Technical Foundations- Part IV
In the first three sections of this series, we took a look at the fundamentals of great technique across all strokes. Regardless of the stroke, swimmers need to accomplish these three tasks if they want to swim fast-
Optimize rhythm and timing
As you can probably tell, there is A LOT of room for interpretation as to what actually needs to be done. While some subskills were described, there is still a lot of specifics that were not clarified.
That’s the point.
These are problems that swimmers need to solve, and the specific solutions they arrive at will be slightly, but significantly different for each swimmer. As importantly, some skills simply can’t be taught with traditional teaching methods. There is no model!
However, with a basic understanding of what REALLY needs to happen, we can go about explaining these goals to swimmers in simple terms, as well as design training tasks that effectively highlight their ability to accomplish these goals. These tasks force swimmers to reduce drag, increase their propulsion, and optimize their rhythm, and make it very clear when they fail to do so. This allows swimmers to discover the best solution for THEM at that TIME. It changes as swimmers get better!
I’ve explored some this approach in other articles linked below. While I’ll discuss specific strategies moving forward, it can be useful to a general understanding of the approach I will take.
With these technical foundations in mind, how can coaches go about creating opportunities for their swimmers to improve? Let’s take a look at the skills swimmers must master, as well as some of the strategies that can be effective for
In general, training tasks that provide clear goals and outcomes and immediate feedback will be more successful in generating change. It must be very clear if swimmers are accomplishing the tasks effectively and the feedback must be intrinsic to the activity being performed. Swimmer needs to be able to FEEL what is happening. This is about LEARNING, not being taught. For all aspects of technique, the most effective strategies are those that allow the swimmer to feel their errors, where mistakes provide their own feedback. As much as possible, you want the assigned tasks to do the teaching for you. Not only will it make your life easier, it will actually work.
Minimizing drag is the largest opportunity for improving technique. It is almost entirely dependent on skill, and requires no expansion of physical resources. In many cases, improved skill LOWERS the energy required to swim fast.
The best strategies are those that help swimmers FEEL the opportunities for improving body alignment. We have to help them attune to these opportunities so that they can take advantage of them. The strategies require providing new sensory inputs to facilitate new movement outputs. Swimmers need to feel the possibility of different ways of moving to provide the foundation to move differently.
Your lungs float. Swimmers need to figure out how to optimize the use of their lungs to best position their body in the water. If swimmers are expending energy trying to float, they are wasting energy. If swimmers are using their arms and legs to float, they’re NOT using their arms and legs for what they’re intended to do, create propulsion.
While general strategies will prove effective for most, swimmers are different in the size, shape, and location of their lungs. Their also different in the lengths of their torso and the lengths of their limbs. They also differ in the relative weights of these body parts. This means swimmers will float very differently, and will need to use different strategies to optimize their position. We must also understand that ‘optimal’ position is going to be better or worse for different swimmers. This is part of ‘talent’.
To help swimmers float better, we have to help them feel where their lungs are and what they do to facilitate flotation, as well as how different positions affect their ability to float. This can be achieved by placing the arms and legs in different positions to see how torque affects position. This can also be accomplished by holding small weights in the hands or attached to the legs. Swimmers can learn how to better position their body around their lungs to facilitate position in the water.
As with the other skill, improving breathing skills will come from increased awareness. Increasing awareness comes from the exaggeration and magnification of the feedback they are receiving from the water and from their body. By working at the extremes, we can help swimmers better understand the consequences of their current breathing strategy.
In the first case, simply have them practice not breathing. This applies for breaststroke, as well as butterfly and freestyle. This is the simplest and often most effective strategy. You can do this by using a snorkel or by swimming without air, the latter of which adds a nice training element. The idea is to pay attention to the flow of the water over the body and any ‘hot spots’ of drag that present themselves.
Then start adding the breath, taking either of two approaches. You can slowly add in more breaths by increasing the breathing frequency, either by cycles per breath (i.e. breathe every 3rd cycle) or breaths per lap (i.e. 5 breaths per lap). The second approach is to create contrast. Simply alternate between no breathing and breathing every cycle. For those with significant issues, these issues should be come readily apparent. It should be like a punch in the face. The next step is to do something about it.
Swimmers now have a simple task- make breathing and non-breathing cycles feel the same. If they can accomplish the task, the DON’T need to be able to articulate what they have to do to make it happen. Swimmers just need to be able to DO it. It’s about matching sensation. While they might not be able to match those sensations exactly, they want to make the gap as small as possible while retaining the rhythm of their stroke. If swimmers are struggling, keep going back to swimming without a breath, create contrast, and introduce breathing at a frequency and intensity they can be successful with.
As discussed above, the head and breath can be used to drive the rhythm of the stroke as well. While less head action may be favorable for some aspects of body position, MORE head movement can potentially be useful for optimizing rhythm and other aspects of body position. That will be addressed below.
Transitional body postures greatly influence drag. If we transition between positions poorly, or we transition into poor positions, unnecessary drag will be created. Unfortunately, these micro-adjustments are not necessarily visible, and improvements in this area will be difficult to see as well. In contrast to the traditional skills of swimming, there is no model for what these postures should looks like.
For these reasons, these skills are not going to be taught by coaches through the traditional methods of coaching. However, they can be learned through sensory experiences that help swimmers FEEL these momentary losses of alignment. Any task that exaggerates the flow of the water over the body, or magnifies the perception of the flow, will help swimmers feel areas where they are experiencing more resistance.
As drag is magnified with increases in speed, any sort of overspeed experience can create more awareness. Similarly, artificially increasing drag over certain areas of the body can create more awareness as well. Wearing a larger drag suit, wearing board shorts, or wearing a t-shirt can alter the perception of drag and the flow of water over the body. This altered perception creates the foundation for learning.
As important as wearing the gear can be, taking it off is a huge part of the experience as well. Covering an area of the body prevents swimmers from feeling the water flow over that area. When the skin is re-exposed to the water, sensation is increased, and swimmers are better able to perceive the flow over their body.
The CONTRAST is what is important. Providing different sensations helps to create awareness, and awareness is required for learning. Contrasting very high speeds can help swimmers as well. Any errors of position will be magnified. This can be accomplished with relatively high volumes of high-speed towing and swimming with assistance such as fins. As drag as magnified with higher speeds, positional flows can become more evident.
There isn’t much information available to coaches about how to help swimmers minimize their drag profile. That’s because it’s really hard for swimmers to learn! Further, these changes are very subtle, to the point where it is very challenging to even see if changes have occurred. While most swimmers and coaches have been exposed to basic body position drills, these drills leave a lot to be desired and are often not integrated into a holistic training plan.
Reducing drag is the single biggest opportunity for improved swimming. The potential impact is significant and the area is relatively unexplored. If we’re to expect swimmers to make meaningful change in drag reduction, swimmers will need to appreciate the tasks they need to accomplish, and coaches will need to develop a comprehensive approach to minimizing drag, doing so in the context of training.
When swimmers can begin to FEEL how drag is influencing everything they do, they can learn to manage it. Once they can manage it, they can learn to do so at speed and under fatigue. At this point, significant changes in skill and performance will have occurred. However, coaches need to create the environment for these learning opportunities to occur. The results will follow.