Swimmers, avoid the dreaded DEAD SPOT and swim faster

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Swimmers, avoid the dreaded DEAD SPOT and swim faster


'Stroke timing' refers to the sequence of your arm movement, in simple terms, what is one arm doing in comparison to the other at any given time.

There is a whole spectrum of stroke timing but we commonly refer to 2 main types and categorise swimmers as either 'catch up' or 'windmill'.

1. Windmill stroke is when the hands/arms are at opposite ends of the clock face. As one hand enters, the other is leaving the water (9/3 o'clock) or as one hand pulls under the body, the other recovers above the water (6/12 o'clock). It is very easy to increase stroke rate and swim quickly over short distances with a windmill stroke. Sprint swimmers tend to swim with a windmill stroke as this is the most effective.

2. Catch up stroke is named so, based upon the catch up drill. As your left arm enters and reaches out to full extension in the water, there is a pause (THE DEAD SPOT) before starting the catch/pull,  whilst the right arms recovers and almost catches up with the left hand. It is very difficult to increase stroke rate and swim quickly over short distances with a catch up stroke.

The catch up style stroke was made very popular by total immersion swimming and triathletes in particular favored this type of stroke timing. The benefits include a more streamlined shape in the water (longer position) and a more balanced position (the outreached arms acts as counterbalance to keep head down and legs up). It also favors a much slower stroke rate and longer gliding which is physically less exerting. The issue for triathlon and in particular open water swimming performance, is THE DEAD SPOT.

What is the dead spot?

Water is very dense and therefore difficult to move through efficiently. You can help to minimise resistance by improving your streamlined position in the water, but ultimately you need some kind of propulsion to keep you moving forwards. In simple terms, if your arms aren't pulling, you won't glide far before you stop. A windmill stroke provides continuous propulsion, as one hand stops pulling and leaves the water, the other has started pulling at the front end. This continuous 'kayak paddling' like action keeps the body moving forwards at all times, not allowing it to slow down and lose momentum. When swimming with a catch up style stroke, there is a 'DEAD SPOT' where neither arm is pulling and providing propulsion. As the right hand enters and extends to full reach, it then pauses whilst the left arm recovers above the water. Rather than continuous propulsion, the catch up style stroke works on the basis of pull, glide, pull, glide, pull, glide.. as opposed to pull, pull, pull, pull pull..

What's the problem?

Ever swam in a pool when nobody else is in there? The water is flat and still and it feels fantastic to glide through the stillness. When you're joined by other swimmers thrashing up and down and the water is churned up like a washing machine, that gliding sensation seems to disappear pretty quickly. It's the same when swimming open water, if it's choppy and churned your gliding is reduced and you need to maintain a continuous forwards propulsion. Catch up style swimmers will suffer most in these conditions and some can almost come to a halt during the dead spot due to reduced gliding.

What's the answer?

I said earlier that there's a whole spectrum of stroke timing and we have discussed the two ends of that spectrum, you are likely to lie somewhere between the two. It's important to know your stroke type and this is critical for future improvements. My simple advice is to avoid the dead spot at all costs when pool or open water swimming.  Start with simple things, as your hand enters the water and extends forwards, move straight into the catch and pull, don't allow it to pause and glide, encourage a continuous, flowing arm movement so you always have propulsion!

Is there any downside?

Yes, swimming with a continuous flowing motion requires more energy. We regularly see people slowing their stroke down and 'gliding' simply because they are tired and the glide / dead spot becomes more exaggerated as the swimmers become more tired. It requires a greater level of fitness to maintain constant propulsion, but on the flip side, it will also improve your fitness. 

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