This key technique lies at the core of successful open-water swimming. Here’s how to perfect it.
by Terry Laughlin
Last summer I marked the 40th anniversary of my initiation to open-water racing. I joined the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corps in 1973, and, as one of the better open-water distance swimmers, began to represent the Corps at lifeguard tournaments on the East Coast. I fared far better in 500- to 1000-meter races in L.I. Sound and the Atlantic Ocean than I had in races of similar distance in the pool. I also enjoyed them far more.
I initially credited my success to “natural endurance” and to having an instinct for racing without walls and lanes that others lacked. I left the ocean behind after moving to Richmond, VA in 1978. When I resumed swimming in open water in the early 1990s, I picked up where I’d left off—competing successfully in open water with people who I trailed in the pool. In 2001 I turned 50, and began to think of myself as an “open water specialist.”
Committing to open water technique
At the time, I trained in masters workouts and swam pool meets occasionally. It occurred to me that the stroke I used in open water races—mostly between one and three miles—felt long and integrated, while the stroke I used in the pool—especially in the heat of a race—felt more hurried and choppy.
Since I’d had my greatest success in open water races, I thought I should put my eggs in that basket and use my open-water stroke exclusively, even when racing teammates on short repeats. This meant limiting the number of strokes I would allow myself—basically, keeping my average stroke per length to between 13 and 14. This put me at a disadvantage on 25- and 50-yard repeats, when many of my masters teammates would take 20 or more.
Though I lagged significantly at first, before long I began closing the gap on my high-revving teammates. Taking fewer strokes forced me to get more out of each stroke, but I adapted quickly. And, on longer repeats or sets, I saw even more improvement.
In 2002, I swam the 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon, completing it with far longer, and more leisurely, strokes than any other competitor. Through 2004, I had strong results in races of all distances. But it wasn’t until reading an article in 2005 by Jonty Skinner—then the Performance Science Director for USA Swimming—that I realized how uniquely suited for open water the techniques I’d been practicing were.
Hip-driven vs. shoulder-driven
After studying video from 20 years of national championships in both long and short-course racing, Skinner observed that elite long course freestylers swam with longer, lower-tempo strokes that seemed to be driven by the hip. In contrast, elite short course freestylers swam with shorter, higher-tempo strokes driven by the shoulders. Skinner explained that among elite freestylers in a 25-yard pool, the ratio of swimming to non-swimming (turns and pushoffs) is approximately 2.6 to 1. In a 50-meter pool, the swimming to non-swimming ratio rises to nearly 8 to 1.
During a minute of short course swimming, an athlete could spend as little as 43 seconds swimming and as much as 17 seconds not swimming. In a 50-meter pool, he or she would spend about 53 seconds swimming and only 7 seconds not swimming.
As Skinner explained, a shoulder-driven stroke allows the swimmer to achieve higher tempos and generate higher forces. This can create more speed in short bursts, but has great potential to cause fatigue. Frequent rest breaks received by the arms on turns, allow the swimmer to recover sufficiently to sustain a fast pace for distances up to about 200 yards.
But in a 50-meter pool, and when swimming over two minutes continuously (sound familiar, IRONMAN athletes?), the hip-driven stroke proved to be the far better choice.
Lose the pool repeat to win in open water
After encountering Skinner’s work, I redoubled my commitment to hip-driven swimming. I also began to focus more on understanding and teaching techniques that maximize the advantage of this technique.
And, of course, since most triathletes do the majority of their training in 25-yard pools—and likely getting into ‘repeat-races’ if they attend a Masters group—the pace clock and their natural competitiveness makes them revert to shoulder-driven strokes. It requires a conscious decision to limit stroke count—and strong restraint when swimming next to a shoulder-driven swimmer—to hardwire the hip-driven style.
Back in 2005, I was willing to ‘lose’ the 25-yard workout repeat in the present moment to be better prepared for an open water event several months in the future. The following year I won the first of six National Masters open-water titles and broke two national age group records. I feel certain none of this would have been possible had I not committed to the hip-driven stroke.
5 tips for nailing the hip-driven technique
Watch your core: Swim repeats of eight or more 25y/m freestyle repeats. During each series, notice how your awareness of swimming from your core vs. relying primarily on your arms and legs.
Count strokes: Odd lengths, count hand entries. Even lengths, count hip rotations. Do you feel different when counting hip rotations? Use new awareness on the following exercises.
Vary energy: On odd lengths, ‘nudge’ your high hip lightly. On even lengths, add a bit more energy to hip drive—don’t overdo it. Use your hip to push your extending hand forward instead of pulling the other hand back. How does adding ‘hip energy’ affect hand extension? Does this change your stroke count?
Vary tempo: On odd lengths, rotate your hips at a deliberate tempo. On even lengths, at a slightly brisker tempo. Make no conscious effort to change arm tempo. Can you feel your arms respond naturally—even effortlessly—to the change in hip tempo? Does your stroke feel more integrated?
Watch and listen: When varying hip energy or tempo, watch for bubbles in your stroke and listen to the sounds you make. Can you increase energy and/or tempo while keep your stroke free of splash, noise and bubbles?