Open water swimming, it’s all in the timing…

In the last blog, we introduced the topic of ‘stroke count’ versus ‘stroke rate’, how the 2 things differ and how they impact your swimming. You should probably read it first by GOING HERE. This week, we’re going a step further to discuss your your stroke ‘style’ or ‘timing’ may be impacting both your stroke rate and count.

When we use the term ‘stroke timing’, we are referring to the sequence and timing of your arm movements. In simple terms, what is one arm doing (and where is it) in comparison to the other arm, at any given time during the stroke.

There is a whole spectrum of stroke timing but let’s look at 2 main types which have historically been referred to as ‘catch up’ and ‘windmill’.

1. Windmill stroke is when the hands/arms are at opposite ends of the clock face. As one hand enters the water, the other is leaving the water (9/3 o’clock) or as one hand pulls under the body, the other recovers above the water (6/12 o’clock). It is very easy to increase your stroke rate and swim quickly over short distances with a windmill stroke. Sprint swimmers tend to swim with a windmill stroke as this is the most effective method and they can ‘wind their arms over’ very quickly.

2. Catch up stroke is named so, because of the catch up drill. You may have done ‘catch up drill’ at some point. In simple terms your left arm enters the water and reaches out to full extension in the water, there is a pause (leave the hand there) before starting the catch/pull. Meanwhile the right hand/arm recovers and almost catches up with the left hand (so you touch hands at full extension). When you watch people with a catch up style stroke, at some point, both hands are in front of their head – See the image below of Ian Thorpe swimming with ‘catch up style’ stroke.

The catch up style stroke was made very popular by total immersion swimming in the late 90s. The benefits include a more streamlined shape in the water (longer position) and a more balanced position (the outreached arms acts as counterbalance to keep head down and legs up). Distance swimmers tend to favour the ‘catch up style’ stroke rather than sprinters.

If you’re interested more, there’s plenty of Youtube videos on this subject, so the visual learners amongst you can see what ‘windmill’ and ‘catch up style’ look like in practice. The key thing to understand is that we’re talking about 2 opposing ends of the spectrum. You could be an ‘extreme catch up’ style or a ‘pure windmill stroke’ but equally, you could be somewhere in-between.

So what’s this got to do with stroke count and stroke rate?

A windmill type stroke makes it much easier to increase your stroke rate. In simple terms, you can turn your arms over much faster. But it can also be associated with a higher stroke count (take more strokes per length). Windmill swimmers go quickly by moving their arms faster, but they don’t glide very far per stroke. For this reason, it’s well suited for sprinting.

A catch up style stroke is generally associated with a lower stroke count. Catch up swimmers glide further between each stroke and they often look more graceful (whereas windmill can look a bit ‘thrashy’). The downside is that it’s difficult to increase stroke rate, so it’s not great for sprinting.

The critical thing to consider is that if you are consciously trying to reduce your stroke count per length, having a windmill stroke will always make it harder. On the flip side, if you have a catch up stroke, you’ll always find it harder to increase stroke rate and move your arms quicker. In the last blog, we gave examples of a suitable stroke count and stroke rate, but if you’re trying to improve either figure, you need to know that you may be limited by your stroke style / timing.

So here’s the killer question, which is the fastest? The answer is simply neither… There’s benefits of using both styles and you’ll see great swimmers using either. That said, there are limitations when swimming in open water, largely due to the fact that choppy water reduces gliding. We’ll talk more about that in part 3, so stay tuned!

For now, work out which style you are (perhaps get a friend to film you) and you can then begin to understand how it impacts your swimming.

The Endurance Store is an independent running, triathlon and open water swimming store in Wrightington, West Lancashire. We’re just off junction 27 M6 and stock a wide range of swimming wetsuits and swimming accessories. We also run weekly, coached open water swim sessions from April to September, you can see our coaching services at The Endurance Coach.

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