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terry 05-15-2011 12:27 AM

Raising Backstroke to my Freestyle standard
On January 6 I stated my swimming goals for 2011, including among them to break an Adirondack Masters 60-64 record in every discipline.

In the months since I've set a more challenging, more personal goal -- to raise my sense of mastery, and level of accomplishment, in the other strokes to match my freestyle. The most exciting thing that's happened in my swimming this year is a growing sense of that as an achievable goal.

I've thought of myself solely as a distance freestyler for 45 years. In high school and college I rarely swam anything else and it simply never occurred to me to have any goals whatsoever in other events.

When I began coaching at age 21, I found I had an intuitive knack for coaching strokes I'd never swum and had swimmers win national championships and break national records in every stroke plus the medley.

When I began swimming Masters in 1988 and could swim up to six events at Nationals, with freestyle accounting for only half, I became semi-serious about practicing all strokes.

Still, any medals I won at Masters Nationals came in distance free, and in my 50s I swam several marathons, won 5 national titles and broke national records on 3 occasions, all in long distance open water freestyle. That strongly confirmed my self-image as a distance freestyler.

In the last few months, prodded by my goal to break ADMS records in all disciplines, I began to practice the other strokes in a more exacting way. I learned my mastery of challenging tasks fell far short of what I could do in freestyle. For instance to swim a descending set, and go significantly faster at the end of the set without adding strokes.

I began to think that if I gave myself similar sets in Fly, Back, Breast and IM to those I've long given myself in Free, I would at least be giving myself an even chance at swimming them well.

Today's practice was really encouraging in that way.
Set #1
4 rounds of 3 x 100 Back on 2:00.
My challenge was to hold 56 strokes per 100 throughout, to descend each round of 3, and to swim a faster range of times in each successive round. To the best of my recollection, here are my times:
Round 1: 1:52, 1:51, 1:49
Round 2: 1:50. 1:48, 1:46
Round 3: 1:47, 1:44, 1:42
Round 4: 1:42, 1:39, 1:36
What excites me about this is that I improved my 100 pace by 16 seconds in this set . . . without adding a stroke.
My best performance on a similar freestyle set has been to improve by 17 seconds. In Backstroke, I feel I'm still only scratching the surface.

Set #2
3 rounds of 4 x 50 on intervals of 1:10. 1:15, 1:20
This was similar, but aiming for a faster pace. Hold SPL as constant as possible. Descend each round. Make subsequent rounds faster.
Round 1 on 1:10: 52, 51, 50, 49 sec.
Round 2 on 1:15: 50, 49, 48, 47
Round 3 on 1:20: 48, 46, 44, 42
My only diversion from what I intended was adding a stroke on the last two 50s. What excited me in this set was, on the final round, when I swam 48 sec on the first 50, I set my mind to swim the next three in 46, 44 and 42 seconds - though I had never swum faster than 44 seconds in practice this year.
I've long had the ability to will myself to swim certain times in freestyle, but hadn't applied will to the other strokes. It's a sign of growing confidence that I did so today.

Here's why I consider this a critical indicator set. In analysis of hundreds of elite level races, performance staff at USA Swimming have identified the most decisive factor in racing is the ability to maintain Stroke Length, while increasing Stroke Rate in the closing stages of a race. With great consistency, the difference between winners and also rans is this: Both increase Stroke Rate in the final laps. Also rans lose Stroke Length and fall behind. Winners maintain Stroke Length and pull away.

So a set that tests your ability to increase speed without adding strokes may be a stronger predictor than anything else of your readiness to swim your best.

Richardsk 05-18-2011 09:11 AM

Hi Terry

It is good to see you posting on the backstroke forum, which doesn't get much traffic usually. My own backstroke is still very much a poor relation, although it is probably the stroke that has improved most, unless one counts butterfly, which has gone from being non-existent to at least recognizably an attempt at the stroke.

At the recent meet in Cardiff a colleague from the club filmed my 50 and 100 Back on my new digital camera, which takes fairly good video. It was hand held so is a little shaky but very informative. Apart from my terrible start, the main fault I can see is that the arms enter very wide, which presumably means less propulsion and also I suppose more drag because the body position is less streamlined.

I've been trying very hard to correct this fault and keep my shoulder close to my ear on entry, but of course I can't actually see what I'm doing, so I must visit the club in Carmarthen again and ask someone to have a look.

I am still doing mainly 25m repeats and sometimes managing to achieve SPL of around 20, but at my top speed I still need 30 or more. I must count my strokes on the video of my 50m race and report back. Something alarmingly high, I'm sure.

I love backstroke, though, and could swim it for hours if they'd let me.

P.S. SPL for the 50 seems to be 81 or 82!

terry 05-18-2011 12:27 PM


Originally Posted by Richardsk (Post 19577)
I love backstroke, though, and could swim it for hours if they'd let me.

P.S. SPL for the 50 seems to be 81 or 82!

I can say most emphatically that loving backstroke is all the justification one needs to swim it for hours.
In my writing and posting - where I clearly have a tendency to be pretty technical, with data points and data analysis on stroke counts and tempos and paces sufficient to fill a spread sheet - I sometimes find myself wondering how many people will share that part of my fascination.

I'm very aware that one of the more basic ways to describe the global community of swimmers is Creative personalities and Achievement-Oriented personalities.

Creative types are most drawn to the quality of the experience. Do I feel better in body, mind and spirit when I swim Backstroke? Do I feel as if my hand caresses the water on entry and catch? Do I feel as if my legs and feet are incredibly slippery as I rotate? That's enough to make my day.

Achievement-Oriented types are more inclined to seek measurable evidence of progress: If I previously swam 50 meters of Backstroke in, say, 81 strokes and 81 seconds I aim to swim it subsequently in 81 strokes and 80 seconds -- or perhaps 80 strokes and 81 seconds . . . or best of all in 80 strokes and 80 seconds.

I try to remind myself regularly that it's possible that some 95% of the global community of swimmers fall into the Creative camp.

Yet I'm convinced there's an unquestionable duality in both personalities. Creative types can become interested in the association between sensations and empirical measures, and vice versa. If I can sense my hand working with the water on a particular lap and my SPL improves from 81 to 80 strokes as result, that's useful info to both types.

I definitely exhibit that duality. For the last 10 years or so my Backstroke focus has been much more on using it to feel at one with the water - then take that sensation back to my Freestyle which was always more Achievement oriented.

But in just the last month I've become keenly Achievement oriented in Backstroke -- and find that the Creative interest and awareness I'd spent years cultivating is terrifically useful.

Richardsk 05-18-2011 05:13 PM


An interesting viewpoint. I'm not sure whether I fall more into the creative or achievement oriented camps. Possibly about fifty fifty. Ever since I started swimming back in 1947 I've been fascinated by the technique element but also drawn to the aesthetic side. As I believe I mentioned before on the old board, some time in the early 'fifties the famous Motherwell swimming club from Scotland paid a visit to Dublin and put on a display in the old Blackrock swimming baths (an outdoor saltwater pool), which was quite near where I lived at the time but now unfortunately derelict.

I can remember being most impressed with how beautifully some of the female swimmers swam. Their coach at the time placed great importance on rhythm and grace, I believe, and used recorded music as an aid. Nowadays of course with the amazing technology we have, every swimmer can have his or own sound track to swim to, but in those days it was a gramophone record and a loudspeaker. Personally I prefer to swim without music although I'm sure singing a suitable tune in the head can be very helpful. A musician friend recently told me that in his youth he used a tune in his head to set his pace in cross-country and middle distance running. When he wanted to run faster he just upped the tempo. Now we have tempo trainers, of course, but I imagine a well developed sense of musical tempo would be nearly as good, although not so mathematically precise, perhaps.

I must try to work out what my distance per stroke is for that 50m. (;-)

According to my calculations, allowing five meters for the start, it is approximately 0.55m per stroke or 1.1m per cycle. At least it's faster than standing still or going backwards and faster than a jellyfish, as someone recently pointed out.

terry 05-18-2011 11:04 PM

A Lifetime 10-Best Practice
I finished this practice feeling as if it had to be among the Ten Best Practices I've swum in 45 years. It was inspired by a set I did in Freestyle on Dec 17. That was inspired in turn by a set done and posted by Alan Perez. I call these sets Descending Stroke Count Pyramid -- SPL increases then decreases. Times only get faster. Or at least that's the idea.

You can find my previous DSCP and Alan's set that served as inspiration here.

Here's the set:
5 rounds of [3 x 100-yds Back on 2:00].
1st round @ 55 strokes (13+14+14+14 SPL)
2nd round @ 59 strokes (14+15+15+15 SPL)
3rd round @ 63 strokes (15+16+16+16 SPL)
4th round @ 59 strokes
5th round @ 55 strokes.

Here's the problem:
1) Accurately calibrate strokes
2) Descend each round without increasing strokes. To do this I must maintain Stroke Length, while increasing Stroke Rate from 1st to 3rd 100 in each round.
3) Swim faster average time in each successive round. This is the most exacting problem. It's relatively easy to swim faster averages as I increase stroke count. Exceedingly difficult to continue doing so as I decrease stroke count in rounds 4 and 5. To do this I must (i) apply considerably more power while (ii) keeping my core very stable; (iii) avoid increasing turbulence; and (iv) maintain a firm grip.

Here are my results as closely as I can recall:
1st round. 1:52=1:51-1:49
2nd round 1:48-1:46-1:44
3rd round 1:46-1:44-1:42
4th round 1:42-1:40-1:39
5th round 1:39-1:37-1:34

In the entire set (60 lengths of the pool) I only missed my intended SPL on one length. I think it was in the 2nd round.
I descended each 100 in each round.
The differential between my easiest and fastest 100s @ 55 strokes (#1 and #15) was 18 seconds. This is by far my lifetime record for increasing speed without increasing SPL in Backstroke. And for all I know it might be a world record for the 60-64 age group ;-)

Feeling energized by my success I decided to follow it up with a similar, but briefer, set -- 7 x 50 Breaststroke on 1:10
#1 @ 12 strokes (6+6) 52 sec
#2 @ 14 strokes (7+7) 51 sec
#3 @ 16 strokes (8+8) 50 sec
#4 @ 18 strokes (9+9) 49 sec
#5 @ 16 strokes 48 sec
#6 @ 14 strokes 47 sec
#7 @ 12 strokes 46 sec.

This was noteworthy for two reasons:
(1) First time I've attempted a Breaststroke DSCP and I was successful.
(2) Also, to the best of my knowledge #7 was the fastest push 50 at 12 strokes I've swum in 23 yrs of Masters swimming.

Footnote: I've now done successful DSCPs in three strokes. It would be nothing short of miraculous if I were able to do it in Butterfly (or more likely Butterfrog). Even so I'll give it a try before long.

AWP 05-19-2011 03:44 AM

You continue to impress and inspire Coach, and (although not at the same caliber) still I find I somehow 'parallel' your practices in a certain fashion.

Lately the pool at the Y has been ridiculously busy (guess that is good) and this early eve proved so, however, I still managed to come up with or better save a planned practice in some way.

I've been utilizing your (Terry's) tune-up set of a Backstroke/Freestyle pyramid (50>200<50) to better acclimate to a smooth and rhythmic backstrokeand find myself better able to do so.

Monday there was a graceful swimmer who inspired me to really lengthen my stroke in both free and back. He was taking very deliberately long strokes and swimming very "silky" in his practice. Not a big guy but slender and would keep up with the Freestyle strokers while doing Backstroke, quite easily. I wanted to emulate this.

Tonight I decided to begin with 200 yds alternating Back/Free @ 14spl for each keeping in mind "silky" long movements and then started a set of 3 x 200 Free @ 14-15-16spl with 100 "silky" Back/Free between repeats.

Next I swam 4 x 100 free with the Tempo Trainer set @ 1.2-1.25-1.2-1.18 (maintaining spl/14) with 100 Back/Free "silky" lengths between.

And now the "food for thought", I decided to try the Tempo Trainer with Backstroke and did a set of 4 x 100 :
1.5 @ 12 spl
1.4 @ 13 spl
1.3 @ 13/14 spl
1.2 @ 14 spl
The tempo of 1.3 felt most awkward and I'm not sure why at the moment. Each repeat was done with open turns to assure a steady transition with no hurried feeling for air.
With the aid of the TT my focus allowed me to really 'slide' down the lane. Next I'll measure this set in time and see how I can apply that to a clear mark of efficiency gain. I'll also look to do a DSC set too.
I finished the session with some high efficiency (and silky) free.

For me Breaststroke will prove the biggest challenge for control and gains.
Love to hear of your continued progress, keep it coming... please.


P.S. Although 'glorious' in black and white my example is relative to my experience (5.5 yrs of swimming) and although not at a 'high' caliber nonetheless a pursuit of improvement beyond what I could have imagined... ever!

cynthiam 05-19-2011 06:18 AM


Originally Posted by AWP (Post 19595)
P.S. Although 'glorious' in black and white my example is relative to my experience (5.5 yrs of swimming) and although not at a 'high' caliber nonetheless a pursuit of improvement beyond what I could have imagined... ever!


You inspire me with your posts, even though I'm not yet at the point of being able to do these sets. My eyes do still glaze over a bit when reading the data, but that's not to say it won't be interesting to me once I get to the level of *doing* those practices. Having that kind of control and mastery seems like a far-off dream to me!

I especially like your qualitative descriptions -- "silky" is exactly how I want to swim. That's how I feel on my best lengths. It's not the majority right now, alas, but I shall persevere.

terry 05-19-2011 01:26 PM

Fast - yea Masterful - Swimming starts with Aesthetics
I thought further on my post above describing two fairly basic approaches to swimming - Creative and Achievement. I decided that Aesthetic would better describe the former - and far more common - type. I also think it's important to realize that the Aesthetic approach must be the starting point, and will remain strongly present and maintain primary influence over our choices, for those who proceed to add Achievement elements to their approach.

I decided that Aesthetic is the most apropos description in part because that way both approaches start with an "A" ;-) but more because I reflected on my first days in coaching.
I'd been an unfulfilled and unsuccessful swimmer because the Achievement side dominated the Aesthetic.
But from Day One of my coaching career, I discovered that once I had the detachment to be an observer of -- rather than participant in -- training, my interest and curiosity was irresistibly drawn to the Aesthetic side.

The swimmers in the fast lane looked strikingly different - longer and more languorous - than those in the slow lane. I couldn't help but think that if I could get the latter to look more like the former only good could result. That worked out better than my wildest dreams.

Aesthetic swimmers focus primarily on qualitative measures. Achievement swimmers add evaluation of quantitative measures - stroke count, tempo, time, duration - but the qualitative measures really remain primary and ever-present. While we often have to wait until the end of a lap, repeat or set to know how we've done on the quantitative stuff, the qualitative part is with us every nano-second.

On the data-filled set example I gave above, a relatively small part of my brain was tracking stroke count, recalling the times I'd done in previous 100s and planning strategy for how I'd swim faster on the same stroke count in this round and swim faster on fewer strokes in the next. (I know, most of you view this as requiring massive processing power; but it's light computing for me, because I've done this kind of thing for 1000s of hours.)

A much larger part of my brain was evaluating the feel of every stroke and turn and pushoff and thinking about how the sensations either reflected whether I'd accomplish the time I hoped to swim on the current 100, or how those sensations would need to change to swim faster on the next 100 or next round.

terry 05-19-2011 01:38 PM


Originally Posted by AWP (Post 19595)
And now the "food for thought", I decided to try the Tempo Trainer with Backstroke and did a set of 4 x 100 :
1.5 @ 12 spl
1.4 @ 13 spl
1.3 @ 13/14 spl
1.2 @ 14 spl
The tempo of 1.3 felt most awkward and I'm not sure why at the moment.

I have a lot of work ahead of me with TT in Backstroke. I've done maybe 1% of my all-time TT practice in Backstroke and the little I've done has revealed how much inconsistency and limitation there is in my Backstroke tempo.
Initially I found that it was most difficult to synchronize my first stroke with the 4th beep from pushoff. That caused me to rush the first couple of strokes and consequently increased my SPL. When I got that timed better, and got a sense of greater leisure I gained much better control over SPL.

Also I found the range of tempos at which I can feel comfortable or efficient is far narrower for Backstroke. Where in Freestyle I can manage a range of about 1 full second, my comfort range in Backstroke, initially, was only about three-tenths. I think that has to do with (1) I only swim it with 6BK, and (2) Mininal overlap potential in stroke timing -- in addition to limited TT work.

Still lots of discovery opportunity. Thanks for reminding me, Alan. Time to put that TT on again for Backstroke sets.

terry 05-27-2011 01:39 PM


Originally Posted by Richardsk (Post 19583)
I must try to work out what my distance per stroke is for that 50m. (;-)

According to my calculations, allowing five meters for the start, it is approximately 0.55m per stroke or 1.1m per cycle.

Have you made any adjustments to this distance per stroke since making this post?
This small problem-solving opportunity offers a good window into how to marry the Aesthetic and Achievement instincts in one's swimming. It also gives some insight into how often the best solutions to common problems are counter-intuitive.
For instance while doing this set
>>5 rounds of [3 x 100-yds Back on 2:00].
1st round @ 55 strokes (13+14+14+14 SPL)
2nd round @ 59 strokes (14+15+15+15 SPL)
3rd round @ 63 strokes (15+16+16+16 SPL)
4th round @ 59 strokes
5th round @ 55 strokes.>>
the first problem I encountered - on the 1st round - was needing to glide for an uncomfortably long period after taking my allotted 14 strokes before being in position to turn. During that too-long glide I would lose momentum - which made my turn a bit weaker. This put me behind the 8-ball starting the subsequent lap, increasing the likelihood I'd need a momentum-sapping glide to reach the next wall in 14 strokes.

Those glides also caused another problem. The 2nd part of my challenge was to descend each round. How would I swim faster on the 2nd 100 if I was already gliding to walls on the 1st -- and then swim faster yet on the 3rd 100?

One benefit of my languid pace was my brain was getting enough oxygen to figure out that if I made my entry and catch a bit more gentle and patient it would become more precise and effective. I would do a better job of moving my body forward, rather than moving my hand or the water back. And if I did that, I'd reach the wall more easily and without the speed-and-momentum-sapping glide -- which means the next length would be stronger too.

So, in this case, slower hands - at the right time in the stroke - would lead to faster swims. Not the kind of against-the-grain thinking one can usually do in a breathless state.

The elements of calculation - what are the numbers embedded in my swim and how can I improve them - is the Achievement side. But the solution I arrived at - cultivating a gentler more patient and firmer hold with my hand - is the Aesthetic side.

I think we have to start with the Aesthetic, but we should probably look to objective measurement fairly early to verify the accuracy or effectiveness of our Aesthetic efforts. That measurement helps to hone the accuracy of our Aesthetic judgements: THIS sensation improvements my SPL by one stroke and my time by one second.

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