When it comes to swim technique people have different perceptions as to what it is good. Often, what we think we are doing is a far cry from what we are actually doing. Continuing to do this will do little to improve speed or efficiency in the water. This month Dan Bullock looks into the processes required to reach the holy grail of good swim technique and explains that with time and commitment we can all swim more naturally.
As to what constitutes good swim technique is a good question and one that I was discussing at a recent workshop at the Speedo headquarters with a group of designers, scientists and coaches. They couldn’t necessarily agree on what good technique is because each had their own view as to which component was more important. The one thing they could agree on is what constitutes bad technique. By eliminating the bad you would be left with something that could be described as good swim technique. Key plus points including rhythm, grace, being relaxed, a lack of splash/effort and symmetry cropped up again and again, but all are vague descriptions. We all knew good technique when we saw it, and had an idea of how to define it when we saw it.
A level of skill is needed to take away the thought process of what a good stroke is that allow the sequence of swimming actions to unfold naturally in the water without hesitation. Turning thoughts into coordinated movements of the arms and legs, the timing of the breathing and applying just enough force to pull you through the water without slipping is a real skill that takes time to learn. When a swimmer starts to improve their stroke what I see is a sequence of swimming movements slowly being constructed and processed. This often leads to hesitations, the slow rigidity of the body and a mechanical edge to the movements, all of which seem to hold the swimmer back.
The big problem for those who are not natural swimmers is the concept of the disparity between what they feel they are doing, and what they are actually doing. Once they see themselves many swimmers still need further convincing that it is actually them on the screen. At our weekend workshops where the filming is displayed in a classroom setting shortly after the first swim session often swimmers wait to claim their piece of footage and don’t always want to accept it if it’s not pretty. If you come from a sporting background and have good hand/eye coordination and good proprioception skills then the new movements often come easier. The disparity is narrowed because people tend to have a more accurate method of allowing them to visualise the movements they are making.
I liken this to the idea of the ‘unconscious incompetence’ being the first of the four stages of competence. This carries some relevance to our swimmers journey but for them it is not so much that they are unaware of how some movements are being performed badly, it is more that they cannot perceive their own movements, so whether they are good or bad, when they see them they don’t feel they are their own. The journey to unconscious competence where swimming seems so natural is not so easy. I feel there are three key stages for adult swimmers attempting to swim well. Most triathletes plateau in the second stage not realising how much time in the water is needed to reach the third stage where it all clicks together.
The workshop at Speedo touched on why swimming can be quite dull. When I thought about how many repetitions of a certain movement were needed for it to become automatic, unconscious and competent, I had to agree that unfortunately there was going to be a degree of monotony to training. I swam seven million metres between 1987 and 1994 and would hope I could make it look relaxed and as if I am not trying. I have done the 10,000 plus movements needed to push the sequence of swimming movements into the subconscious, so they no longer need be processed. It’s like the time taken to be comfortable enough on the bike to stop looking at the gear and brake levers. The moment they levers become an extension of the hands you can focus on the road around you, the surroundings, traffic and you become a much safer cyclist.
Feeling Fast But Swimming Slow
Initially when people start out improving their swimming it is exhausting because they’re making use of the incorrect muscles (usually the larger ones of the legs) to perform incorrect movements. Getting tired earlier than necessary while directing yourself in the wrong direction is a double whammy of a problem. Unfortunately, the sensation is of speed is apparent because it all feels so strong and fast with the bubbles, the splashing and the getting out of breath.
The sensations that can deliver such speed on the bike and the run will do nothing but fatigue you in the water. This is because of a poor streamline, using the wrong muscles to channel water in the wrong directions and not allowing a healthy window of opportunity to get air in when breathing. Fortunately it does not take too long to move on from this position. Usually four or five lessons is enough for most people to acquire the correct movements driven by many of the smaller muscles that will have you moving on to the next stage.
Feeling Slow But Getting Faster
Getting faster as the effort levels come down and streamlining starts to kick in can happen quite quickly. At this stage you are unlikely to be purely swimming faster, but for longer distances you should be setting improved times as you fatigue less. Often the big issue at this time is convincing swimmers that they are indeed getting faster. Due to the counter intuitive nature of faster swimming becoming possible with less effort many people refuse to buy into it. Constant measuring will help reassure you, whether it’s based on time, number of strokes or distance. Be fair and time yourself over at least 400m, though, to get a true measurement of how you’re doing.
You will still be processing a sequence of swimming movements to create the front crawl stroke, but the direction you channel water will be positive in terms of you moving forwards. You will generally be taught to use the smaller muscle groups to control smaller movements. The energy and oxygen cost per stroke will reduce massively. Unfortunately new movements recruit new muscles that are not familiar with this and will take between six and eight weeks to adapt to the new over load. It’s a stage of limbo where you’re not reaping the benefits of swimming faster but you are contributing to going forwards rather than up and down or sideways. Faster times are inevitable if you believe and persevere.
Swimming Fast And Feeling Fast
Finally we come to the moment of enlightenment when you feel fast and you are actually moving fast in the water. Swimming fast with the sensation of speed is a combination of a streamlined body position, a rhythmical leg kick to hold you in the water and assist your body position, constant rotation to the degree you are streamlined, but not overdoing it and wasting time gliding. The key benefit is acquiring a feel for the water and at this point you make the water feel more solid around the hand. You can feel the body moving over a stationary hand rather then it slipping under the body meaning more strokes are needed to move at similar speeds.
A secondary part of acquiring a feel for the water is how you can sense just how much effort to put into each pulling movement. Too much power and it is wasted as the fluid water slips around the hand, not enough and you just move slowly. A strong pull is a combined balance of strength and finesse that allows the maximum amount of effort to be deployed efficiently. As you start to move faster through the water you will pick up on additional benefits such as the trough of air deepening around the head meaning you don’t need to turn it as much when breathing. Sitting higher in the water also carries benefits to the sighting process and so on.
At this point you will automatically process the front crawl movements without thought which means you can focus more on pacing and race tactics, but it does take some time to acquire this degree of unconscious competency. One way to achieving this is to think in terms of sessions per month rather then sessions per week. What I mean by this is that aiming for four sessions per week is a noble ambition, but you are more likely to be content with three out of the four actually attended. If you aim for 15 from 16 sessions per month you will achieve and hopefully be inspired more.
It’s important to set realistic goals and think about it being a two-year process if you are starting out from a novice level. Acquiring a technically proficient stroke will enable you to swim faster, easier, be less prone to injuries and eventually allow you to enjoy the swim aspect of your race. It will allow you to employ pacing, tactics and actual racing rather then just mechanically processing the swim movements to help you survive from start to T1 . It means you’ll be racing from the gun and not just surviving and starting the race on the bike.