Watching an experienced pool swimmer quietly slice through the water while accentuating each stroke with a long glide can both look and sound beautiful. “I want to swim like that” you think to yourself. The aesthetic appeal of this and aiming to swim longer and seemingly effortless is understandable. Sadly, as a triathlete, this style of freestyle is both inefficient and ineffective for the open water. *WOMP WOMP* What’s missing in this style of freestyle, and perhaps the most profound differentiator between pool and open water swimming, is tempo. Stroke rate. Cadence. Turnover. Whatever you choose to call it, how quickly you turn over your arms is a critical consideration when approaching the open water.
Higher the Better?
With the dynamic nature and movement of the ocean, a bit higher of a stroke rate is demanded to maintain momentum. While this likely means working towards a higher cadence than you’re used to holding in the pool, there is certainly a point of no return. Simply put, the higher the cadence is not always the better. The key is to find a smooth, locomotive turnover without hesitation or hitches in your stroke cycle. Let’s break down each of the mechanical focus that will allow you to dial in your ideal stroke rate for open water.
In order to clean up the continuity of your stroke, we need to dial the timing in which you begin your breath. A late timed breath, likely one of the most common mechanical errors, will subsequently cause any other timing issues that exists in your stroke. So., let’s sync it up. Visualize pairing the extension of your arms with the inhale and exhale. For a left side breath, the right arm should drive forward as your head and body roll to the side. The moment you reach full extension with the right arm is synonymous with the beginning of the inhale to the left side. It’s incredibly common for swimmers to extend their right arm and begin pressing downward on the water and then the head then turns, late. While this may not seem all that costly, this hitch creates a lot of drag profile from the dropped right arm, loss of balance without the arm lifted and extended, loss of power from that arm’s pull, as well as a shorter window of time for the breath.
The device that I’ve found most effective with athletes is to assign the breath to the arms. Again, for a left side breath your right arm is your inhale arm and your left arm is your exhale arm. In your head say “inhale” and “exhale” as each arm reaches full extension to help create the necessary sync of each movement and allow maximum time for each breath, without delay or asymmetry from one side to the other. Additionally, as your mind stays busy and focused on the singular task of saying/doing the inhale and exhale, you're able to simplify the overall swimming equation and keep the mind from wandering. This is particularly helpful in the open water when your mind is more prone to listen to any negative self-talk or get distracted by race day nerves. Remember, keep it simple - inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Conceptually, it’s not all that difficult to understand that it’s paramount to maintain a steady tempo and time all of the movements in freestyle together. Putting this to practice will pay bigger returns than really any other mechanical focus for an open water swimmer.
Get a water metronome! The Finis Tempo Trainer is arguably the best $40 investment you’ll make towards your swimming success. Set the device to mode 3, which beeps at the strokes per minute rate you choose. Lets say you set the metronome to 60, that means 60 strokes per minute, or 30 full stroke cycles - 30 left and 30 right. To get back to our focus, utilize the beep to sync the extension of the arm with the timing of the breath. Each beep indicates either arm reaching full extension. Not only will this help to auto-correct the balance of your stroke side to side, it will begin to instill steady rhythm to your stroke. This is the locomotion we want for open water. Using the Tempo Trainer every swim, both pool and open water, will help integrate the feel of a smooth, consistent tempo into your stroke.
While the ultimate goal is to likely increase your stroke rate beyond how you’re currently swimming, it’s important to be able to discern when your cadence is too high. Finis has a 50yd time trial test series and accompanying chart that helps you find this sweet spot. More importantly, it’s incredibly helpful to test out varied tempos as longer efforts, too. With only a few metrics to work with in the water, such as time and tempo, rate of perceived effort becomes the a critical factor in how well you are maintaining each tempo. If you can swim 100yds at 80 strokes per minute in 1:20, this may look really great on paper, but if the efficiency of this effort and effectiveness of it breaks down after subsequent 100’s, this tempo is likely too high. Continue bumping the metronome down in increments of 2 to find the happy medium of a moderate, maintainable pace faster than your easy efforts, and a cadence that feels peppy but not sloppy in order to keep up.
Head Above Water?
If you’ve ever watched water polo, it may be surprising to watch the athletes swim with their heads above water. The function is of course to be able to see the ball and other players easily, but for a triathlete to occasionally utilize the same style of swimming can be helpful when working on holding a high cadence. With the head above water, your lower body wants to sync and it become virtually impossible to glide at the front of each stroke. This is golden in integrating a rhythmic stroke without pausing at the front of the stroke, as so many learn to do in the pool.
Use water polo style as a drill at the start of your workouts. With the chin on the waterline, swim a 25 or 50 peeking forward at your arms as they enter the water each stroke. In addition to the higher cadence you’ll naturally have to carry, you’ll also be able to see the hand entry and extension of each stroke - win, win! Follow each water polo drill with the same distance of a moderate effort freestyle, focusing on continuing the tempo you just had during water polo. It will likely feel much easier and smoother to hold this clip. It can be helpful to use the tempo trainer during these sets, too, further integrating the new, higher tempo. Consistency is key here! Commit to slowly working your stroke rate up to your sweet spot while always staying aware of how you're breathing. Keep your breath relaxed as always, being sure you’re not trying to work with too much air in a shorter period of time now. Small sip of air in, relaxed sigh exhale out. Keep it simple!