For the first instalment of a new series with British swim coach Adam Walker, we discover the 'Ocean Walker' technique, which made him quicker and let him swim the seven seas (literally) when medical advice said he should give the sport up...
Where better to start than on the most important part of swimming… the stroke! It is essential to save energy in any triathlon and Ironman event as this endurance sport requires you to work a number of different muscle groups, demanding a lot out of your body.
I have found from working with all abilities of triathletes that it is fair to say a high percentage admit swimming is their weakest discipline, and therefore concentrate more on the bike and the run.
So what’s the answer?
Ok, swimming is arguably the more technical of the three disciplines and therefore may take longer to master, however with an efficient technique the rewards can be great and of course make a significant difference to your overall time. What’s more, the psychological benefit of leaving the water in the lead pack can be invaluable.
Seven years ago I took up endurance swimming after watching a movie on a plane called 'On a Clear Day' about a man who attempts to swim the English Channel. This movie inspired me to challenge myself to do the same, I swam it in 2008 and have done an additional six channels since. This included a 17 hour swim in Hawaii, and I was also stung by a Portuguese man o' war.
On 6 Aug 2014 I became the first British person to swim the hardest seven ocean swims in the world, known as the Oceans Seven.
My swim stroke was the conventional style of a high head and winding my arms, entering long and flat.
I trained with this style for 18 months which resulted in a ruptured bicep tendon whilst swimming the English Channel. Having completed the swim I had to have two operations, unfortunately the surgeon advised me that the bicep tendon had attached itself to the supraspinatus, and they were unable to separate them. He advised me to give up swimming as the arm rotations would irritate it and cause more injury. He said "If you do another long swim you will have serious long term problems!"
As it was not an option for me to give up due to the fact I loved the sportso much, I began studying the front crawl stroke, its motion and how to take pressure off the shoulder, limiting irritation as well as aiming to become more efficient and using less energy.
At this stage I wasn't concerned with speed, I just wanted to find a way to prolong my swimming career if possible.
After many months of practice and video analysis I established that having a still head looking downwards is critical in the stroke: if it’s not still you could zigzag and use up unnecessary energy employing muscles that you don't need.
Also, if you immerse your head then your legs will come up if you are on your side – it’s better to work with the water than lift your head up which takes energy, not beneficial when the head is the heaviest part of the body.
I thought about other sports such as golf, cricket, bowling, tennis and cross country skiing – all use core stomach muscles to instigate the initial phase. Therefore it didn't make sense for me not to use rotation as part of the swim stroke.
Rotating using core only and allowing the hips to push the arms forward instead of throwing over head had a number of big benefits:
- Using fewer muscles
- Less impact when entering the water
- Reduced pressure on the shoulders
- Stronger propulsion in the stroke
- More length out of the stroke
If I drive the arm/hand into the water, I am using my chest as well to do this, again more muscles used than necessary. Using the core also helped to keep my hand and arms as wide as my hips. If your chest dominates more often than not then they will drive into the centre line, particularly when you breathe.
You will then have to push them out again in order to pull back which takes time and an added movement which is unnecessary. Also by driving them into the centre you have the potential to pinch tendons and cause friction which will eventually tether and cause significant damage (something unfortunately I know a lot about!!)
Early arm entry
Now, I was taught to enter the water as far out in front as possible in order to gain a good pull. However, if your hand enters the water early with a bent elbow and then extends under water this will be less resistance, which makes sense as there is less splash and will it take pressure off your shoulders.
If you think about diving off a block in a race, they only allow you to go 15 metres under water, the reason being you are faster under water than you are on top of the water, therefore the sooner you get your hand and arm into the water the better.
What I also found is that by holding the front recovery arm in place until the stroking arm is just about to enter the water provides me with constant momentum and aids with stability, which is necessary if you get knocked by a competitor or if a wave’s about to hit you. This happened to me in the English Channel with my old stroke and flipped me on my back.
In addition, pulling to your hip only is your 'power section' – beyond that it turns into your tricep with your power being significantly reduced and delaying the time needed to get your hand back in for the catch.
My leg kick is just enough to keep me afloat, nothing too vigorous as 70% of energy is used up in your legs and you don't get that benefit. The kick is a sideways kick as you are swimming hip to hip (never flat).
By carrying out a simple two-beat kick I’m not wasting excess energy and am limiting the calories burnt. This is also important in colder temperature as the more kicking you do the colder you will get as you will burn more calories.
My suggestion is to swim the majority of a triathlon with a two-beat kick, and then only on last 50 yards or so kick a little more to get blood flow into the legs in readiness for transition. The limited leg kick will serve you in good stead when you get onto the bike as they have had limited use. On my 17 hour Hawaii swim when I climbed out of the water, my legs were so fresh they didn't feel as if they had be used.
This stroke, which my clients are affectionately calling 'The Ocean Walker' technique, has not only saved my swimming career but meant I was the fastest man on a 21-mile two-way swim in Windermere, and completed all seven channels including fastest British crossing of Gibraltar Straits one-way, and became the first British person to do a two-way crossing.
I’ve had three operations in total on my left shoulder, I can't sleep on that side and I can't hold over 10 kilos of weight with a straight arm, yet with the 'Ocean Walker' stroke I can swim 17 hours and am 1:15mins faster over 1,500 metres and 5secs faster per 100 metres.
In addition, what is also significant is my stroke rate has gone down from an average of 72 strokes per minute to 52 strokes per minute, showing that holding form in the stroke is generating more speed and I am saving 1200 strokes per hour! I am not pulling any harder than I did previously, actually if anything I am pulling with less power, showing the importance of body position and efficiency.
What I have realised is the key to swimming efficiently is to make the water work with you. By being relaxed, getting body position right and reducing resistance you will go faster.
The best athletes in the world are normally the ones who make it look effortless, use timing to their advantage and are efficient in what they do. Just look at Roger Federer (17 Grand Slam titles in tennis), Sun Yang (1,500m swimming world record holder) or Usain Bolt (100m world record holder).
Adam Walker's Ocean Seven record:
>>> Britain's Adam Walker describes “huge sense of relief” after swimming the seven seas
- English Channel 2008 (finished 11 hours 35 mins)
- Two-way Gibraltar Straits 2010 (finished 9 hours 39 mins)
- Broke British Record one way and first Brit to swim back
- Molokai Straits in Hawaii 2012 (17 hours 2 mins)
- First British person to complete, stung by a Portuguese man o' war
- Catalina Channel in US 2012 (12 hours 15 mins)
- Tsugaru Channel in Japan 2013 (15 hours 31 mins) First British person to complete
- Cook Straits in New Zealand 2014 (8 hours 36 mins) Saved by dolphins from a shark
- North Channel Ireland to Scotland 2014 (10 hours 45 mins)
More by Adam Walker
For more information on the 'Ocean Walker' stroke and inquire about swim camps and 1-1 coaching with Adam, click here.