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November 2019

Swim theories – can you improve? are there any shortcuts?

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“Float like a canoe, Breathe like a dolphin,…Swim better in 10steps. What your swim coach, who means well, is not telling you or can’t tell you.”

Is your  FB timeline getting clogged with the likes of these gems? mine is and some are quite enticing. My favourite comes not from a swim coach, not a former swimmer but someone who knows what his triathletes need and told me that while I mean well my elite swim background means I can’t understand Tri and Openwater. Sadly though people do want the shortcuts, the quick fix and after 25 years of doing this I still can’t offer the holy grail other than practice, repeat, be scientific in your approach but not always in the pool and swim often. Unfortunately time pressured swimmers do not want to hear that but when I raced as a strong AG athlete in the early 2000s you could get by as a strong ex biker/swimmer or runner and ‘cope’ on the other disciplines. Times are changing and athletes are better, well rounded individuals good at all 3 disciplines. Being weak in the swim means less enjoyment in openwater, less competitive and getting to the bike more tired. Not a Triathlete? then long swims are getting longer and longer and you will want to conserve your energy not waste it through drag and resistance.

Keep in mind….
Swimming is more like a language or musical instrument in terms of patience and practice. It is highly technical.
Learning to fly, probably is easier <this I had shouted at me once>
One swim per week is  6 days of unlearning
Missing the Autumn to have a rest after a tough season is just not helpful. Swim easy, swim the other strokes, swim drills, swim water polo but please stay in the water. The regular testing we conduct shows this year after year. Any delay in getting back into the water ie leaving it to xmas or the new year makes it very difficult to progress. Many will eventually get back to where they were in the previous Spring.
Swimming alone probably will not fix it all, ankle mobility, range of movement through the shoulders, S&C, confidence, yoga, pilates etc No one wants to hear all that though!

Reading the latest material I could get my hands on regarding swimming development I was left feeling a little uneasy recently. As a Coach with the American Swim Coaches Association, the Amateur Swimming Association and many swim groups on LinkedIn etc I get memos, newsletters, research and findings from around the world. Some great stuff comes from the Australian Institute of Sport, from the NCAA where I raced in the 90’s and from a worldwide network of colleagues who are coaching and racing.  It was not so much the conflict but more the complete polarisation between some who felt it was impossible to become a really good swimmer and those who felt it was entirely possible to become really good. Is it possible to improve significantly? Why can’t we be more sure of what is possible and how to go about it? Why do some make great progress and others seem limited? I have my own theories but first the two extremes.

You Can’t….

A coach put forward a theory that made for fairly depressing reading for any adult learning to swim. He proposed that since as cavemen we spent most of our days running and either chasing or being chased we had great Aerobic capacity in our muscles in our legs. Our arms were mostly Anaerobic as we survived throwing spears and stones, hurling items to catch our dinner. With this in mind most swim club youngsters spent their teenage years developing more efficient aerobic movements in their arms so they could spend four or more hours per day pulling their way through the water. If you can swim a fast 50m but suffer at over 200m this might sound familiar and be quite worrying that it is a hopeless mission this late in life.

You Can…

Soon after this bombshell came along which left me thinking I had been wasting my time this past 25 years coaching, some good news. From the complete other end of the scale in terms of swim progress possibilities this came along. Another coach felt tremendous levels of expertise could be achieved through the application of learning, swim aids and swim imagery. The theory runs along the lines of how the Brain has a plastic capacity in terms of how we learn, it is no longer the static organ once thought of but can change throughout life. From years of research into Neuroplasticity, neurological training, motor coordination and applied teaching through the removal of filters to learning it was felt possible to focus the brain on learning new physical movements. He felt that rather then swimming remaining an aerobic model; his new ideas in teaching will help it become a neurological one. Well that sounded better then the first message of doom and gloom but how could two ideas be so far apart.

I have seen enough people improve their swimming significantly over the past 25 years of coaching to know change is possible. A great deal of change  if instruction is good and the student diligent and enthusiastic. Perhaps not as much as the swimmer hoped for but then expectation is quite individual and perhaps coach and athlete will have to agree to differ on what was or is possible. A sporting background, even in a non-related sport to swimming is of use. The rate of ability to change movements and make them permanent seems easier if the swimmer in front of me has come from a sporting background. Possibly to do with hand & eye coordination, control of breathing, timing and proprioception skills. I think the fashion for instant results in a digital age and a lack of patience, are not helping and people become too disillusioned too quickly leading to disappointment. I have said it before but learning to swim is more akin to learning a language or a musical instrument with the added complication of doing a lot of it with the face under the water where the air is not readily available. A great deal of time needs to be put into it for it to be done well and to feel natural. Depending on your definition of becoming a good swimmer you could say both ‘models’ are accurate. A sub 21min 1500m is a good swim if you came from a non swimming background but it is not going to make a county final at a young Swim Club level.

How does it get better?

Slowly; after some early rapid breakthroughs, which can excite this will then frustrate as the rapid trajectory plateaus and improvements seem to reduce for a while. Aligning correctly more propulsive pathways of the limbs will make for instant improvements to speed, as they can be completely wrong early on. Less drag will reduce fatigue so early on progress can seem quite easy. Practicing these to the degree they are then on autopilot and into the subconscious takes a lot of time. Most people that come to me for an initial consultation can swim 25m in 25secs. Some can swim 1:40 for 100m. Few can swim 25mins for 1500m. It is all the ‘same speed,’ I don’t need you to get faster, just keep doing what you did for 25m. If breathing is relaxed and under control this should be a lot easier effort wise compared to average efforts biking or running.  To make the stroke repeatable, accurate and sustainable with low levels of effort takes a lot of time, a lot of relearning after erasing bad habits. More swimming, more often is key at this stage as long as it is done with some instruction and with the correct movements.

How I can tell it is getting better.

When each movement that comprises the stroke no longer needs a conscious effort the stroke appears to stop being a sequence of separate movements stitched together. The mechanical edge to it reduces and the movements take on a fluid appearance. It might not appear graceful or without faults but you can see now that some of the movements are happening with less conscious effort. The breathing sequence becomes as relaxed and seemingly under your control as if you were on dry land. Swimming is one of the few activities, which restrict your breathing in such a way. The rate at which breathing happens, the timing of it and the lack of options when it is not possible, create some major challenges. The other triathlon disciplines, obviously allow for a smooth exchange at your leisure. Swimming, on the other hand, can be tough, especially in the early stages before you fully master stoke mechanics, as the stroke dictates when you get to breathe. The better swimmer you become, the more control and relaxed you can be in all aspects of your stroke.

When it gets better, what happens?

If you are swimming on your own without a coach the lack of instant feedback is a major issue to swim progress. Activities on dryland are easier to record and measure. Water complicates our ability to measure things and it makes exact and 100% repeatable movements unlikely. Try the following ‘senses’ of swimming to help gauge if it is getting better. As you improve I would hope you feel some of the following being experienced. Purely measuring time and heart rates may not always be conclusive. I am sure you have experienced those sprints where more effort went in but no reduction in time was found. This is swimming notoriously being unfair in how it not always rewards effort.

1)         A surge forwards over the locked in ‘anchor hand’ when the catch works well in conjunction with a well streamlined body position. But do not pull too hard to make this happen, it won’t.

2)         At a more advanced level the ability to swim slow, medium and fast, yet still take a similar number of strokes per length.

3)         Hand starting to exit close to where it entered in relation to your position against a lane rope as the body travels efficiently forwards and over your locked in hand.

4)         The stroke never feeling so rushed that you are uncomfortable when trying to get a breath.

5)         Legs only kicking with a board and not going backwards. Not moving is ok, going forwards is tough and may be a longer term project but work on avoiding going the wrong way. Poor mechanics will have you do this.

6)         A general relaxed state and a feeling of being very comfortable in the water. Being able to exhale under the water and inhale above the water and feel very much in control of this action.

7)         The ability to start ‘even splitting’ or at some point ‘negative splitting’ your longer swims. I.e. the second half of a 400m swim being faster then the first

8)         Open water swims being looked forward to rather then dreaded and thinking of your wetsuit as an aid to speed rather then a life preserver!

I don’t think swim improvements for adults are futile. Equally I don’t think it will be as easy as some make out promising rapid improvements. The body just does not work that way. I do think you can accelerate the rate of learning utilising a well rounded approach. It does not all have to be done in the pool but you won’t progress not being in the pool enough. I think people need to appreciate the point at which they are starting, what they may have missed out on as a Teenager and be realistic as to how you define what becoming a good swimmer may specifically mean. I think a sub 75min 3.8km swim is within most peoples grasp if they are physically fit, healthy and prepared to put some time into making this happen. I would have thought many would be happy with this level of becoming a better swimmer if you were new to the sport late in life. Maybe?