Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Self Examined Swimmer Part II:The Road to Good : Becoming Your Own Science Project

In part one of this series, you left behind Adult Onset Swimmers Anonymous and started swimming in clearer waters. Well, maybe not clearer, since the average rec center\YMCA pool is over-chlorinated and full, maybe we shouldn't focus on that so much. Let's leave it at "I'm glad I'm fit and healthy and have such a strong immune system to fend off anything".

Have a good look in the proverbial mirror and look at your stroke. Look at it! Wait, you can't? On the bike, you have a speedometer, cadence sensor, possibly a heart rate sensor, maybe a power meter. On the run you have a stopwatch, maybe a pace watch, GPS, heart rate, elevation, calorie counter. You use these tools to create workouts that focus on areas that require improvement, plan a schedule that includes these workouts, and over time you see improvements. In the pool you have...a stop watch? A method to count laps? Your way of improving is to look at the clock and compare the last interval to the previous one, or worse yet, against some goal time you set for yourself. More symptoms of AOS Anonymous. Good news, you're not a member anymore, you're a swimmer, so the game is changing.

If you're going to get better at swimming, you're going to need a way to measure progress and a way to assess issues. You could certainly hire a coach or teacher, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's a lot of great things about that, and it works for most people.  However, if you're like me (lucky you, you awesome dude!) you have a full time job that starts early, no weekday free time until about 8:30, and a weekend made up of shuttling kids to activities and taking care of the honeydew list. This schedule doesn't jive with any of the coaches in my area, so I was forced to be my own coach. How? Well, that's the point of the article.

Punch onto and buy yourself a handheld waterproof video camera. There are several models available for well under $100. That's less than the price of a coach and I promise will be as valuable to you as anything you've ever bought for triathlon. Now hop over to Wal-Mart or Target and get a suction cupped plastic soap dish for a couple of bucks. This is your camera mount. I made a cutout in the bottom of the soap dish that allowed me to squeeze my camera in there and hold it in place. Use the suction cups to mount your rig to the pool lane wall. Congratulations, you now have the ability to assess your stroke. I'll bet your stroke doesn't look like you thought it did, does it?

You tell me what your average (not your sprint) time is and we'll figure out what to look for in your video. Paging the Amazing Kreskin...

1:30-2:00\100 yards:

Good news first, which is that there is some low hanging fruit on your stroke tree. MOST likely is that it's all coming from lifting your head when you breathe, which is the lynchpin to a whole mess of issues. You can see that you lift your head when you breathe in your video pretty easily...just note if both goggles come out of the water and you can see both your cheeks clearly. If this is the problem, you are causing a lot of issues for're pressing down on the water (as opposed to catching and pulling it) to lift your head, which is sinking your legs, flaring your chest, over-accentuating your roll, and slowing you down. It's like raising a sail off your head blowing you in the opposite direction you're trying to swim in. You need balance! The balance we're talking about here is fore\aft balance, specifically meaning you are higher with your chest than you are with your legs. Some call this 'sinking legs', and you hear a lot of cyclists with enormous calves and quads blaming their poor swim on their big legs. Okay, I'll grant you there are some people with chicken bones that can lay on their back in the water and have their legs float with ease, but the majority can't. There's two ways to get your legs up to the surface. One is to wear a wetsuit. That's not a bad solution, but it's not THE solution. THE solution is to learn to kick properly.  A wetsuit is not THE solution, because you are leaving a lot on the table - namely speed, timing, body position, get the point. Someone who can swim fast in a pool without a wetsuit can swim faster with a wetsuit. Why compromise?

There are three distinct flavors of the freestyle kick, the two beat, four beat, and six beat, with a beat referring to how many single foot kicks there are in a two arm stroke cycle. Drills? Nope, just grab a kickboard and start kicking. It may be exhausting at first, but you'll slowly work up to doing 200 yards and have something moderately propulsive. It may take a while, but it's a prerequisite to integrating it into your stroke. Integrating a non-propulsive kick that exhausts you physically is pointless to work with. Don't go on until you have a propulsive kick that you can hold for a long time.

Once you have a kick, I think it makes sense to start with the two beat kick, because the timing is very deliberate. I've seen two different explanations for the timing, debated by some very good swimmers on both sides. One view says you kick as you spear with your opposite arm. The other view says you kick on the same side as the arm pointed straight down in the middle of the pull. You could look at that and say they're essentially the same thing, and that's not untrue either. Whatever works, the point is that the kick is part of the timing mechanism for the body..

The four beat kick is really more of a drill, because it's not a balanced kick. It teaches your body independence, but it's hard to maintain for distance because it negates a lot of the roll. If you think about it logically, you kick twice per arm - meaning whichever foot starts first will always be kicking as you start your spear, regardless of the side. It's worth learning and mastering though, because the more things you can do with your body in the water, the better swimmer you are.

The six beat kick is the most common kick pattern, because the body sort of does it naturally after you learn proper kick timing. You may equate it to a flutter kick, but it's not quite the same thing - a flutter kick has no specific timing to it, it's just move the feet as fast as you can. The start of the cycle is the same as the two beat kick, and has a waltz feel to it - ONE two three, ONE two three. If you're musically inclined, this can be really fun to do, just pick a song that has this time signature and sing it in your head while you go.

Once the kick is truly integrated into your stroke, you'll notice that magically, your legs don't sink any more. Amazing, huh? With non sinking legs, it's much easier to maintain proper head position, looking down and rolling one goggle out of the water quietly to breathe. You can now easily swim 1:30/100 yards without trying really hard. You're starting to get good!

1:20-1:30\100 yards

This is the range I began to call 'death by a thousand pin pricks'. There are no more BIG changes or flaws in your stroke, but there are many very little things that add up to something noticeable. No one thing, when corrected will make a consistent improvement, so it's difficult to tell when you've actually done anything - which is why now, more than even before, you need that video camera.  You should be looking for all the little things that you know you should and shouldn't do...
  • head down
  • a full stroke, finishing at the back
  • no flaring of the head or hands
  • quiet, quick arm entry on recovery
  • even, non hurried breathing with quiet head turn
  • no crossing the center line
  • good streamline
  • hips high
  • no snaking of the body
  • a kick size no bigger than your shoulder width

Of course, there is a gorilla in the room, and that's a strong, early catch. There are myriad articles, books and videos dedicated to the topic that put it out of scope to discuss here, but suffice to say it's extremely important. What you're eventually going to end up with is a full body stroke that has no dead points, just an even distribution of propulsion.

Better than 1:20?

You know what, get out of here. You now have a great tool with the video camera, but you don't belong in this article. Skip to Part 3, please, we'll see you there. And shame on you for calling your stroke lousy if you're swimming 1:20\100Y, you're just fishing for complements. I bet you think your 320W FTP and 6:30 marathon pace are pretty lousy, too, huh? I don't suppose your last name is 'Carfrae' or 'Alexander', is it? MmmKay? Move along.

The Last Paragraph

Ok, if you've made it here, you're now swimming somewhere between 1:20-1:30\100 yards. If you're not, go back to the chart above,  find your pace, and work on that stuff until you move up to the last category. Now you, my friend, are definitely, unarguably, 'Good'. Congratulations! Go out there and take your well earned place among the front of the pack at most -if not all- of the events you participate in. Well, the middle of the front of the pack, or the MOFOP (how stupid are the acronyms in triathlon??!). The FOFOP are pretty 'Excellent', and they are still faster than you. The good news is you might already BE excellent and not know it, but you'll have to read Part 3 of the series to find out what the heck I'm talking about. Stay tuned!

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