Ah-Ha Moments on the Pool Deck
by Coach Judie
As we close out the current race season and welcome the off-season, it’s natural to reflect on the year past and think about our breakthrough moments, or even our not-so-breakthrough moments, and see how we can do better. I was doing the same thing last week, and since I was doing it in a long swim interval, naturally I looked back on my year not just as an athlete, but also as a coach. It’s no surprise, after a number of years of coaching and giving swimming lessons, that I arrive at some common “ah ha!” moments that I think you might find useful.
My background is in engineering, biomedical and structural. That degree program required me to take a fluid mechanics course, the basics of which is what happens to a thing and a fluid when you try to move a fluid (air, water, etc.) past a thing, or if you think about it the other way, a thing through a fluid. Swimming is just a combination of fluid mechanics and biomechanics. Before you go, “Oh no, physics!” and click away, it isn’t that complicated: Which is faster, a kayak or a rowboat? Which is faster, a canoe or a paddle boat? Which of these has the most drag simply because of its shape? How come fish swim so fast with little teeny fins? And which of these do you want to be?
Probably the biggest ah-ha moment for some people: You will move in the opposite direction as you are pushing the water. It seems so intuitive, but take a look at your stroke. If you are pushing down on the water at the front end of your stroke (dropping your catch), or pushing up on the water as you complete your pull, what direction are you pushing water? Up or down, right? Unless you are trying to go up or down, you are better off pushing water toward your feet!
The same goes for side-to-side movements. If your masters coach has ever told you that you are crossing the center or pulling across the midline of your body, what happens as you move your outstretched hand from shoulder-width to the middle of your body and back to your hip again? You are pushing water on a diagonal—partially toward your feet, but also toward the sides of the pool! What do you suppose this does to your line in open water? What does your core feel like when you pull this way? Do you feel like a kayak? Or do you feel like you have a hinge in your waist? Hint: You want to feel like the kayak, all one smooth body from bow to stern, no hinges in the middle! Take that hinge out by firming up your core and be the kayak, rotating smoothly from one side to the other with shoulders and hips connected through the core.
Visualize yourself as a canoe for a moment. Your hand and forearm are your paddle, applied to the water in a similar way that you would paddle a canoe. You are moving yourself forward when you are pushing water toward your feet using your hand and forearm aimed toward the back of the pool. You are moving the straightest when you are pushing water at the edges of your body with similar force in each arm, rather than pulling under the middle of your body. You would paddle neither under the middle of your canoe nor four feet away from your canoe unless you are trying to turn, because those movements are less effective for forward movement than applying force just next to your canoe.
Consider also where your strength is—when you put your hands on the side of the pool to push yourself up onto the deck, take a look at where you put your hands relative to your body. Are they next to each other or at shoulder-width? Are your elbows straight or bent? Intuitively, you are using a position of strength to get out of the pool—the shoulder-width placement of your hands with your elbows wider than your hands uses the stronger large muscles in your back rather than narrower and straight-arm positions that use the small and easily fatigued muscles of your shoulders. Remember when you swim that your strongest muscles are activated when your elbows are bent a little and outside shoulder-width, with the pointy parts aimed at the sides of the pool. Especially if you have shoulder pain, take advantage of the large and strong muscles in your back by widening your elbows just a bit.
Another of my favorite ah-ha moments that you’ve probably heard before: Don’t fight the water. Even though it doesn’t look like it, good swimmers swimming fast are still working hard but it appears to be effortless. Your easy swimming should feel easy! Check the level of effort in your easy swim and see if you are swimming with too much vigor—could you swim at the same pace and use less energy? Use just enough energy to move from one end of the pool to the other effectively, and then translate any additional energy into swimming not just harder but FASTER. The goal is to use the least amount of energy required to go the fastest.
Please don’t translate that to mean “I am not going to kick because I’m saving my legs and kicking is just extra vigorous work,” though! While you do not need a vigorous kick for distance swimming, you do need enough kick to keep your legs up toward the top of the water and that kick needs to be efficient enough to not detract from your ability to bike and run after the swim. If your kick is not efficient there is no easy way out, you just need to practice to make it better.
Another clue that you may be swimming with too much vigor will come through your ears. As you are swimming, listen carefully. Without going into too much physics, there are several sources of drag that push against you when you are swimming. Without discussing all of the sources of drag, a major source of drag comes from breaking the surface tension of the water and making waves. You can hear the breaking of the surface tension of the water—it’s a splash! Try to swim quietly and smoothly even when you’re swimming fast.
The ah-ha that is perhaps the least intuitive but the most simple in this blog: To become a faster swimmer you need more than just great technique, you also need to practice swimming fast. Form and fitness need to work together to make you a faster swimmer, to only work on your form without working on your fitness or vice versa will not produce the same result as working on both better form and faster intervals. Just the same as you need to do computrainer or track workouts to improve bike power and run speed, you also need to do intervals in the pool in order to become a faster swimmer. One word of caution though—swimming harder does not always mean you are swimming faster, so be sure to use the pace clock and see if your effort is paying off! And for those of you who love intervals, make sure you still keep doing your drills every time you get in the pool. It’s so easy to lapse into less-than-optimal form simply out of habit.
I hope that these “ah-ha” moments have been useful for you. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we are here to help you! Sign up for the next ET Masters swim session in Naperville, Carol Stream or Elk Grove Village, or contact one of the ET coaches for a consultation, we would love to help you with your swim or any other aspect of your training any way we can. I wish you all the best in your next race season!
Judie Refvik is a USA Certified Triathlon Coach with Experience Triathlon. As leaders in the endurance services industry, Coach Judie and the Experience Triathlon team help athletes of all ages and abilities achieve success in training, racing and life. Learn more about Coach Judie and Experience Triathlon at www.experiencetriathlon.com