The swimming stroke is not unlike a golf swing: a complicated, interconnected series of fine and gross muscular movements. For the few who do it well, it appears fluid, natural, unified, and effortless. For most, the movements of swimming and golf can feel unnatural, difficult to integrate, and frustratingly unamenable to brute force.
Even those who have mastered the swimming stroke/golf swing can develop subtle technique flaws, of which they may not even be aware. One must maintain constant vigilance against these creeping flaws, ideally through a combination of mindful practice, well-selected drills, coaching, and video analysis.
One method I find useful in maintaining proper form and guarding against creeping flaws is: stroke thoughts. I didn’t invent this phrase or idea, but I define it as: simple, succinct technique pointers repeated subvocally (internally) while swimming.
In practice, I use stroke thoughts most often at the beginning of a session (while warming up), or when I feel myself lapsing (mentally or physically) in the middle of a workout or race. I repeat each thought by itself for a few stroke cycles, focusing on just that single part of my stroke, before moving to the next thought. Basically, I’m “checking in” with each part of my stroke.
I use seven specific stroke thoughts, starting with the hand entry and proceeding through the catch, pull, hip drive, and kick.
1. “middle finger first”
I have a slight tendency for a thumb-first entry, especially on my right/breathing side. So, I focus on keeping my hand in a neutral position as it enters, fingertips parallel to the surface of the water, with the middle/longest finger entering first.
When I get fatigued and/or cold, I have a slight tendency to shorten my stroke too much and rush the catch. So, I focus on reaching forward before I initiate the pull. Notice I did not say glide. I don’t pause at the front of my stroke, like catch-up drill. I’m simply trying to reach forward a bit more. The reaching motion comes from body rotation, which in turn comes from hip drive. (Everything is interconnected!)
3. “fingers down”
When I finish reaching forward, I tilt my wrist slightly and point my fingers toward the bottom of the pool. I try to keep them pointed toward the bottom (not angled to the side, not horizontal) all the way through my pull.
4. “elbows high”
I sometimes drop my left elbow slightly as I breathe to the right, especially with fatigue. This is not only less efficient, but can also irritate my left shoulder. So, I focus on keeping that elbow high, “grabbing” the water with my lats, all the way through the pull.
5. “pull straight back”
No “S”-stroke. Straight back. Like a big paddle.
6. “tight kick”
I sometimes do a slight scissor-kick as I breathe. This is an unconscious compensation for the slight “unbalancing” caused by my breathing motion. However, it greatly increases drag. So, I focus on keeping my kick tight, kneecaps close together and toes pointed inward. This has the follow-on benefit of forcing me to take a more efficient and balanced breathing motion. (Everything is interconnected!)
7. “drive the hips”
With fatigue, I also tend to rotate less, increasing the burden on my shoulders. Ironically, this causes me to become even more fatigued. So, I focus on driving my rotation from my hips, less from my arms and shoulders.
After I cycle through my seven stroke thoughts, I turn my brain off and focus on the overall rhythm and “feel” of my stroke. If something still doesn’t feel quite right, I cycle through the stroke thoughts again and try to identify where things are breaking down.
Notice I’ve said almost nothing about the recovery phase of the stroke (except perhaps “middle finger first” –> the very end of the recovery). I don’t think much about my recovery because frankly, it doesn’t much matter. It doesn’t contribute to either propulsion or drag reduction, because it’s happening above the water.
What matters is what happens under the water. That’s why elite swimmers display a wide variation of recovery styles, but are comparatively similar under water. Think Janet Evans vs. Sun Yang.
Important note: Stroke thoughts are intended as a temporary “check-in” or tune-up. Like with the golf swing, over-thinking can lead to paralysis. In the middle of a long swim or tough interval set, I’m mostly trying to focus on rhythm, flow, and feel.
Here’s a video of me swimming 100 yards at the recent Swim Smooth coaching clinic in Livermore. Which stroke thoughts should I be focusing on?