Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Swimming Revelation

Full disclosure time: I'm not a swimmer.

Well, let's explain this one a little bit. I was never a competitive swimmer. I didn't race. I never competed against other teams. I wasn't a YMCA kid. High school? The most athletic thing I did then was letter in marching band. (It was a varsity sport. Won New England championships. Stop rolling on the floor laughing.)

But, on the other hand, I learned how to swim at the Y when I was 4. My parents had an above ground pool when I was growing up. I'd be in that thing every day from Memorial Day until Labor Day, churning out a few laps across (all 24 feet of it). We'd also wind up racing each other, trying to go back and forth. It's how I learned to flip-turn, just so I could keep my advantage on my brother (who has infinitely more natural athletic talent than I, the bastard).

So to summarize: I wouldn't call myself an expert on competitive swimming. But I've got two decades worth of experience in the water. And about four months of experience in actual, honest-to-God lap training.

As I've started to come into my own stroke, and seeing lap times drop (down from 9:16 500s all the way to 7:28), there have been four major keys to my swimming that I'd thought I'd share. Your results can, and probably will vary, but we'd at least be able to have the discussion about it.

The Water is Your Friend: One of the many things that has been difficult to recognize is the relationship that you need to have with the water. Yes, we float, but we also sink a little bit (especially when you're *cough*153 lb. *cough*). We don't have gills, either, so there's an inherent fear of the water built in.

The thing is, you need to work WITH the water in order to be able to move through it well. Thrashing about is not going to make you a better swimmer. You need to appreciate that it's resistance is also the propulsive force. This is why they call the hand entry the catch, and the actual "stroke" the pull: you're grabbing the water, and pulling it behind you. In that effect, it's more like the old rope climb in gym class than you might initially recognize.

You also need to be unafraid to put the head underwater and stare at the pool bottom. As you move through your stroke, you will have a little bubble to the side to breathe out of. So go ahead, and stare down at the lane marker. It'll be OK. You will breathe air.

Slow = Smooth = Fast: I had previously put this at the end of a blog posting talking about my own swimming technique. This is one of those completely counter-intuitive items, but if you think about it, along with the previous key, it makes a lot more sense.

The smoother you are in the water, the more you can focus on how much water you catch, and then pull through. In order to be smooth, you need to potentially slow your stroke rate down a touch. The more water you move per stroke, the faster you go. So as my stroke rate has decreased, I've seen dramatic improvement in my swimming time.

Two quick drills: get into the pool, and count how many strokes it takes for you to get down and back. Then try to take 10 less strokes, and then try to take 10 more strokes than that base number. Record your times, and see what works for you.

Also, one-arm drills will improve your stroke turn-over so that you are always either catching, or pulling. This limits the amount of space between strokes, allowing for you to continually be gliding through the water (remember, we're not fighting the water, we're working with it).

Streamlining: This is by far the toughest, at least for me. My kick is ALL over the place, making it completely inefficient. We want to keep you in a single, smooth plane to limit the amount of resistance created by the water. Again, gliding through it.

So, with that head down in the water, we want your hand to not cross over and create too much angle. We want your kick to flow directly behind you, rather than your body moving all over the place. Think of being like a torpedo in the water: straight. True. Focused on the end of the pool. This will hurt the back and abs like hell the first couple of times...but it hurts so good.

Nothing Replaces Hard Work: What, you thought you were going to get faster just with that? PLEASE. Get in the water. Now.

You're still here?

2000 yards. Right now.

Have fun!


Drew Streip said...

Love it! This is pretty much my own experience to a T.

One thing that helps me is starting my swim workouts just by playing around. Dolphin kick underwater as far as I can go; swim a couple hundred using all the strokes to find how I catch the most water; and just generally try to mimic a fish (look at Phelps -- it's like his DNA was spliced with a spinner dolphin).

Matt said...

great post! I agree the work has to be put in. One thing I heard early on that has stuck with me:
-3 times a week - keep fitness/small gains
-4 times-see consistent gains
-5 to 7 times-is where major progress starts to happen

I am normally 4-5, other than recovery most over 4k. Form is so important, I find this part of swimming to be very fun, people who have awarness in the water seem to do better quicker, then others that need more interventions.