Ready, steady, wait. (Are you sure you’re ready ?)

Am I alone in having a list of things that I know should be part of the routine of my life but which, seem to get continually overlooked? Things like turning my mattress, reviewing my energy suppliers and flossing my teeth. And doing a proper warm-up before swimming. Please tell me it’s not just me!

If I’m doing other sports a warm-up is one of those things you do almost without thinking about it. Thus if I’m going for a run, I’ll have a short jog first or at the gym, I’ll have a short light session on a machine at a low setting before getting into the main session as a matter of course. But this rarely happens when I go swimming and, from what I observe, I’m not alone.

Why not? Perhaps, because they don’t come out of the water drenched in sweat, no matter how far you have swum folks don’t realise how much energy and work they have spent and, even with a good technique, how much potential strain there has been on the muscles. The fact that swimming is a low impact sport probably exacerbates this potentially complacent view.

But one ignores a proper warm-up at your peril, particularly with advancing years. It will go a long way to prevent injuries, improve performance, reduce the level of muscle tension and increase the range of motion possible. All vital stuff.

But if the case for doing a warm-up is inescapable this leads to the inevitable question of what one should actually do. Is it sufficient just to swing the arms vigorously for a while, stretch out the shoulders and quads, roll the neck a few times before leaping into the water? Or should the warm-up be a more structured affair?

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In order to answer that question it is important to differentiate between stretching and warming up. For some the terms are interchangeable but in reality they describe different activities and their functions are often very different. Care should be taken when stretching that the result is not more harm than good. Every body is different and there is no one size fits all ruling but as a general rule of thumb stretching should only be performed on muscles that are already warm. That is to say, they are best performed as part of a warm down at the end of a swim, not part of a warm-up at the start.

 

 

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Stretching can be broken down into several sub-categories. These include static stretches where a person holds a position for up to 30 seconds, passive stretches, where this is done by someone else, dynamic stretches, for example, controlled swinging of the arms and ballistic stretches, where the body is forced beyond the normal boundaries of operation. Other more complex types include active isolated stretches where the contraction of one muscle leads to the stretching of another, isometric stretching where a muscle is alternatively stretched and contracted and a combination of passive and isometric stretching known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Of all these variations only the controlled dynamic stretches are really suitable to be included in a warm-up and even then they should be used very judiciously. Save everything else for later, and, even then, take care not to overdo it.

So if stretching is largely to be avoided, then what should be included. The best advice seems to be to simply do what you plan to do in the main set but to do it at a lower tempo and to take rests throughout. Thus, in a pool, one might do six to eight lengths swimming at something like 75% and resting for several breaths at the end of each 25m. If you want to swing your arms a bit or rotate the neck gently before you get in, well OK, if you must. However, those won’t be movements you are performing when swimming (I hope!) so is there really much point in getting the body ready to perform them?

The best warm-ups will consist of movements likely to be performed later simply performed at a lower intensity to prepare the body for what is to come. After the swim and during the warm down (also not to be forgotten) is the time to, carefully, include any stretching you want to include. At all times ensure you are operating within the boundaries of your limitations.

That way you can remain safe and healthy ready to floss those teeth and turn your mattress!

Time to get in line

If you hang around talking with SwimMastery coaches for any length of time you’ll hear an awful lot about the importance of the Streamline position. It is, they will tell you, the most important position in Freestyle swimming and, if one is to have any success with the stroke, it is vital to master this phase.

To anyone coming to the stroke for the first time, the emphasis placed on the Streamline may seem a little misplaced. If the point in swimming is to create forward momentum, why concentrate on an aspect of the stroke where, apparently, there is relatively little going on? Would it not be better to concentrate on the period where the body is being propelled forwards?

This though is to misunderstand the fundamental point of efficient swimming which is to displace as little of the water as possible as you move through it and past it. And the position in which you are doing that at the maximum is during Streamline.

Photo courtesy of Tracey Baumann

It’s also a great phase at which the brain can perform a rapid mental checklist and, if necessary, “reset”. If performed correctly the Streamline will be the point at which the body is at its maximum length and the connection from the fingernails, through the scapula, hips thighs, knees, to the feet will be at its most apparent. Once the swimmer can tune into this feeling of connection all the way down the body they are in the perfect position to initiate the weight shift which leads to the rotation allowing the body to power past the anchoring arm performing the catch.

Without that all-important whole-body connection the timing, breath management and coordination of the stroke are all lost and with it the speed and efficiency too.
Remember too that the Streamline is hit twice in each cycle of the stroke, once on the left and once on the right. Most swimmers will have a favoured side – usually the one where they are leading with their dominant hand – so make sure that both sides are equally perfect. Spend time during practice to imprint the muscle memory clearly, spending more time on the weaker side if necessary.

But remember Streamline is only a fleeting moment in a fluid whole movement. Although it presents a perfect opportunity for a quick “stock-check” of body parts it is not an opportunity to have a little rest and let momentum glide you forwards! This can only lead to a slowing of the overall speed with increased work required to regain it. It is vital to develop the ability to instantly recognise if the body is not conforming to the perfect Streamlining position and to correct and re-connect immediately.

As one of the fundamental building blocks for the freestyle stroke, time spent practising and perfecting the Streamline will never be wasted.

Short and sweet

It’s not uncommon for swimmers to come away from their initial assessment with their coach fired up with enthusiasm and buzzing with new ideas and techniques they are desperate to try out within their stroke. And that’s terrific. Just what we want.

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Why then, doesn’t your Swim Mastery coach recommend that the best thing to do next is to go for a long swim to try out all these new ideas?

The great temptation is to go to the pool and put in multiple lengths. Indeed many non-Swim Mastery coaches will recommend doing exactly that. I remember a couple of years ago, talking to one coach who was teaching a group of three swimmers in our local pool. After giving them ten minutes or so of quite intense drilling he then set them off swimming laps for the rest of the session. When I asked him about this he said it was important for his pupils to get the miles under their belts to practice what he had just been teaching. In addition, his view was that his pupils should complete two to three long swims before their next lesson.

The Swim Mastery approach is diametrically opposed to this view advocating instead short repeats of no more than six to eight strokes with no breathing (exactly as per the coached sessions in fact), There are several reasons for this. Primary amongst them is the fact that the coach is trying to instil new movement or thought patterns into their swimmer’s stroke. This can be easily achieved in short bursts but much more than that and the body will revert to the old default way of moving.

Don’t believe me? Well, try this. Go and take a walk down the garden but as you lift each foot make sure the knee bends at an angle of 90 degrees before you straighten it at the end of each pace. Come back and tell me how you got on.

Done it? Good. OK, so a slightly weird way of walking but easy enough to do right? I’m guessing that you believe that you achieved that easily enough. But answer me this. How did your thirteenth pace compare with your nineteenth? And how did either of them compare with your fifth? Were they all completely identical? Are you sure? If not, which was best? Why? What would you do to improve?

If you can answer all that with any degree of certainty I would be amazed (and you would almost certainly be wrong!). There’s just too much information coming at the brain far too fast for it to process it all completely. And if I’d asked you to walk up and down the garden six times instead of just the once, my guess is that by the end of it your 90-degree bend would have decreased significantly and you would have begun to revert to a more familiar way of walking.

Similar sorts of principles apply in the pool. If a swimmer is trying to compare how their second stroke felt to how their fourth one felt they are far more likely to be able to do it (and make the necessary corrections) if they stop after the sixth stroke as opposed to having to process another twenty or so strokes after them.

By swimming in such short bursts the swimmer can make an instant evaluation of their performance, even without their coach present. If they feel they are achieving whatever task they have set themselves, terrific. Time to do another set and see if it can be repeated and the movement pattern imprinted on the brain. Alternatively, if it didn’t feel quite right, by taking a break the swimmer gives themselves time to work out why that might be and what they need to do to change without falling back into old, bad habits.

And there is another major benefit. Short repeats mean that the swimmer can simply stand up when it is time to breathe. Even for experienced swimmers, the breathing stroke can look a little different to the non-breathing strokes. For the novice swimmer breathing strokes are often massively disruptive; the head can be raised resulting in a bend in the back and a complete loss of connection in the body. The leading arm has a tendency to come across the centre line and the overall loss of balance can result in the legs splaying out of the shadow of the body’s forward propulsion. It can take a stroke or two to recover, and by then it’s almost time to take another breath!

None of this is unexpected and is part of the natural survival instinct to get to the air. However, it is also massively disruptive to the overall stroke and takes brain power away from the specific cue which is being taught or practised.

When learning a new movement pattern the average attention span is surprisingly short and it is important to stop before the processing power of the brain has been exhausted and to remove as many distractions as possible. One of the greatest challenges to a coach is to overcome deep-seated assumptions or practices previously acquired over many years. The swimmer’s brain and body will have become accustomed and reliant on them even whilst also acknowledging that they may not be the most efficient ways of moving. Given half a chance they will return to the old familiar practices simply because that is what feels most comfortable.

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To break the cycle, the swimmer must receive constant reminders of the new methods and movements and by far the most effective way of doing that is to instil these through short repeats and evaluations. Only once the skills have been mastered in these small bite-sized chunks and become the “new normal” is it time to take the next step and see if they can be replicated during longer swims.

Practice really does make perfect

In 1979, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats famously sang “I Don’t Like Mondays”. For me, Mondays were OK, it was Wednesdays I wasn’t keen on, starting as they did with double French. I never have really got to grips with the language, even though, ironically, one of the French teachers at my school was the sister of Bob Geldof. I do seem to remember learning “Où est la bibliothèque?” although, being unable to speak the language, even at that young age, the library seemed a rather odd destination to want to visit. Thanks to several foreign holidays I have now progressed to the stage of being able to ask some rudimentary questions in French although, sadly, I am completely unable to understand the answers (unless they are provided in perfectly unaccented English, which is usually the case).

My problem at school, of course, was that, between Wednesdays, French simply ceased to exist. I didn’t think about it, practice it or, indeed have any interest in it. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, I made very little progress with it. Had I put any time or effort into French between lessons I still may not have become fluent exactly but I most certainly would be a better French speaker than I am now.

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The same principle of devoting time to practice between lessons holds true for those embarking on a programme of swimming instruction. If the only times that a student swims are during the lessons themselves, progress will undoubtedly be made, but a massive learning opportunity will be wasted. 

Instruction provided by a coach either one-to-one or in small groups is invaluable but, if one is learning a different way to move one’s body then it is unrealistic to expect that to come together in the relatively short period offered within a formal lesson.

The primary function of lessons is to provide information about a particular movement both regarding the physical movements required to perform it and also the rationale behind it to explain its importance. Having isolated a movement the coach will then attempt to provide ways in which the swimmer can replicate it. A variety of techniques will probably be used. These include performing a demonstration of the requirement themselves, taking the student through a series of drills or providing images or sensations which the swimmer can think about whilst swimming. Whatever methods are used, throughout it all the primary aim of the coach is not necessarily to perfect the movement then and there but to get the student to tune into how it looks or, even better, feels, when the task is mastered.

However, to do this, the student must spend time away from the lessons practising by themselves. This is when the magic happens! 

Coaches are often asked how much time should be left between lessons. There is no hard and fast rule, however, most would recommend that the student has at least two sessions by themselves to attempt to imprint the instructions from the previous lesson. Anything less and it is unrealistic to expect that enough time has been spent on a particular skill to come close to improving upon it. Equally, however, too much time between lessons can result in swimmers imprinting less than perfect movements or forgetting some of the finer points from the lesson. 

Before starting lessons, therefore, a swimmer needs to decide a realistic schedule for the amount of time they are going to be able to dedicate to practice to ensure that sufficient time can be devoted to this. This does not have to be a rigid structure and, as time goes on, it may well transpire that the timings can be adjusted depending on the rate of progress made. However, without sufficient practice, the impact and effectiveness of the lessons will undoubtedly be diminished.

Practice may not always make perfect but without any practice at all progress will be far slower.

 

How Are You Feeling?

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin. 

If you grew up in the UK back when childrens’ stories tended to concern pixies and elves rather than wizards and witches you’ll almost certainly recognise this phrase from the BBC’s “Listen With Mother” programme.

So, assuming you are not sitting cross-legged on some hard wooden floor let me ask you; are you? Are you sitting comfortably? I hope so, but how did you come to your conclusion? What factors did you take into account? Did you do a thorough analysis of your body or was your decision merely a knee-jerk reaction based on the absence of discomfort? Because that’s not the same thing.

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When taking swimming lessons, your swim coach may well get you to perform a drill and then ask you how it felt. And although that sounds like a simple question it’s one that many of us are simply not used to answering with any level of detail. The tendency is to give short, superficial answers such as it felt “fine” (or “good” or “nice”).

From a coaching perspective, there’s not a lot that can be done with that. Imagine someone going to the doctor and telling her they felt “a bit poorly”. That’s not terribly helpful is it? Now imagine them telling her that their knee feels like it’s on fire. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now the doctor has something she can work on. But with pain it’s easy. The brain has fewer problems identifying and focussing on pain as it is anxious to get rid of it as quickly as possible. It’s in its own interests to be able to convey this feeling in as much detail as possible and as graphically as possible,

How, though, does that work when everything is feeling…. well, …“fine” (or “good” or “nice”)? How can those feelings be expressed verbally? Well, rest assured it can be done, but it might take more concentration than you are used to and a little practice too. The fact is that right now your brain is receiving loads of information from your body that it’s simply ignoring.

Let’s try a little experiment. Let’s take your shoulders. What are you feeling right now? Not much? No problems? I hope so. But let’s go a little deeper. How tense are they? Could you relax them more? Are they cold or warm? Do they feel stiff? Imagine them as being connected to the rest of your body. Do they feel part of the whole or independent? Now concentrate on the feel of the fabric of your shirt or blouse. Does it feel soft or scratchy? Is it heavy or floaty? Is the material smooth or taut? Take some time and concentrate on each of those areas in turn and really focus on what you feel. Is the feedback the same for both shoulders? If not, how do they differ? At the end of this, you may find you now have a plethora of sensations and images you could use to describe your shoulders. All the information is there, you just need to learn how to tune into it.

But, as I say, it can require a little practice and it becomes more difficult when there’s more going on. . Let’s take your breathing now. Just as you sit there take a few moments to focus on your breathing; the air coming into your body and being released out of it. Notice how it affects your chest and diaphragm. Observe how quickly or slowly you are doing it and how much air you need on each breath. Now get up and go for a little walk around the room. Just 20 or 30 steps or so and keep concentrating on your breathing. For most of you, I’m guessing that the task of analysing exactly what is happening becomes more difficult once the body is in motion as the brain now needs to focus on avoiding objects, the heightened sensations of other parts of the body and even keeping count of the steps taken. But despite all that, it is possible to maintain some level of focus on the breath and even notice the differences that being in motion as opposed to being stationary make to the overall rhythm of the process. Even with everything else going on I’m sure you were able to hone in on your breathing and provide at least some meaningful feedback on how it felt. And if you can do that walking around your room, you can do it in the swimming pool too.

Perhaps though. you don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps you found it very difficult to notice your breathing pattern once you were walking. Don’t worry. Remember, the information is all there, you just may not be used to identifying it all just yet. Try it again, see if you can notice more. The more you do it the more you’ll notice. Maybe a little check list will help. Did you breathe in through your mouth or through your nose? How did the breathing relate to your stride pattern? If you increase your pace, or take shallower breaths, what changes? And most crucially of all, for what we’re talking about here, how would you describe it?

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The skill of being able to isolate parts of your body and analyse exactly what they are doing and feeling can often take a while to develop but it’s one that can be practised at any time, not just when in the water. Get used to standing in the supermarket queue and feeling the weight of your body on the soles of your feet or the hunch of your shoulders as you drive your car and think how you might convey that feeling to someone else. This doesn’t have to be terribly poetic. If you want to describe the movement of your hips when swimming as being like those of a drunken sailor on deck in a high storm then that’s terrific but if simply to say “I feel as if I’m over-rotating” is more your style then that’s also providing far more useful feedback to your coach than, say, “it feels wrong”.

Everyone will feel their bodies differently but it’s important to remember that there is a deep well of information that is waiting to be exploited which can make the process much easier. The more you can tell your coach the better the learning experience will be. What your coach is often looking for is for you to describe a sensation which they can tell you to aim to replicate in your swimming away from the lesson (or perhaps one to avoid !). It will be far easier for you to go away and swim with your head as relaxed as a melon floating in the sea as opposed to being told to go away and swim until it feels “nice”.!

If you can develop the habit of firstly noticing how your body is feeling and reacting and then developing a way of expressing that to your coach they will find it much easier to help you improve your performance.

And then everyone can live happily ever after

The end 

Don’t worry, swim happy

I was blessed with three great kids. They are adults now and I am so proud of who they have become. At this point I can now look back and review my performance as a parent. Overall, I feel I did a reasonable job, yet I remember times when I got it wrong. One such incident came to mind the other day…

We were on holiday on the beach and my son Jack and I were kicking a football between us. He was probably about six at the time. He merrily toe-punted the ball as hard as he could as is the wont of small boys. He had no control over where the ball went and, as a result, there was a lot of running about involved from me which was rather tiring. Jack though was loving it and roared with laughter throughout.

I decided it was time for Jack to learn how to control the ball a bit better. Accordingly I showed him how to place his non-kicking foot alongside the ball and to strike it with his in-step rather than his toe, leaning forward to get his head over the ball at the point of contact.

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I noticed two things immediately. One was that this instantly improved the control he had over the direction of his kicks. And two, he stopped laughing. For Jack, the sheer exhilaration of being out in the fresh air mucking about with a ball and his Dad on a cold and deserted beach had gone, to be replaced by a lesson in coordination and timing which, if he got it wrong, he felt might displease me.

Inevitably, we stopped playing soon after, and I felt really rotten.

Now I find a parallel in working with swimmers. 

Recently, I overheard a swimmer asking for tips on how to swim faster. He said he swam at a fairly low tempo, often achieving that Nirvana of free-flowing, effortless swimming he sought, but still wanted to find a way to increase his pace. 

Undoubtedly there were things that he could do to change his stroke. But part of me wanted to ask a simple question.

Why? 

If you’re already swimming beautifully, why would you want to change it?

I can imagine many different and valid answers to that. I get that. Our kind of swimming can be viewed as a journey towards self-improvement and, as such, is a journey without an ultimate destination. Who can honestly say they are the perfect swimmer?. I know some awesome swimmers but I don’t think that any of them would claim to be perfect. And therefore they try to improve which means they must try to change something

I understand all that. But do we sometimes lose sight of another reason for swimming? We swim to enjoy ourselves; to improve our state of mind as well as the performance of our body.

Factors such as time and strokes per length are so ingrained into our coaching and training that it is easy to think that they are the be-all and end-all when it comes to measuring performance. After all ,when did you last get out of the water and think “Wow, that swim made me 87% happy – and I was only 83% happy last week”? It can’t be done. There is no way of categorising our level of happiness at any given time and thus we usually fall back on relying on the time or the number of strokes taken to complete a swim in order to judge its success.

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Of course there are many other measures that we can, and do use. Ask an open water swimmer at this time of year how their morning swim went and they will tell you that they spent 15 minutes in water of 5 degrees C. They might be focussed on their performance whilst actually in the water but, once out of it, these won’t be the factors they use to judge their success.

A first-time Channel swimmer will not be primarily focussed on how long it will take to get to France, merely completing the distance is reward enough. (These priorities might be reversed on subsequent attempts!). On a smaller scale, when we are on holiday we might set ourselves the target of swimming out to a particular buoy or landmark and back. Rarely do we add the extra parameter of achieving it within a certain time.

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We can measure our swimming in other ways too but seem to do so less often, somehow perceiving them to be of less value than time taken and stroke rate because they are more difficult to measure objectively.

Thus we might spend a little time working on our ability to maintain our concentration on conforming to a specific task or cue. Or alternatively noticing the exertion level we are using and the degree of fluidity in our stroke. But these never seem to be our primary measures. 

Why does all this matter ? Well, in my view, of all of the ways to measure our success, that elusive one I mentioned right at the beginning is the most important of all. How happy does our swimming make us feel ?

The job of a coach should be not only to change the performance of their swimmers, but just as importantly to influence their mindset; to help them recognise that what we have come to accept as the traditional ways of judging success – speed and efficiency – aren’t the only ones available. And that might mean that they have to make a fairly seismic change in their own thinking and their own perceptions of achievement too,

Of course, for many swimmers an improvement in something like their speed will automatically result in an improvement in their happiness too. Even if you’re never going to win a race, who doesn’t like smashing a PB ? But maybe for some, like Jack all those years ago kicking his football on the beach, they are perfectly happy with a level of competency which is some way less than perfect, but just perfect enough for their happiness in the moment.

I’m not expecting all of you to share this view – and I’m certainly not saying that swimmers should never try to improve their stroke. However, I do believe that sometimes coaches can be blinded by the perceived need to produce faster swimmers or more efficient swimmers and forget that ultimately, by whatever means, what we really should be producing are happier swimmers.

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