~By Scott Rabalais
In 1972, Mark Spitz, swimming for Indiana University, won his fourth consecutive NCAA title in the 100-yard butterfly. On the first 25-yard length of the race, which included a dive start, Spitz took six strokes of butterfly. On each of the three subsequent 25s, Spitz managed seven strokes of butterfly. (Swimming aficionados may be well aware this was before the use of extended underwater dolphining.)
As an impressionable 13-year old, I recall tuning in to watch Spitz perform his butterfly magic and swim away from the field. Curious of his distance per stroke, I counted every stroke of his race. At my next swim practice, I learned that not only did I take several more strokes per length than Spitz, I was nowhere near as consistent in stroke count from length to length!
Consistency in Sport
Consistency in movement and in the application of power can be viewed as an important issue in almost all athletic activities. Golfers seek in earnest for the "perfect swing," and then attempt to recreate it. Baseball pitchers aim for uniformity in their approach and aim to consistently hit their target. Our aerobic counterparts, runners, cover great distances with machine-like repetitiveness in their strides.
Like Spitz, accomplished swimmers vary little in their execution not only from length to length, but from stroke to stroke. Through many years of practice and the formation of precisely repetitive stroke habits, great swimmers have learned to find their best stroke and to repeat it dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a race.
Consistency in Adult Swimmers
It is not uncommon to find inconsistent stroke counts when viewing Masters swimmers at work. Particularly at meets or in time trials, when swimmers are asked to give their best effort, the efficiency of a stroke can easily break down during the course of a race. Particularly in distance swimming races, where efficiency of movement is vitally important, stroke counts can vary widely from the beginning to the end of a race.
The Challenge of Consistency
Why is consistency of stroke so difficult to obtain? If one gives study to the nature of the human body and mind, the answers are evident. The human body, albeit a machine, is exhaustible. As energy is spent, supplies are gradually depleted, bodily systems do not function to their potential and results are less than ideal. Consistency in swimming is also tied to consistency of effort, beginning with the mental faculties of focus and concentration. As the mind wanders, the sense of control over bodily movement can decrease.
To improve one’s stroke consistency, which will produce a more uniform stroke count over repetitive lengths of a pool, take either a physical or mental approach. Swim training may be viewed as a physical act that breeds consistency. With each stroke, physical habits are being reinforced, and the more strokes taken, the more reinforced becomes the stroke pattern. This leads one to consider the importance of learning proper technique early in one’s stroke development, rather than later, when stroke habits are more ingrained.
Mind and Body
Deeply ingrained stroke habits come automatically to a swimmer, allowing the accomplished swimmer to swim great distances with little conscious thought given to stroke technique. However, the technical abilities of a swimmer can be compromised due to physical fatigue, and it is the mind of the swimmer that must convince and force the body to maintain a repetitive and rhythmical stroke routine. If a swimmer loses the ability to focus on stroke technique, efficiency is decreased and the swimmer typically loses speed.
To gain consistency in your stroke (and approach the level of Mark Spitz!), engage in regular training that will adapt your body to comfortably repeating an efficient stroke. Runners will take millions of strides, golfers will take hundreds of thousands of practice swings, and pitchers will throw thousands of baseballs throughout a career in an effort to develop a positive consistency in their approach. Continue to refine your stroke with the help of a specialist as well as self-inspection, modifying your ingrained physical and mental patterns over time.
Count for Consistency
One exercise that is most beneficial for maintaining stroke consistency can be included in any practice or swim routine. Over a specific distance, count the number of single-arm strokes per length and aim to hit the same number of strokes each length, while maintaining a consistent pace through the swim. If counting is not your forte’, ask a friend or coach to count your strokes for you. When counting strokes for freestyle and backstroke, make sure to count strokes on both arms, rather than just one arm, as a single-arm stroke increase or decrease can be quite telling.
There is no right or wrong stroke count for you; start with your current abilities and work to improve. Here is a sample freestyle set that you may wish to try on your next trip to the pool:
10 x 100-yard freestyle, resting 20 seconds after each 100-yard repeat
Count your number of single-arm strokes on each length. Typically, the first length may be a stroke less than the other lengths due to the rest period preceding it, so do not be surprised to see a slight inconsistency in this regard.
A common stroke count may be 16 freestyle single-arm strokes (8 stroke cycles) on the first 25 yards, then 17 strokes (8.5 cycles) on the remaining lengths of the 100-yard swim. Experienced swimmers may take significantly less strokes.
As the set progresses, aim to keep the same swim time on each 100-yard swim, while keeping the same or lower stroke count. Also, aim to keep the number of strokes on each the length the same from one length to the next, or at least as close as possible.
The End Result
Many professional basketball players can step to the free throw line in practice and sink 100 consecutive free throws. That’s consistency! They do so only because they have developed consistency in their routine and delivery through years of practice. Swimmers are similar creatures, and while not throwing a ball in a hoop, they want to make it to the finish with maximum speed and efficiency. Great swimmers may not hear the "Whoosh!" of the ball through the basket, but they will see better results on the scoreboard!
Scott Rabalais is a collegiate and Masters swim coach in Savannah, Georgia.