Friday, March 14, 2014

Swimming Tips

I spent some time in the pool last night with a buddy who is undertaking his first triathlon this coming June. He finally relented to me bugging him to come swimming, as it's a half mile swim that measures long, and not to be taken lightly. His technique needs a lot of work as one might expect, and it struck me watching him the journey I've taken with swimming. I did my best to not overload him with information, trying to limit the advice I was giving to the 'big things' that I saw first, with the 'little things' left to tackle further down the road. What I saw I think translates across most new swimmers, so I thought I would share.


My friend was very concerned about how much water he was taking on, and kept saying it was difficult to find the timing for when to breathe. It's natural that this is the biggest concern, without it, death can come quickly! In some cases, this could be driven by both anxiety and technique, but in this case, I didn't sense the anxiety. He seemed comfortable enough in the water, and while his stroke wasn't smooth, it was consistent. If I'd seen it falling apart after a few strokes, I'd look more to anxiety first, then tackle the stroke. So how to address breathing? After talking with him a bit, it came down to his feeling he had to breathe too often; the main symptom as not having exhaled by the time he went to take a breath. After visually checking that he was actually exhaling underwater (again, not an anxiety issue here), we set about fixing the 'timing' as he called it. If he didn't have enough time to exhale fully, I suggested first slowing down the stroke. Doing this meant changing how long his arms were underwater, and in turn what they were doing down there. Again, keeping the information short (not the place yet for a full discussion of proper catch and pull, nor even roll) I simply suggested reaching longer in front. It seemed to help him slow things down, which was the real goal, and his breathing timing started to make a little more sense to him.


It's interesting to me that all of us as kids who learn to swim are told to start with our arms fixed to our hips, using nothing but the kick to motor us around, and then as adults, we have the worst looking kicks imaginable. My 3 year old son has a textbook kick motion. The 38 year man that is my friend had a scissor kick that swung well beyond his shoulders and propelled him backwards. How does this happen?
As someone who had to re-learn to kick, it seems to me because we think the crawl is driven by our arms, and that the legs are there for 'extra' propulsion, or possibly nothing at all. There certainly is a version of the crawl where that's true, but if I'm teaching the crawl, I don't subscribe to this version. What I did, and what my buddy is currently un-learning, is using the legs to balance null points in the stroke - that is, when you go to breathe as a beginner\novice, your opposite side arm is probably not starting a good catch, it's more likely pushing down on the water in order to push your head up for a breath, a natural instinct. That push down buoys your chest and sinks your legs. Your legs react to you being sideways (you're breathing to one side) and their own sinking by trying to do what they do on land when balance goes awry - they spread out. Our land instincts are useless in the water, however. 

Useless land habits

On land, in order to go faster, you need to use more force. There is of course an economy of motion that must be mastered first, but if you want to run faster, you need a more powerful stride, and more of them (higher cadence). This increase creates turbulence, but at little cost. You can move your legs really fast, and it doesn't make you slower - ever. If you lose you balance, you regain it by throwing out your arms, becoming supple throughout the body, and spreading your legs to focus your center of gravity. 

In the water, the more turbulence you create, the less you move. You just create bubbles. If you lose your balance or bearings underwater, the simplest way to regain them is to stop and let your natural ballast put things right; your lower body, having less air than your chest cavity, will sink, and your head and chest will rise. Moving faster underwater is about maximizing the amount of propulsion you generate with as little turbulence as possible, and minimizing the amount of resistance you create against that propulsion. A textbook catch and pull is massively negated by a kick that's too busy and too low in the water. A great kick is negated by a pull that pushes water towards the kick. Every motion underwater has a corresponding vector of activity, and is either enhanced or fights with the other vectors. Starting from the front, the hand entry should be quiet and quick, the goal being to get in the proper position as quickly as possible with the least turbulence. Once in position, the catch is simply a muscle engagement - the water becomes 'solid', and you push it backwards until there is no more leverage. The kick serves to keep the hips high, flattening the torso against the water, again to minimize drag. The legs can very well do nothing - in fact in a wetsuit (where they float flat on the surface), this could well be advised, and is exactly what I had my friend do. I handed him a pull buoy and told him to stop moving his legs completely. If you *do* have a kick, it should be propulsive, fluid, and at the surface of the water. If it's too low in the water or too wide in the water, it creates turbulence against the flow of the vectors created by the arms. Disturb the water in the wrong place and it becomes less solid and more viscous. The more viscous the water, the harder it is to catch it, and the slower you will be. No pool, no channel, pond, lake, inlet, ocean, etc. feels quite the same in this regard.

Back to the example

After tying up his legs with a pull buoy and slowing his stroke down by having him reach further, he was able to swim 100 yards without stopping, which he wasn't capable of when we started. His comfort increased and his effort decreased properly. I showed him a short video of his legs underwater (invaluable tool, by the way!) so he had a mental image to go with the sensation that his legs are still too wide. We'll continue to swim together over the coming months and weeks, and we'll see which directions we take, but after one session, he is already showing improvement.

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