Triathletes: A special breed of swimmer

As the cold winter months recede behind us, many folks are now in full training for upcoming athletic challenges. Whilst some are content to stick to just one discipline others prefer to spread their wings into the world of the triathlete. My own ventures are somewhat modest but, when I have tried triathlons I have discovered, to my delight, that I perform as if I am a mixture of Sir Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy and Adam Peaty. 

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I swim like Sir Mo, run like Adam Peaty and had all the grace and speed on a bike of Sir Chris. On a unicycle. My mediocrity it seems knows no bounds.

Photo by Tony Pham on Unsplash

Obviously, though, many compete at a far higher level than me and have mastered all three disciplines. But not always. It is not unusual for a strong runner and cyclist to be a relatively poor swimmer. Often they are looking for a “quick fix” to their problems. These athletes are sometimes some of the trickiest of the clients seen by SwimMastery coaches. 

It needn’t be so. Here are eight “P”s to bear in mind before a race

Pick the event carefully

 Perhaps the most important one but sometimes overlooked. Plan ahead and make a schedule. A realistic one. Don’t be too ambitious with the length of the race. Analyse your current ability with brutal honesty and find out how long it is likely to take to improve on weaknesses BEFORE you book your place.

 It’s not uncommon for a SwimMastery coach to have this sort of conversation with a new client:

Client. “I need you to help me learn how to swim better. I’ve got a triathlon coming up but I get out of breath if I swim 25 metres”.

SM Coach. “OK, when is your event?”

Client. ”It’s in three weeks”

SM Coach. “ “

Oh, if SM coaches had a penny for every time they’ve had a conversation like that, they’d have…erm….well not a great deal I suppose. About 37p on average, I expect. Nevertheless, that still represents an awful lot of delusional triathletes. 

So don’t get carried away. Give yourself plenty of time to master new skills. Don’t leave it until the last minute and expect everything to magically fall into place.

Practice

 Practice is obviously vital if you are going to master new skills. But it must be the right kind of practice. Not too little to enable you to make a difference but neither should I be too much so that it overloads the brain and body and you don’t get a chance to assimilate the new information. Listen to your coach and don’t be tempted to step outside their advice. Which leads us to….

 Patience and perseverance.

Success may not come overnight. 

Certainly, it won’t obligingly be driven by your event deadline. So be patient. As long as you are following a logical progression then the mastery of new skills is just a matter of time. How much time though will vary by the individual. So follow your own pathway to whatever goal you have set yourself and don’t be swayed by the speed at which you feel you should be travelling or the speed at which others may be travelling.

 Place. 

Where you practice is just as important as how you practice. If your event is taking place in open water then it is only sensible to ensure that as much of your practice as possible takes place in that environment. If you’ve only ever swum in your local pool then jumping into a cold lake is going to come as a bit of a shock! As part of this, you will also need to think about elements such as the goggles you will wear and whether you will use a wet suit or not.  

Partner 

Some folk will find that training with someone else provides invaluable motivation, encouragement and support. Others may prefer the lone wolf approach. If you are part of the former group then choose a partner carefully. Someone of approximately the same ability is probably advisable. 

Someone who exudes good vibes is vital. 

If your partner is discouraging or disinterested in you don’t be afraid to ditch them

Prepare

Knowing factors like the amount and type of nutrition you will require during the event is knowledge that can be acquired in the preceding months by trial and error. In addition, swimming in a wetsuit (if you don’t plan to wear one) or without one (if you do) is also prudent in case the rules about wearing them change suddenly in the hours before the start.

However, some elements of an event are virtually impossible to replicate in training. In particular the feeling of being surrounded by a large number of others swimmers. 

Photo by Ashley de Lotz on Unsplash

For those unused to it, it can feel claustrophobic and even intimidating. There is little chivalry being observed at a mass start and it is not uncommon to be battered and bruised by faster swimmers who will simply swim over you if you are in the way. Likewise, the water will probably be churned up more than you are used to in training, if not by the number of extra bodies then maybe by the weather conditions. It is advisable to at least be aware of how the event may unfold and how you may react to changed circumstances. Talk to other competitors who have been through it already and, where possible, glean coping strategies.  

Pace

Part of your pre-race plan should concern pacing. At the start of the race, you are likely to be a little keyed up and excited. However, you will also be at your freshest with the greatest reserves of energy available to you. But it is important not to get carried away and burn all of your fuel reserves too early. 

Remember, it is very difficult to win the race during the swim element of a triathlon but it’s very easy to lose it. 

Make sure that the majority of your energy has been left for the longer cycling and running elements of the triathlon

Positivity

Finally, make sure that you approach the event with a positive mindset. 

Rely on your training. If you have prepared properly and planned carefully your success is assured! Good luck.

Muscle memory: myth or mastery?

Many swim coaches talk a lot about muscle memory. A bit part of their arsenal of tools is to get the swimmer to imprint movement patterns into their muscle memory. But what exactly is it? Does it even exist? And if so, can we do anything to improve it?

On the face of it, the term muscle memory seems a misnomer. Muscles are, after all, nothing more than fibrous tissue with the ability to contract according to signals sent from the brain. They have no inherent ability to memorise anything themselves.

Nevertheless, talk to anyone who has experience lifting weights and they will tell you that the term has at least some validity. If the athlete had had some time away from training and has lost muscle mass as a result, it is often quicker to regain the bulk than it was to attain it in the first place. This phenomenon is put down to “muscle memory”, and there does seem to be some scientific evidence to back up the belief that it is a very real effect. When muscles are put under strain, (for example when they are lifting weights or undertaking resistance training) the nuclei in the muscle cells split and grow over time leading to an increase in the size of the muscle. However, if the training program should cease for some reason, this process stops and muscle atrophy causes the muscles to shrink. The important bit though is that, although smaller, the nuclei don’t actually disappear.

Thus, if training recommences they are already in place to grow once more. The body doesn’t have to spend time creating them all over again, hence the reduction in time to get to the stage the muscles were at before the layoff.

Photo by Total Shape on Unsplash

All pretty neat and useful to know, particularly if that’s part of your exercise routine.

But that’s not the sense in which swim coaches are using the term. For swimmers, technique and form are far more important than muscle mass.
Thus the term “muscle memory” relates far more to the building of efficient neural pathways from the brain to the muscle rather than the physical state of the muscle itself.
So the challenge becomes one of how to build those pathways in the best way. These can then become a short-cut for the brain allowing it to send commands to the body and to perform tasks almost without conscious thought

Before we start though it is vital to remember that muscle memory is a two-edged sword. It can help you become very good at something but equally can train you to be absolutely terrible at something. (Often when faced with a new student the first task a coach has to do is recognise all the bad habits which have become ingrained in the way they swim and work out how to remove them!).

In order to avoid making matters worse rather than better, then, the best approach is to keep things as simple as possible. Breaking movements down into easy to remember segments is the key. Giving the movement a name or an image can be a great way of making this process easier. One of the fun things to do as a coach is to come up with new visuals for the student to use. Don’t be surprised if you end a coaching session having been asked to open your angel wings, caress the kittens, wear an Elizabethan ruff or tickle the frog. They may appear to be nonsense but they have a very serious purpose.

(For information, I have no idea what “tickle the frog” might be – I just made that up. But I’ll bet there will be a coach somewhere who will work out what it might represent and may start to use it).

These weird and wonderful images are no good, however, unless we have a cross-check to make sure that you are doing it correctly. The best way to do this is to have a partner who can observe and provide critical feedback. This is, however, not always practical or possible and therefore it is important to observe it feels when a specific task is completed. Thus the swimmers need to learn the skill of tuning in to, for example, the sensation of the movement of the water across the body and how the muscles feel.

Photo by Aldrin Rackman on Unsplash

Having started to create movement patterns, it is also important to make practice consistent and regular in order to build it up to be the default movement. There is no substitute for constant repetition to train the brain regarding the signals which need to be sent. Although a certain degree of dedication and application is required, the vivid images being used can help prevent this from becoming boring. Over time you should be able to build up an arsenal of methods for thinking about performing the same task. By cycling through these during a session it is possible to trick the brain into thinking it is doing something different each time.

And be patient too. New ways of movement will not come immediately, particularly if you have been used to doing something completely different for many years. It is all too easy to slip back into old bad habits. So give yourself time and be persistent. Results will come if you keep at it.

Muscle memory, then, as a term may have less of a scientific definition when it comes to being used by swim coaches but it is no less real in its effect on swimmers.

Summoning The Genie of Fluidity

It’s funny how you collect random bits of information through your life and remember them despite being of no relevance at all isn’t it? Back in the seventies, they used to print quotes and jokes on the back of matchboxes. Although I have never had any interest in golf really, one I recall was along the lines that, it wasn’t the hundreds of bad shots that you hit which were so frustrating but the one where everything went right.

A similar sentiment was expressed by John Cleese in the film Clockwise after yet another setback in his attempt to get to his destination on time.  He said, “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”.

Those who swim regularly will have sympathy with these sentiments. For many, the stroke can be a bit of a struggle. Regardless of our level of experience, or what our focus for the session is, we are acutely aware that, overall, things could be going better. Even if we can’t quite put our finger on it, something is amiss; something needs to be improved.
And then, like an unexpected ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, everything just “clicks”. We become aware that suddenly it feels like we’re flying through the water with barely any effort at all; the timing is right, the breathing is natural, the catch, the press, the rotation – it’s all just perfect. Finally, we seem to have cracked this swimming lark. This is how it’s supposed to be and this is clearly how it’s going to be from now on.

And then, just as quickly as it came, it all falls apart again. Swimming isn’t a disaster; you know you are still a fine and competent sportsperson. But that Nirvana had disappeared, perhaps never to return. You try. Of course, you try, but it’s like trying to recapture a particularly pleasant dream from which you’ve just awoken. It can’t be done. The ephemeral Genie of Fluidity has simply melted away.

And the worst bit of all is that now we know he exists. The sensation was real. Surely it must be possible to recapture it? Yet, try as we do, we may as well go out onto the moorland at daybreak and capture the mist in a butterfly net. What is quickly apparent is that this Genie cannot be easily tamed. His presence is not ours to demand or command. His image appears in the periphery of our vision. Look at him directly and he has gone. Determined, dogged concentration rarely proves to be successful. It may improve one particular aspect of our stroke but can’t quite recreate that feeling of effortless flow.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Yet herein would seem to lie a contradiction. SwimMastery pupils are constantly advised to use specific cues to improve their technique. Why then doesn’t this lead automatically to that state of complete ease of movement?

I believe that the answer may lie back in the golfing world. On the website Kidadl.com we are told “Golf..is more of a mind game than a physical game…Many people fail to win at golf and the reason is mainly about their mind being agitated with…thoughts. That wonderful author Douglas Adams in one of the later books in his Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy series had a similar take on events and expressed them even more eloquently. His hero, Arthur Dent is taught the power of unaided human flight. He is told “There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss”.

In other words, if you concentrate too hard on achieving the seemingly impossible, it will remain just that; impossible. What needs to be done is, not to target the appearance of the Genie directly, but to focus our attention on creating the circumstances in which he can appear.

This is not a simple or speedy process. It requires almost perfect muscle memory of the movements and sensations of all parts of the stroke. And the ability to rely on them functioning to the highest standard at all times. For this reason alone many hours, perhaps years, of practice and training are required before the Genie can be relied upon to grace us with his presence.

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

There is, perhaps, one other factor at play here as well which is implicit in the very first quote I used; that of expectation. If you believe that every stroke you take, whether in golf or in swimming is likely to be slightly awry, then the chances are, that it will be. But in the words of Winston Churchill “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”

When it comes to trying to achieve that wonderful but elusive sensation of perfection, the Hope may be almost unbearable but don’t let the Despair drag you down!

Meanwhile, I guess we just need to keep on hurling ourselves at the ground.

Are you having a Dry January? Not likely!

Well, Christmas and New Year are over and folks everywhere are sitting back wondering, as always, what the fuss was all about and probably breathing a sigh of relief. Great Aunty Mildred has gone, the Christmas cake has gone (almost) and some semblance of normality is beginning to descend. Routines are being re-established and traditionally it’s a time to reflect, take stock and look to the future.

Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash

Magazines and the Internet bulge with articles like “Top Ten Ways To Be Happy In 2022” or “Ten Things Which Will Change Your Life In The Coming Year”, They always seem a little contrived and artificial to me and are often padded out to be far too long. Many make no sense at all in parts. (It’s all a bit like New Year’s celebrations in general really – but maybe that’s me just being very grumpy. Sorry about that). However, my theory is that, if you want to achieve something or improve something, you don’t need to wait until a particular day to start working towards it. Just go for it!

So if, like me, you know there are things you need to improve in your swimming but the date for making NewYear’s Resolutions has passed you by, I offer you my Ten Step Guide to Making A New Resolution Which May Or May Not Have Something To Do With New Year. (I may need to do a bit of work on that title).

1) Be Specific about the improvement you want to make.

Know what you want to do, why you want to do it and by when (it doesn’t have to be by the start of 2023). Write it down, especially the bit about why you want to make this change. Keep that bit of paper where you will see it (it’s why fridge doors are magnetic), and look back at it regularly to keep motivated.

2) Believe That It’s Achievable

I would quite like to swim the English Channel. The only things stopping me are time, money, talent and motivation. I’ve seen what is required to prepare for that swim and I have nothing but admiration for those that take it on. However, I know that, given the choice between a six-hour training swim in the cold Dover waters at 5 am and sitting on a sofa with a nice hot cup of tea then personally I’m off to put the kettle on. It doesn’t make me a bad person, it just makes the rest of you awesome. But it does mean that there’s no point in me putting a Channel swim on my wish list. For me, and maybe you too, I need to find something more realistic. That might be a shorter or slightly easier “Big Swim” or simply mastery of some aspect of your stroke which you know needs improving.

3) Don’t Believe That It’s Achievable

Sometimes the best, indeed the only way forward, is to push ourselves out of our comfort zone; to take on the ridiculous challenge and see where it takes us. With the right motivation and support we are all capable of the most amazing things and who knows what other milestones may be met upon the way? Think big. What do you have to lose?!

4) Decide How You Are Going To Meet Your Goal…Or, If You Don’t, Find Out

The SwimMastery community is packed with friendly, knowledgable and experienced folks who are more than willing to share their expertise. Never be afraid to ask questions either in person or via the online forums no matter how silly you think they may sound. If you need it, you will receive a wealth of valuable advice about the best way to tackle your target from folks who have often been there and done it themselves. If you’re taking on a race or event they will know exactly how to prepare. If you are trying to improve an aspect of your stroke, remember the body is all one connected unit; the solution to the problem you perceive might lie in a different part of the stroke completely. They may well point you in a completely unexpected direction with remarkable results

5) Make A Plan

Break down the path to your success into smaller steps. This can make the overall journey seem far more manageable and will provide built-in mini boosts along the way. Thus, if, say, you want to take four strokes off your time for a given distance, set dates for when you aim to have reduced the count by just one. Or by two etc. Be flexible, life has an inconvenient habit of popping up with competing demands on your time and resources, but nevertheless know what you would like to have ticked off and by when, all things being equal. And, rather like the initial target you set yourself, write your plan down and refer to it often.

6) Be Kind To Yourself

You’re far more likely to achieve your goal if you’re enjoying yourself. That’s self-evident really but make sure you build that enjoyment into your swimming. Mix up your training to provide variety and don’t be afraid to incorporate aspects that may appear to be completely unrelated to where you want to end up. It can be very demoralising to slog away constantly session after session without appearing to make progress so, for example, make sure you also do things that you know you do well already. Remind yourself that you already have the basic skills to become an incredible swimmer. The next advancement is just around the corner. Stay positive!

7) Find A Friend.

One of the joys of swimming is that, for most of us, it is a social and non-competitive activity. Even when entering races, the aim is usually to beat a specific time or PB rather than to worry about our fellow competitors. It should not, therefore, be too tricky to find a companion with whom to share your progress, to provide support and guidance and to take joy and even inspiration from your successes. If you’ve ever seen the support crew on a boat jumping about with genuine delight as a swimmer crosses a finish line or touches a foreign shore, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And that sense of taking pleasure in the success of others can be replicated on a much smaller scale too. Take advantage of it and find a buddy who can give you that extra boost when you need it. You’ll probably find yourself doing the same for them.

8) Have a reward

We all like to have nice things or do nice things, so set yourself a reward for when you get to your target. Be that going on a swimming holiday or just buying a snazzy new costume, big or small, make sure you have your own little pot of gold to open at the end of your rainbow.

9) Set the next target

I don’t know a swimmer alive – there probably isn’t one – who is completely satisfied with the way they swim. Our River of Progress meanders and winds its way through the countryside but never actually reaches the sea. Just around the corner, there is always another challenge to be set and met. So, know where you’re going and be excited about what comes next!

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

10). Spurious Final Step

Something else about swimming to make it up to ten.

 

Happy New Year all!

Oi you! Why don’t you push off? I mean, properly push off?

Imagine you were at the Olympics watching someone like Usain Bolt competing in the 100m back in his prime. The gun goes off. What happened next? Did Usain stand up from the blocks and, in the words of Dolly Parton, yawn and stretch and try to come to life? Or was he more like Meatloaf and, in one fluid movement, like a bat out of hell he was gone, gone, gone?

For folks like Usain, and indeed any serious racer, the start of the race was just as important as the rest of it. More so, in fact, as it sets up the body in the correct manner for the main part of the event. And even if you don’t race and have no intention of ever racing, the principle still applies.

So let me ask you a question. When was the last time you spent a pool session solely practising how you start to swim? 

Note, I am not talking here about leaping salmon-like from starting blocks, nor really anything that could be described as a “racing start”. I merely want to focus on the process you use to go from being stationary to being in full stroke.

My guess is that for many of us we rarely, if ever, practice. After all, why bother, our current push off takes us more or less to the first row of flags above the lane, isn’t that pretty good? Well, it’s OK. But the flags are set at five metres from the end of a 25metre pool. So, if you’re not practising your push-offs your training is only ever targeted on 80% of the length. For one-fifth of the time you’re mentally and often physically, just drifting.

Photo by Jonah Brown from Unsplash

This lack of attention to how swimmers start can be seen at any pool where all manner of techniques are employed to begin. Some give a small jump into the air before disappearing below the surface, headed straight for the bottom, some tip forward like felled timber whilst others push off with such force it’s like watching the launch of an ocean liner. Far more common, however, is the feeble lacklustre push off which has all the explosive power of a fart in a hurricane.

Which is a shame, because the point at which you leave the wall should be when you are travelling at your fastest, and that momentum should be taking you as far up the pool as you can possibly manage.  

And it’s not a difficult process to master. (I am ignoring, for the moment, all the complications of flip turns or tumble turns, where the body is already in motion and needs to suddenly transfer all that energy 180 degrees in the opposite direction).  

For a standard push-off there are only a few basic fundamental points to follow.

  1. Start below the surface
  2. Create and maintain a streamlined position
  3. Generate maximum power off the wall
  4. Maximise the benefits of the momentum

It’s an easy trap to fall into, if you’re standing at the wall, to push off on the surface of the water. 

It’s almost a default for most folk (and if they’re swimming backstroke it seems even more common). Yet at the surface the swimmer will encounter far more water resistance, creating splash and a bow wave which both equate to lost energy. Below the surface, there is less drag and water displacement. Many top swimmers can swim faster underwater than on top of it. 

This is the reason that Olympic swimmers are only allowed to swim a maximum of 15m underwater for each 50m length. Previously competitors were completing 30m and more underwater. Great for breaking world records, not so great for spectators.  

Nevertheless, you should aim to travel as far as possible completely submerged as, with practice, this can become the fastest point in your length. How far under the water you should be will be dependent on how far you can travel and how naturally buoyant you are. The aim is to break the surface just at the point at which you are ready to take your first stroke. Thus, as you improve you may want to start a little deeper to delay this happening. 

At first, however, a depth of around 18 inches is probably a good start point.

But being underwater alone will not be good enough. A perfect Streamline position is crucial. The hands should be placed one on top of the other and extended above the head with a straight elbow. The head should be hidden between the arms in a neutral position. In the early stages you should be facing the bottom of the pool. The legs should be together following the line of the torso. Some swimmers employ a flutter kick during the push-off although the benefits gained from this over the additional resistance created are debatable. To begin with it might be best not to move the legs at all.  

Photo by Richard R Schunemann from Unsplash

However, once the basic body position is achieved then a dolphin kick or two can be added to keep the momentum going. The inexperienced swimmer will tend to attempt the dolphin kick starting only at the knees. But this will only result in drag and may, in fact, slow the swimmer down. The true dolphin kick is an undulation starting at the torso, travelling through the hips and moves down the legs in a smooth wave-like motion. For those who are less flexible it may take some time to perfect but time spent practising is never wasted. (It’s the sort of thing that can easily be practised on land in a vertical position).

The optimum size of the dolphin kick will differ for each swimmer. A large kick will produce more power but create more drag whilst a smaller kick will not generate the same thrust but will be more efficient. Experimentation is the key here to find out what works best for you.

But there’s little point in being streamlined and having an efficient kick if you’re pointing in the wrong direction! Ensure that, when you thrust off the wall, the direction of travel is horizontal up the lane rather than towards the bottom or the surface. At the point of contact, your knees should be bent at 90 degrees to achieve maximum power. Both feet should be planted firmly on the wall to balance the push. This is relatively simple if you are pushing off facing downwards. 

However, in time you may want to start employing a position with rotation of around 45 degrees. This position will become more natural if you progress to employing flip turns and may help to set you up in the right position for your first stroke. However, it can also result in disproportionate thrust from one leg or the other so is probably best left for more advanced practice.

You also need to pay close attention to your speed through the water. You should be breaking the surface and taking the first stroke just before the point where you begin to slow down. The best way to observe your speed is to notice how quickly you are passing the tiles on the bottom of the pool. The trick is to transition seamlessly from the push off into the full stroke with no loss of momentum. Subtle adjustments may be necessary to your push-off position and technique as you improve to keep this transition as smooth as possible.

The final consideration to be taken into account is breathing. It is easy to take a deep (diaphragmatic) breath before you begin and this can be a useful trigger for your brain to switch on and start to think about the various elements of the push-off you are about to employ.  

But when should you exhale, and when should you take the first breath? The exhale will affect your buoyancy and rhythm so should be closely allied to your natural swimming pattern. i.e. a constant stream of bubbles should be coming from the nose as you push off. This controlled exhale can sometimes feel at odds with the explosive power being generated by the legs but over time will become easier. As for when you should take your first breath, this will be a matter of individual choice and experience. The breathing stroke tends to be slightly more disruptive than the non-breathing stroke and therefore some swimmers prefer to get in a few non-breathers as soon as they hit the surface so as not to disrupt the general flow of the stroke. 

Others prefer to get a quick sneaky breath in immediately so that they don’t run out of air. The guide you should follow when deciding what is right for you is for you to do whatever enables you to maintain the speed and momentum generated from the push-off.

All this might sound overly complex but in reality, a good push off can become second nature very quickly and will almost certainly result in fewer strokes being taken to complete the length and a reduction in time as well. However, because it isn’t viewed as traditional swimming it can often be overlooked despite the enormous beneficial effect it can have on the stroke overall.

Can a frog on a bicycle help you swim better?

What has a frog on a bicycle got to do with swimming I hear you ask? 

Well, nothing at all. Obviously. That’s the point.

Let me explain

As swimmers, we are constantly told to swim with a specific goal in mind and to use cues to achieve this. A good cue acts as a constant feedback loop. By honing in on a specific aspect of your stroke you can use the cue as a yardstick by which to measure your performance. Thus you can assess the success (or otherwise) of your swimming instantly and make any corrections or adjustments necessary to improve your performance. 

There is an important caveat to remember though in that you can only gauge your results for that particular swim and, more importantly, only for the particular aspect of your stroke being addressed by the cue in question. Thus if your cue pertains to the way your hand is entering the water but whilst swimming you become aware that, say, your legs are sinking, this does not automatically mean that you have failed in the execution of your cue.

Because the body is one unit and a problem in one area can cause a reaction elsewhere there might be a connection between the two issues, but it doesn’t follow in all cases. The trick is to keep focused on the cue you are working on and not to worry about anything else. You may find that if you can increase the level of adherence to the aspect you are working on then other problems seem to magically disappear. If they don’t, no worries just choose another cue later to address the second problem.

That’s the beauty of a good cue. They act as a small and precise hammer chipping away at the block of marble trying to gradually reveal the statue within. 

But what is a “good” cue? And what happens if you use a bad one? Or no cue at all?

One of the joys of leading our Masters class on occasions is the opportunity to work with a group of swimmers willing, albeit sometimes unwittingly, to be guinea pigs into my little explorations into some of the theories behind how we learn and improve our stroke.

Photo by Kirwin Elias on Unsplash

To this end, last Thursday I gave the group a seemingly random set of 25 cues and asked them to time themselves over 25 metres for each one to see if there were differences in their performance. Some of the cues were familiar to them as traditional SwimMastery favourites like keeping the head away from the feet and sending the head forwards with each stroke. But some were phrases that coaches normally try to avoid such as “Don’t over-rotate” and “Prevent splashing”. I also included some frankly bizarre things for them to concentrate on. 

Trust me, if you’ve never seen the look on the faces of a group of swimmers as you tell them you want them to swim whilst imagining a garden gnome playing a trumpet or a giraffe on roller skates then you’ve missed out on one of life’s rare treats!

Although I didn’t make this obvious to them before the session started I had chosen a number of broad topics (the amount of rotation, the level of connection, the focus on forward motion etc.) and assigned to each, one “random” cue, one “don’t” cue and three “good” cues.

Getting them to use familiar tried and tested cues was an obvious choice although providing different types in order to reach the same ultimate result may have led one or two of them to move away from the security of what they were used to and instead try a different approach.

The reason for using the random yet, I hoped, quite vivid images was an attempt to take their mind off their performance in the water completely so that we could look at how they fared if they reverted to pure muscle memory alone. 

The most interesting results for me though were the ones from “Don’t do this” group. The problem with telling someone to concentrate on not doing something, and the reason why SwimMastery coaches try to avoid doing so, is that there is no instruction regarding how this should be achieved or what should be done instead. It’s like telling someone you want them to go to the bottom of the garden but they mustn’t walk. What should they do then? Run? Skip? Jump? Crawl? Fly? With no further instruction other than “Don’t Walk” it’s impossible to know how the task should be achieved.

Thus “Don’t over-rotate” for example might be a very laudable and worthwhile aim but the brain needs some further information regarding how this should be achieved.

The reason I think this is so important is that there is a great temptation, when practising or training alone, to slip into using these “Don’t do this” cues by default. Have you ever started a swim thinking “I’m not going to drop my elbow before the catch today” or “This time I’m going to concentrate on not splaying my legs as I kick”? It’s an easy trap to fall into.

In order for a cue to be effective, it must be clear, achievable and measurable. If it isn’t, the effects on the stroke will be at best negligible and at worst detrimental.

So what was the effect of my experiment on my Masters group? Well, I’ll be the first to admit that any results have very little statistical validity. The group was very small and the distances they were swimming made it difficult to record any major differences in times. We also need to consider the inaccuracies involved in using time as a measure (but I wanted to avoid them wasting brain space by counting strokes) plus the fact that after a while tiredness inevitably affected performance.

Nevertheless, although there were only broad trends visible, even with the limitations outlined above, the “don’t “ cues seemed to perform less well (or no better anyway) than the traditional SM group. 

What was fascinating though was that one of the group said he felt he swam better when using the bizarre “random” cues! His reasoning was that he felt more able to relax and “just let it all happen”. It is worth noting, however, that he is a very experienced and graceful swimmer and no doubt his muscle memory is excellent. It would be interesting to repeat the experiment with a group of novice swimmers and see if the results are more marked.

It is difficult to replicate this experiment completely now that I have explained the rationale behind it. However, if you wanted to, you could try a slightly modified version. 

Next time you are at the pool decide on your favourite SM cue – one that you know works for you – and time yourself over 100m concentrating only on that.

When you’ve finished, take at least a minute rest. Not to rest your body so much as to rest your brain. Now decide on an aspect of your swimming that you know needs improvement; a bad habit you just can’t kick. Swim another 100m with your only thought being not to do whatever that is.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash                              Photo by Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Take another rest and now pick a random image, the weirder the better; a hippo in a hot air balloon, a yeti doing a tap dance, a chicken on a roller coaster, whatever. Swim another 100m and compare your times. 

Let us know how you got on. At the end I suspect you’ll either learn something about the importance of choosing a good cue or the difficulty you have in maintaining a given cue over a longer period of swimming.

Or maybe, more thrillingly, your feedback will help change the way SwimMastery is coached forevermore!! 

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