Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Swim stroke mechanics

Now that I'm back in the pool once a week, I've had some time to chat with other swimmers and lifeguards at the Roy High School pool. Except for last year, I've spent the last few winters swimming at the same place and so I've had the chance to get to know some of the regulars. There's one guy in particular who really impresses me.

He's an engineer in his 50's and swims for an hour every day. Even after my year away from the pool, I wasn't surprised to see him still there day in and day out. His formula is simple...get in, swim for an hour and get out. He doesn't do any sets or intervals, just lap after lap. He's a very good swimmer as well. The guy looks to be in great shape. Doesn't compete. Doesn't do triathlons. He has a great stroke and its a pleasure to swim around him. I have no idea what kind of yardage he completes each day, but for him, that's not really the point. Its the time he spends in the water.

There are many others who spend the same amount of time in the water but complete much less yardage as their strokes need some work. Most are there purely for fitness, so again, I'm not sure the distance they swim is important, just the fact they've put in an hour's worth of some of the best cardio training you can get. I commend these folks. While a less than perfect stroke isn't required for a good workout, it sure looks frustrating for some. I wonder if some people worked a little on their stroke mechanics they'd have more fun, be able to swim longer and stick with a program for a better amount of time.

The subject of mechanics and technique has come up a few times during my swims. After years of coaching, swim camps, video analysis and competing, I've developed a very fluid and long stroke. I only take 12 or so strokes per lap. I also do flip turns however and get some good distance off the wall each lap. Some have asked about my stroke. I recommend some drills and sculling but that's about it. I'm not one to intrude or pretend to be an expert. I just swim how I was taught.

I started swimming laps when I was 5 years old. Just as with anything, when learned young, swimming becomes second nature. I've taught adult swim lessons before and for those who never swam as kids, its very difficult for adults to learn to swim. We're land based, air breathing, upright walking mammals and swimming isn't something natural to modern humans. So it can take some time for adults to get the hang of.

Why is any of this important? Well, some folks at the pool were comparing my stroke to the engineer's. I take a few less strokes than he does and we complete laps at about the same speed. So even though we swim differently we end up swimming about the same distance. Again, for someone just swimming for the fun and fitness of it, stroke mechanics isn't a big deal, unless the poor mechanics makes swimming difficult and not fun. But for people seeking to complete their first triathlon or make Ironman their goal, good stroke mechanics become fundamentally important!

As a cyclist, I'm always thinking about economy. The more energy I can save in a race, the more I'll have when I really need it, either to chase down a breakaway or sprint for the finish. For the swimmer, its the same mentality. If one can save some energy during the swim leg of a triathlon, that's more energy you'll have to bike and run. To save energy, you can either swim slower or cover more ground with each stroke. And if your training for an event, yardage becomes important as well. You'll need a good stroke to get in the distance you need.

For those looking to improve, here's some things I've learned over the years to keep in mind and some drills to work on (speaking only of freestyle):

Press you buoy - Your torso is the most buoyant part of your body. Forcing your chest down in the water will lift your hips and make you more streamlined and balanced. An old, but good article on the technique and a good drill can be found here: http://www.h2oustonswims.org/articles/a_question_of_balance.html

Rotate - Imagine a rod running directly through your body from head to toes. Rotate your shoulders and hips around this rod. A great drill for this is "10 Kick Swim". Take a stroke and kick 10 times on your side before taking another stroke and repeat. This will help you roll your body effectively.

Reach - Key to an efficient stroke is a long reach, just look at Michael Phelps. The drill for this would be "Catch up". Start your stroke as normal but don't take another stroke until your hands meet or "catch up" up to each other in front of you.

Elbows high - Get those elbows high out of the water! This will help you get maximum reach. This keeps you from wasting all that energy with your hands way up the air. Practice this by doing a "finger drag" drill. Let your fingers drag in the water each stroke, really emphasising your elbows getting up high.

Kick - Believe it or not, using a kick board will not only strengthen your legs but will help you learn to balance in water. Hold the front of the kick board with both hands with your arms resting on the board and keep you head out of the water.

Underwater - What your hands do underwater is even more important that what goes on above the water. Janet Evans' stroke looked like a windmill above the water, but under, she was the best. Make sure your hands are always pulling "new water". Start your stroke with your arm extended and make a big "S" underneath your body, extending your arm back fully, really working those triceps.

Incorporate a lap or two of each drill into your workout each day. They will go a long way to increasing your economy and making your swim time more enjoyable and more effective.

Good luck!

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