How to swim in difficult conditions (or in cold water) when you have big arms?
A few days before IronMan 70.3 Mont-Tremblant, our swimmers often ask themselves the same questions: Why am I slower in open water than my friends who I beat in the pool? Why am I colder in the water than others even with my wetsuit on?
In fact, the question often boils down to knowing how to adapt your swimming and lifeguard training when you have a physiognomy that leads us to swim at a slower pace?
The different swimming styles: (H2)
You may have noticed that some swimmers do much better than others in open water than others, while they have similar levels in the pool.
Look at the two swimmers in the video above: the first (on the right) is of the “smooth” type with much more amplitude, the second of the “Swinger” type (more strokes and therefore a shorter pull) which has tended to be more effective in open water especially in harsh, cold conditions.
Swinger vs Smooth: (H3)
When comparing the style of Swingers versus Smooths, the first thing you should notice is how the arms cover the surface of the water. Smooths tend to use the classic high elbow:
And the Swingers present a recovery phase with the arms wider and higher than the surface of the water which gives them the name of “swinger”
Of course, when you think of open water swimming, the swinger technique has a lot of advantages. Among other things, the possibility of passing the arms over the waves, of swimming close enough to the other swimmers without however catching them with an arm too far outside, which is perfect for the technique of “drafting” in the diamond.
So the first tip for someone who is more of the smooth type of swinger technique would be to open their arms outward to attack waves in open water. This does not mean throwing the hand in front as one would throw a cricket ball, but rather to keep an opening of about 10-20 degrees from the elbow (outwards) in order to allow the hand to pass more easily. above the waves without limiting proximity to other swimmers.
Question of amplitude vs cadence:
So the real difference between swingers and smooths is found in the amplitude of the stroke (stroke length) and the cadence of the arms (stroke rate).
Say you are riding a bicycle, you can quickly turn your legs on a small resistance or pedal slowly while pushing a larger resistance (small vs. large chainring). We have just described the swinger and smooth style respectively. Everyone has found the right balance between the cadence of the arms and the length of the arm strokes that suit them better.
Part of the explanation lies in the difference in stature. Swingers, in general, have a shorter arm length, should increase their arm cadence. Each arm stroke requires less energy for an equally efficient job.
If you are short in stature with short arms, then no questions arise. You need to do more arm strokes and at a high pace. Do not be discouraged, because you can swim like this without fighting against the water and on the contrary, with continuous propulsion you will move more easily in open water.
On the contrary, a tall person with long arms, you would think that a style with extended arm strokes might be advantageous, but NOT ALWAYS! There are several tall, long-arm swimmers who adopt the swinger style. A classic example is the USA swimmer Laure Manaudou (5’10-180cm in height) who broke the 200, 400, 800, and 1500m freestyle records with an arm rate of 110 arm strokes per minute (that’s fast !!!)
This is an extreme example, but it is important to understand that when your stature is large, you have the choice of swimming at a high cadence and shorter arm stroke if you so desire. On the other hand, for particularly agitated free water, we would recommend it to you in order to increase your performance.
The key to increasing your pace is to start your “catch” early in front of the kick. Swingers tend to enter the hand in the water, seek their extension in the front then quickly throw the hand and forearm down to initiate the “catch”. In contrast, the smooths wait a 0.2sec in the front before plunging their hand to perform their catch.
This 0.2sec at the start of the arm stroke is a short amount of time, but removing it allows you to go from a pace of 65 strokes per minute (fairly typical for a smooth) to 73 strokes per minute. The increase in speed caused by more efficient swimming in open water means that the arms move faster under the body with the water, so can cause a slight increase in pace as well.
We still talk about average cadence if we compare this to the cadences of elite swingers which looks more like 80-90 strokes per minute. But no worries, with a large arm, you cannot increase too much, and simply by accelerating close to mid 70 per minute arm strokes, your efficiency will be greatly improved in open water. A perfect little change for your stature.
So the key to a good open water swim for a smooth is to practice the speed of the entry of the hand and the speed of the start of the catch. A subtle change, but with significant gains.
Keep warm in cold water
In open water, the risk of hypothermia is present, now how to avoid it. A long, slow arm stroke necessarily produces less heat and is at a disadvantage in colder open water. This is mainly reported by swimmers who tend to slide in the water thus producing a very slow pace putting them at risk of hypothermia in the water below 18 degrees.
Swimming at a rapid pace and a less extended arm stroke (like the swingers style) generates a lot more heat. So if you are the smoother type, swimming with a very long range and low arm cadence: be sure to practice a fast cadence swimming technique. This could save your competition.