A few weeks ago, one of my athletes came to town so that we could work on her swim and run technique. For her, the common thread to improvement in both disciplines lay in making adjustments to the balance of her distance per stroke (or stride length) and her strokes (or strides) per minute. Balancing these two elements across the disciplines is essential to optimizing performance in triathlon.
In The Boys in the Boat, about the University of Washington eight-man crew team and their journey to win gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Daniel James Brown illustrates the same concept as it applies to rowing.
There are certain laws of physics by which all crew coaches live and die. The speed of a racing shell is determined primarily by two factors: the power produced by the combined strokes of the oars, and the stroke rate, the number of strokes the crew takes each minute. So if two boats carrying the same weight have the exact same stroke rate, the one producing more power per stroke will pull ahead. If those two boats have the exact same power per stroke but one has a higher stroke rate, the one with the higher rate will pull ahead… Every race is a balancing act, a series of delicate and deliberate adjustments of power on the one hand and stroke rate on the other.
This is an instructive passage from a rich and inspiring book. It helps to illustrate an important fundamental concept: speed is a function of distance per stroke and strokes per minute. This applies on the swim, the bike, and the run. What we’re after is striking that balance to optimize power, turnover, and efficiency.
In the interest of clarity, it is worth mentioning that in cycling the distance your foot travels around the bottom bracket is fixed, however, depending on your gear selection, the distance per pedal stroke, or gear inches, will vary. In cycling, gear selection and the corresponding gear inches determine your effective distance per stroke.
In all three disciplines, efficiency also has a direct impact on your effective distance per stroke. The better you can direct your energy in a straight line, the farther and faster you will go for every stroke and stride. Efficiency is both mechanical and metabolic. Mechanical efficiency has to do with technique, streamlining, aerodynamics, stability, the condition of your drivetrain, etc. Metabolic efficiency is a function of fitness. The fitter you are, the longer you can tolerate and sustain higher cardiovascular and muscular loads.
On the swim, bike, and run, accelerations and pace progressions are some of the best ways to improve power, distance per stroke, and efficiency. Accelerations and pace progressions improve turnover and also help to develop the body awareness necessary to manage and regulate physical and mental focus, relaxation, and technique under fatigue.
Hill training on the bike and the run, as well as low cadence, heavy gear work on the bike, are indispensable for developing the power and core strength necessary to increase distance per stroke and to hold that stroke/stride length over time.
In the water, my athletes use pull buoy, paddles, and ankle straps daily to build swim specific strength that will improve their distance per stroke, stability, and efficiency. Accelerations and pace progressions are standard-issue for the development of turnover, economy, body awareness, and power.
In swimming as well as the other disciplines, I have my athletes focus on three intensity levels: strong, very strong, and fast that correlate with Brett Sutton’s moderate, medium, and mad. Tuning into these three intensities help to work the balance between stroke length and stroke rate. It is easiest to conceptualise it for the swim. I explain that strong should feel long, strong, and balanced. There should be good purchase and hold of the water as well as strength and muscular engagement through the body. Very strong should have the same length of stroke, purchase, balance, and engagement as strong, with an increase in turnover. With fast the focus is on high-intensity, turnover, and just cracking it out.
Getting back to the athlete who was visiting to work on her swim and run technique. As we were wrapping up she expressed a concern that is shared by many athletes who attend training camps or don’t have regular contact with their coaches. She said that she felt more confident doing the new techniques while I was watching and was concerned that when training on her own she would just practice and reinforce poor technique. The key to improvement, I told her, is in two things: awareness and discipline. I know that she has both. It is her awareness that allowed her to make the adjustments while I was watching. Her discipline is what has her consistently nail her sessions, to the letter, regardless of circumstance. Tapping into those two resources – awareness and discipline – is what makes the difference for her. Likewise, awareness and discipline will make the difference for you of as you continue to work the balance between power and turnover, as well as so many other things in triathlon and beyond.
Mateo Mercur has been a professional triathlon coach for nearly 15 years. He has trained three Age Group World Champions, an Age Group WC Silver Medalist, and the Ironman Maryland Women’s Champion. Based in Bend, Oregon.