"IM" as Jenny tells me stands for "individual medley." I am a little sad I did not know that. Pathetic James, pathetic. I guess I'm not as much a swimmer as I thought. Still, all that being said, the crux of this post is detailing why medley sucks, but why it is also awesome.
Step 1: Butterfly
The bane of many a triathlete's existence is definitely the first medley stroke: fly. Wait, actually...back up. The bane of most triathletes' existence is just swimming in general. But that's a whole NOTHER issue (can people please stop saying that? It makes you sound really...slang-ish). Anyway, back on track: butterfly starts off the medley and it usually ends it for most adult-onset swimmers. The most difficult part for most is just figuring out what to do. It looks so easy and smooth on TV when you're watching world-class athletes do it, but so does running 4:40/mi pace for a marathon...and we all know how EASY that is....? But when you're actually faced with the prospect of swimming 25 yards of fly (or, God forbid, 50 meters) most are generally at a loss.
"Ok, I push off and fake dolphin kick a couple of times then what?"
Mostly it seems to involve a lot of flailing. I was told once that to improve my rhythm I needed to pretend like I was humping. No, this was not told to me by a man; this was told to me by a girl. I took it to heart and immediately conquered fly! Just kidding, not true at all. But for me, figuring out the "rhythm" of the stroke is the most important part. If you get your hips and core moving correctly the rest of the stuff seems to fall into place. Arm movement is secondary to me in terms of importance. I don't know if this is true for actual swimmers but for me the key to a successful lap of fly is lower body movement and the arms serve to just get you to the next lower body movement. Unfortunately, the shoulders tire pretty quickly on this stroke and that becomes the major limiter for most triathletes attempting fly.
But, once proficiency is attained, it is possible to look somewhat cool for - at most - 25 yards and for those short but intense moments feel like a true swimmer... Awesome!
Step 2: Backstroke
Once both of those hands hit the wall after that last gasp stroke of fly, it's time to switch to the other front-quadrant stroke and do work on your back. Now, there are times when back isn't so bad. You know, you "accidentally" catch your hand on your lane-mate or the hot swimmer in the lane next to you...that part isn't so bad, right?
Step 3: Breaststroke
Well, from one of the most useful and complimentary strokes we move to the worst. It took me a long, long time to figure out the timing of this stroke. I probably still don't do it "right" but I don't suck at it anymore, which is key. Off the wall, one arm pull, one quick dolphin and bring the hands up under you to a streamline front before popping up for stroke number one while also pulling your legs up to a "ready" position. What took me a while to "get" was the rhythm in between strokes. A nice, streamlined glide with a powerful kick and sculling action. A lot of tri-guys streamline with their head looking forward (kind of like how I swim...). For a good example of why this is bad, read this blog post by Jenny. Free speed is free speed. One of the few cases where it's actually free (not like with bike stuff!).
The important thing in my mind - at least when I'm working the breast stroke - is maintaining a solid and patient rhythm. It's surprising to me how tiring it is. The kick is more tiring than "regular" (free or dolphin) kicking to me. In a 100 IM I end the 3rd leg feeling significantly more tired than either of the other two. This could be partially because I am further along in the interval but breast just really wears me out (yea, I said it).
Step 4: Freestyle
Well, every AOS and tri-geek can at least do this part. In fact, most of them ONLY do this part. Obviously, this discipline is certainly my strength but it is definitely the more boring of the four strokes. No more explanation needed.
Now, what does it all....MEAN??? I've really enjoyed stroke workouts this year for the simple pleasure that it's something different. I know I don't swim much compared to 12 year old girl swimmers, but I do swim a lot compared to most triathletes. Swimming 30k a week of freestyle, pull freestyle, and kick would suck. Really suck. Therefore, some variety is paramount in order to maintain sanity.
I was asked recently whether I felt as though doing more stroke (and not just faking it, but sometimes I do...) helped fitness-wise as much as doing freestyle during those intervals would have. My first response was "no" but the more I thought about it I think that's actually not true. Specifically, doing freestyle is probably the best in the context of the sport I'm choosing to pursue (triathlon, for those unaware of my hobby...) but I definitely have to work pretty hard doing medley. So I'd consider that a wash mostly.
There is, however, a large bonus that most people don't think about right off the bat. Fly, without a doubt, greatly increases overall strength. It is a very, very demanding stroke. After a while, your shoulders will really thank you and you will marvel at your ab and arm definition. PLUS! You will look awesome if you do it when fresh and perfect when people are watching. It intimidates other AOS/tri-geeks like you wouldn't believe. Backstroke is - in my opinion anyway - far and away the most directly helpful to your freestyle stroke. Body position is absolutely paramount in this stroke and getting better at it definitely (I think so anyway) helps your freestyle body position. A good, rhythmic kick is also really important which can pay dividends in your freestyle as well. So, don't neglect the back!! Breaststroke is definitely the least useful of the medley strokes. The only benefits I can think of are an increased feel of the water because of the sculling stroke one does and a better streamline overall. That's it. It is the most hateful of the 3 alternates for me. But I do it anyway; partially because it has the word "breast" in it, which is a funny word.
Work on your medley and you will improve as a swimmer. Guaranteed.