There comes a time in a race when you know that if you grit your teeth, breathe hard and really go for it, there's a good chance you'll run and ride faster, though not for very long, perhaps. The same cannot be said of swimming: trying harder will not necessarily mean you swim any faster.
If you have poor technique, those annoying triathletes with beautiful swimming strokes will not only arrive in transition long before you, they'll also be less tired. It will not matter how fit you are or how hard you're trying to beat the water into submission.
"I've seen plenty of triathletes applying strength, power and fitness and not getting anywhere," says Dan Bullock of Swim for Tri (www.swimfortri.co.uk). "It can be very frustrating."
At the same time, spending months - or even years - improving your body position, streamlining, kick, hand-entry position and the ever-elusive 'catch' (see our Expert Advice panel, right) may also fail to produce the desired speed, especially in open water.
Sure, you'll make some improvements, and learning the aforementioned skills is essential to your development as a swimmer, but many triathletes hit a plateau at that point. If this has been your experience, perhaps it's time to look at the complex interaction between two key swimming variables: stroke rate and stroke length.
Logically, if you can increase one of these while maintaining the other, you will swim faster. Over the last few years there has been a great deal of emphasis on increasing stroke length, partly as a response to the success of swimmers such as Australian Olympic champions Grant Hackett (6' 6") and Ian Thorpe (6' 5"), who covered huge distances with each pull of their arms. But this may not be the best approach for triathletes.
Don't take the long view
Paul Newsome, head coach at Swim Smooth (www.swimsmooth.com) says, "The longest possible freestyle stroke isn't necessarily the most efficient in all situations and for all swimmers."
Jack Maitland of TheTriathlonCoach.com agrees the emphasis on increasing stroke length has been overdone. "Triathletes' needs, and often their physiques, tend to differ significantly from competitive swimmers' so it makes sense to ask whether a different style of swimming could be more effective," he says.
The great elite swimmers tend to be tall, powerfully built individuals with outlandishly flexible ankles that enable them to kick strongly. They usually swim in straight lines, have clear water ahead and lane ropes to separate them from other competitors.
On the other hand, triathletes, professionals included, come in all shapes and sizes. They usually lack the upper-body strength of top swimmers, have heavier legs and, often, tight ankles. They swim in packs, frequently have to look up to see where to go and, in the UK at least, wear wetsuits in open-water events. A triathlete's kick is often minimised to conserve energy for cycling and running. In some ways it's a different sport.
Maitland argues that most triathletes should focus on moving their arms quickly and continuously rather than trying to increase stroke length, with the proviso that they maintain a good streamlined position in the water. He refers to this as 'power-on' swimming.
"Accelerating the arms has a number of benefits for triathletes," says Maitland. "Firstly, it eliminates any glide phase in the stroke, which can be a real hindrance in choppy open water. Secondly, because power is applied by the arms throughout the cycle there is less need for a powerful leg kick: the 'power-on' or 'rotary' style of swimming therefore conserves the legs for cycling and running. Thirdly, less upper-body strength is required as less force is applied to the water with each stroke."
Glide less, swim more
Newsome goes as far as to label 'glide' a dirty word in swimming. "When you say to a non-elite swimmer that they should 'glide', what ordinarily happens is that the swimmer reaches forward unaware of what the lead arm is doing," he explains. "If, as often happens, the wrist and the elbow drop, this pushes the palm forward. That both slows the swimmer down and reduces the stroke rate, leading to lack of momentum."
He adds that these 'over-gliders' (as he calls them) may look efficient and even perform well in the calm of a pool but are often surprised and upset when they are not as fast in the open water as their pool times suggest they should be.
Because there is a distinct trade-off between stroke length and rate, the trick is to find the best combination of the two for maximum sustainable speed. "Efficient swimming is all about establishing balance between the length of the stroke and the rate of the stroke. Every swimmer has an optimal point," says Newsome.
This optimal point will depend on a host of factors, including your physical skills, fitness and the length of your arms relative to your body (your so-called 'ape' index). As you improve as a swimmer, your optimal point will change and you should also be able to vary your stroke rate to suit conditions. It differs widely, even between elite swimmers. Newsome estimates that Ian Thorpe's stroke rate was around 72-76 strokes per minute (spm), top triathlete Richard Stannard hits about 90 spm and David Davies (who has won Olympic medals in the pool and in open water) achieves 91-102 spm. Newsome has measured some top swimmers hitting 110 spm. This massive range clearly demonstrates that there is no one right way to swim.
Ramp it up
The best way to find your optimal point between stroke rate and length is with the ramp test, says Newsome. Briefly, this requires you to use a device called a wetronome (a waterproof metronome) and a stopwatch. Use the wetronome to set your stroke rate (you wear it under your swimming hat or goggles and it beeps with every stroke) and ask a friend to count your strokes and to time you over 50m. Record this data alongside your perceived level of exertion and then repeat at a higher stroke rate. Plotting a graph of your stroke rate against speed should enable you to identify your 'sweet spot'. (See the Swim Smooth website for more
on the ramp test.)
The secret is to find what works for you and not necessarily to try to emulate a swimmer you admire. Bullock says it's hard to lay down the law with swimming style in triathlon because people come to it from so many different backgrounds. They have different degrees of flexibility, proprioception skills (the instinctive awareness you have of your limbs and body position, without constant visual referral) and fitness levels.
Optimising your swim stroke rate is definitely a more advanced swimming skill and Bullock warns that the high-turnover style of swimming seen in some elite triathletes may not suit people new to swimming. His approach would be to start at slower speeds to ensure you have correct stroke mechanics before increasing stroke rate.
Triathlon coach Rick Kiddle (www.rickkiddle.com), who is working with a number of athletes preparing for the British Gas Great Swim series, also worries about people trying to accelerate their swim stroke too soon in the learning process. "New swimmers must learn to control their bodies in the water so they know what each part is doing before they attempt advanced techniques," he says.
Swimming well is a skill that needs to be developed through practice and patience, and is better thought of as a journey than a destination - even top-level swimmers spend time honing their technique. You may even find that swimming becomes your favourite triathlon discipline. Once you've mastered the basic swimming skills of body position, streamlining, catch and pull, experiment with varying your timing. It might just produce the breakthrough you're looking for.