The Off-Season Part 1

So far I am really enjoying the offseason. I am not training much less than I was in the summer, the only difference is that I don’t have any races in the immediate future. Because there are no races anytime soon I have been able to focus on improving my weaknesses. Here are some of the major aspects of triathlon listed in order of what I believe to be their potential return on time invested for me:

  1. Swimming
  2. Biking
  3. Nutrition
  4. Smarter training
  5. Strength training
  6. Better rehab (e.g. massage)
  7. Sleep
  8. Running

As you can see, swimming tops the list. Swimming has been very frustrating for me. I have done sport all my life and generally catch onto things quickly. Swimming has not worked this way for me. It has been a long, slow and trying journey. Since I’ve been back in Windsor I have been working with several different swim coaches through the Windsor Aquatic Club. For the last few weeks I have been working with Mike McWah, who was a national record holder in the 1500m at one time (15:04 I believe). The first time he watched me swim I think he nearly had a heart attack. When I told him I was a professional triathlete and had finished 4th at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship his response was something very close to “oh wow, I thought you were just some really fit guy who can’t swim.” For ego preserving purposes, I chalked his comment up to having really high swim standards.

Just over a week ago I had a one on one swim session with him. It was long course. He had me swimming some hundreds around lactate threshold and asked me to count my strokes. I was taking about 52-55 strokes per 50m. He pretty much laughed at me. I wasn’t offended though, in fact, I think this is exactly what I needed. Afterwards he showed me a bunch of ways to reduce the stroke count e.g. catch further out, finish the stroke better, hold onto the water better, kick harder, work the turns more, etc. He then said that I was no longer allowed to take any more than 16 strokes to get across the short course 25m pool. My response was, “is that a joke!? When swimming my best I take 22 strokes!” He told me that the vast majority of the swimmers on his national development team take 14 strokes or less. He sympathized with me and said I was allowed to take 18, but absolutely no more.

For the next 24 hours all I could do was wonder how the heck I was going to get across the pool taking only 18 strokes. The next day Erin and I went to the pool and she began coaching me on how I was to accomplish the task. In the beginning I really had to slow the stroke rate down, and kick a lot more. I intended on doing some 50s on 1 minute. I was able to take 17 strokes to get across the pool but it took me 54 seconds to swim the 50 and I felt very taxed. One minute was too fast of a pace time. I thought to myself, “oh great, now I’m getting worse at swimming!” But I trusted that there was a method to McWah’s madness. I kept plugging away at it and Erin kept giving me lots of feedback e.g. your pull is going really wide, you’ve got this weird pause in your stroke now, your recovery is really wide now, your entry is too far out now, etc.

In just two days I began grooving the new stroke. Very quickly I was able to take 15 strokes to get across the pool if really lengthening the stroke out, and 17 was becoming quite relaxed. I also watched the times come down steadily from 54s for 50 meters initially, down to 3:00 for 200m. Three days later the pool went to long course and I was able to hold sub 1:30 for my hundreds on a 1:40 pace time. The part that was really interesting was that the most strokes I took to get across the pool the entire 4500m swim set was 37 (i.e. 18.5/25m, which I assumed was acceptable with less walls). Normally I would make it across the pool in 50 strokes at best. If you do the math using the max and min strokes i.e. 37 strokes max with new stroke and 50 strokes min with old stroke, I took about 1170 less strokes than I normally would. And to be quite honest, I normally would not have swam much faster.

I thought this was very fascinating. For swimming 4500m long course I didn’t feel very taxed, at least not nearly as taxed as usual. So I started thinking about the concept even more. I created this chart to help me visual what was happening:

Stroke Rate (sec/stroke) for Stroke Count x Time (per 100m)


15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25
1:30 1.50 1.41 1.32 1.25 1.18 1.13 1.07 1.02 0.98 0.94 0.90
1:25 1.42 1.33 1.25 1.18 1.12 1.06 1.01 0.97 0.92 0.89 0.85
1:20 1.33 1.25 1.18 1.11 1.05 1.00 0.95 0.91 0.87 0.83 0.80
1:15 1.25 1.17 1.10 1.04 0.99 0.94 0.89 0.85 0.82 0.78 0.75
1:10 1.17 1.09 1.03 0.97 0.92 0.88 0.83 0.80 0.76 0.73 0.70

Keep in mind that these numbers do not take into account turning. Regardless, the point is that a lot more energy is required to hold 22 strokes per 25m than is required to hold 18 strokes per 25m. In fact, the stroke rate required to hold 1:30/100m using 22 strokes to get across the pool, is faster than the stroke rate required to swim 1:10/100m using 17 strokes to get across the pool. Of course, it will require more strength to hold a stroke count of 17 at a stroke rate of 1.03s/stroke than to hold 22 strokes at a stroke rate of 1.03s/stroke. But, swimming in my head has never really been a strength game. I’ve always thought of it as a cardiovascular game.

One of the big problems for me with looking at it as a cardiovascular game is that I tense up every muscle in my body trying to get the stroke rate higher and higher. Because my cardiovascular system is good, I am able to achieve the stroke rate necessary taking 22-25 strokes per length, to swim a 1:10 hundred. The problem is that because I am so tense, there is virtually no recovery phase in the stroke and so the stroke is unsustainable for much longer than 100m. Along with trying to attain progressively higher stroke rates, I hold the water less and less, and when I am swimming at my highest stroke rate, it will take me up to 30 strokes to get across a 25m pool.

Long story short, I have had a paradigm shift in my swim training. The best swimmers in the world develop a particular stroke and then that stroke doesn’t vary much. What varies is the stroke rate, not so much the stroke length or count. Don’t believe me, check out this cool video of perhaps one of the smoothest swimmers in the world:


I have been honing my new stroke for exactly 9 days. In that time I am already doing the fastest swimming I have ever done, and taking significantly less strokes to do it. Today for instance I had a piece in my set where I was holding 1:18/100m on a 1:30 pace time, taking at most 18 strokes per 25m. In another piece I was holding 2:38 for 200m on a 3:10 pace time, taking only 18 strokes per 25m. The most interesting part of the whole thing is that the stroke is significantly less taxing. I guess it makes sense as I am taking significantly less strokes than I used to. What I am quickly finding is that it is not my cardiovascular system that is limiting me, but my muscular endurance and strength. This is great though as these are areas that I am certain I can improve in the water, whereas with my old stroke, I couldn't imagine improving my cardiovascular system by any large amounts.

If you’ve been having trouble with your swimming perhaps this is an aspect of your problem. This new approach has changed my thoughts about swimming completely. My motivation to swim has gone up tenfold as I now feel that I know what the problem is and how to go about fixing it.

In my next post I will talk about my second biggest area for improvement and that is the bike. Thanks for reading.