Technical Foundations Part III
In parts I and II, I outlined the fundamentals of great swimming technique. These are the skills that coaches need to understand, and swimmers need to learn. We’ve already discussed minimizing drag and creating propulsion, as well as the sub-tasks that comprise those skills. In this last section prior to getting practical, I’d like to discuss rhythm and timing.
While this section is not particularly long, it is separated due to its critical importance, as well as the fact that so little attention is paid to this critical element. Rhythm is so important that great rhythm can make up for shortcomings in drag reduction and force production.
It’s also a nebulous concept that is difficult to see, hard to understand deeply, and difficult for swimmers to learn. In this section, I’ll describe what rhythm is, as well as the skills that comprise it. In future sections, I’ll go through the strategies that I have used to help swimmers develop rhythm.
Rhythm and Timing
Rhythm and timing are all about putting the pieces together. It’s about the right thing happening at the right time. Swimmers can minimize drag and apply forces effectively, but if they don’t do it all within the right rhythm, it doesn’t quite work. Unfortunately, rhythm is a little less concrete than the other components of skill, though equally important.
A large part of rhythm comes from learning WHERE stroke rate can be managed from. I like to call this the gas pedal. It’s the part of the stroke that when more effort is applied, the whole stroke cycle speeds up while retaining rhythm. I believe the best swimmers find this intuitively, and less skilled swimmers struggle with this aspect.
We’ve all seen the swimmer that tries to pick up their speed and just starts pulling as hard and as fast as they can. Wrong gas pedal. Slow swimming. Part of our task is to help swimmers learn how to control their stroke, control their rate, and do so with a sense of rhythm.
The other major aspect of rhythm is a SMOOTH transition from stroke phase to stroke phase. Great swimming is smooth. It is not jerky. It looks effortless. This happens when there are seamless transitions between each part of the stroke. There are not sharp changes in direction. The transitions are rounded.
A major driver of stroking rhythm and smooth transitions is the use of momentum to facilitate changes in position of the torso. It can be difficult to shift the position of the torso due to unstable nature of the aquatic environment, as well as the lack of a solid base to create leverage from. Effective use of momentum can help overcome these challenges. To facilitate the use of momentum, it must be preserved between the phases. The only way to do this is through rounded transitions that allow for limb speed or torso movement to be maintained.
The momentum of the swinging arms is critical for facilitating the rotation of the torso in backstroke and freestyle, as well as the undulation of the body in breaststroke and butterfly. These motions must be timed well, with enough angular momentum, to facilitate stroking rhythm.
Beyond the use of the arms, the weight of the head can also be used to drive the torso forward and down in the undulatory strokes. This added momentum can assist in driving an appropriate degree of undulation, helping to smooth the transitions in torso position while requiring less energy. Again, timing is imperative.
While there is a lot of information available about the proper mechanics of each aspect of the swimming stroke, there is very little consideration given as to how to create transitions between these different components. These transitions may be just as important as the stroke phases themselves. Not only is the use of momentum more effective because it works better, it’s more efficient in that it takes less energy. The momentum created by previous efforts is conserved, allowing that energy to be used to set up the next phase of the stroke.
A large part of maintaining rhythm is the ability to moderate significant changes in velocity. Two swimmers might be swimming at the same speed, but one swimmer may have significantly more fluctuation in their speed within each stroke cycle, whereas the other swimmer is much more consistent. Unfortunately, variations in speed within a stroking cycle are very energetically costly. While the two swimmers may be equally competitive in the early stages of a race, the more consistent is going to have a much easier time maintaining their velocity throughout the course of the race.
This is yet another critical aspect of improving rhythm and timing. Two swimmers are producing the same outcomes, and may be using similar movements to do so. However, HOW they time these movements and WHEN force is applied greatly influences the outcome.
These are skills that are grossly undervalued. Beyond their utility in making strokes better, they are also excellent ‘gas pedals’ that are simple for swimmers to focus on while racing, and have the added benefit of preserving rhythm when effort and stroke rate are increased, as opposed to destroying it.
All swimmers have short-comings in all of the areas above. Every swimmer has the opportunity for improvement. Of course, the higher the level the swimmer, the smaller the number and size these of opportunities that exist.
In part IV, we’ll discuss some of the strategies coaches can use to go about addressing each of these issues on a daily basis within their training program. Importantly, it’s critical to look for strategies that are PART of the training plan, as opposed to a separate and distinct component. If we’re looking to create changes that stick, they must be facilitated as an organic part of the entire process.