages of reasons and example non-freestyle swim sets in my book Open Water Swimming (Human Kinetics, 2011).

    Here are a few hints of why non-freestyle training is good for open water swimmers:

    (1) have you ever seen a person swim crookedly going breaststroke or butterfly?
    (2) how much more difficult is a 400 individual medley in practice than a 400 freestyle – at whatever pace?
    (3) as you mentioned above, backstroke is utilized not only by marathon swimmers, but also by swimmers in short-distance races when (a) they look back at their competition or (b) they will towards shore as they swim through the surf zone

    Reply
    • Evan

      2011-11-30T13:49:39+00:00

      Thanks Steven. I own your book and heartily recommend it!

      Reply
  2. IronMike

    2011-11-30T18:18:44+00:00

    Doesn’t Gords do a significant amount of back in his sets?
    I’m with you. I throw in back and fly (albeit a smaller amount) whenever possible, and the back especially makes my shoulders feel great.

    Reply
    • Evan

      2011-11-30T22:49:55+00:00

      I think he does! Honestly my eyes start to glaze over reading some of his workouts…. but with much respect, obviously!

      Reply
      • Donal

        2011-12-02T03:41:07+00:00

        I always advise the same as you, and try to follow a 5% to 10% of total as backstroke. I try to tell people that it doesn’t matter too much if their backstroke isn’t great, just get the antagonist muscles working.

        Reply
        • Evan

          2011-12-02T11:27:58+00:00

          That’s about where I’ve been these past couple years too (5-10% non-free). In contrast, when I was in high school & college I often trained 50% or more non-free, mostly backstroke (400 IM was my #2 event, after the 200 back). Going forward, though, I’ll aim somewhere in the middle – maybe 25% non-free.

          Reply
  3. on the Shoulders of Swimmers — Boatloads of Advice « Throw Me In The Ocean

    2011-12-30T10:46:39+00:00

    […] Morrison suggests backstroke to “unwind” the shoulder in his blog, FreshwaterSwimmer […]

    Reply

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