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Cadence and Stroke Rate

Yesterday, July 21, I watched the perfect display of athleticism meeting race preparation — in the Tour de France. This happened to be the day of the infamous L’ Alpe d’Huez climb, a 15.5-km hill that has 21 switchbacks throughout the course. In past years, this "hill" came at the end of a longish Stage on the Tour de France. This year, L’Alpe d’Huez was its own Stage, and was set up as an individual time trial. This meant that riders would start roughly 2 minutes apart, based on their overall standing in the race. With his victory in the previous stage vaulting Lance back into the yellow jersey, Lance would be the last to go. His two major rivals, Jan Ulrich and Ivan Basso, would leave the starting area before him. Ivan Basso, considered to be the biggest threat to Lance, was second to last and only a minute and change behind the leader in the overall standings. In the previous mountain stage, Basso was able to ride with Lance to a mountain-top finish.

So the stage was set for a showdown. Who if anyone could stop Lance from winning his sixth and record-breaking Tour de France? Jan Ulrich was out fast and was using the longest cranks of any of the major competitors. He is a beast of a man who relies strictly on power to grind up the hills. At the first checkpoint he was a full minute in front of anyone who had completed the course for the day. Ivan Basso struggled to match the time set by Ulrich. It was apparent that he was in trouble having to climb the hills by himself. Midway through the race Armstrong caught Basso, who had a two-minute head start. Basso looked at Lance and tried to stay with him, but Lance kept his stride constant and after a brief period of riding together, blew by him.

From the moment Lance Armstrong left the gate he was preparing for the finish. As opposed to the low-cycle-rate/low-gear style of Ulrich, Lance went with a higher rpm/high-gear approach. At the first checkpoint it looked as if Ulrich and Lance would be very close. As the race went on, you could Ulrich’s cadence getting even slower, as he was grinding up hill after hill. Armstrong was like a gerbil on a wheel. His rate never changed from start to finish. When the race was over he ended up winning the stage by over a minute, further separating him from the field. He was the only rider in the field to crack 40 minutes on the ride. He now leads the race by 4 minutes and 9 seconds.

This was the result of a year of riding the same hill over and over. Lance lives in the south of France, and does REPEATS of this grueling climb. To complete the ride once in a day is a feat of athleticism; to do it four to six times a day is incredible. Throughout the year, Lance used his practice climbs not only to condition himself but also to experiment with cadence. He knew before the race started exactly what gearing and cadence he needed to keep for the entire race. All he had to do was apply what he had practiced. (And apply it with incredible focus. On race day, the narrow course was thronged with more than a million wildly cheering, potentially distracting fans.) This was a display of the perfect application of perfect technique, learned through experimentation.

So what does that have to do with swimming? This morning I watched Glenn work with a young swimmer from the area. Glenn was trying to get this young swimmer to focus on experimenting with his turnover on a kick set. The set was 4 x 100 kick, descend time by 25 as well as descend turnover. That meant that on the final 25, he would be going the fastest by taking the fewest kicks. At first the athlete was having a little trouble grasping what Glenn was trying to teach. He instinctively turned it over more and more as the 100 went along. As the set went on he started to realize that to get the most out of the set he would have to do both. If all you do is focus on getting through the set, you will miss out on what you are trying to accomplish.

If you hope to be the next Lance Armstrong of swimming, you need to focus on what you are doing, and how you are doing it. It is even more important in our sport because we are traveling through the water, which makes technique that much more important. This is something that everyone can do every time he or she heads to the pool. Different races will require a different emphasis; use practice to work on them. When you get to the pool, pay attention to how you are swimming, then practice it until you can develop what works best for you.