Human beings have been swimming (or at least, trying to swim) for thousands of years. You’d have thought by now that we would have figured out the best way to do it wouldn’t you? The trouble is, that, as a species, we aren’t really designed to be in the water. Fins and gills are conspicuous by their absence. Some sort of rudimentary propeller would be useful but evolution seems to think otherwise. Even the internal layout of our organs is all wrong, meaning that we constantly battle to get some bits to float whilst trying to keep other bits down.
Developing a style and method that works for the human form has been a long process and it’s one that’s far from finished. New ideas are constantly being proposed, tested, adapted and adopted or discarded.
The other day I came across the story of the Japanese Crawl. Perhaps I am very ignorant but I’d not heard of this before. The American Crawl and the Trudgen Crawl, yes, but not the Japanese version.
It dates from the late 1920s during a period when swimming was virtually unheard of in the country. No swimming representatives were sent to the 1920 Antwerp games and indeed there were only two public swimming pools in the whole of Japan. Then in 1928, against all the odds Yoshiyuki Tsurata won gold in the 200m breaststroke, only the second Olympic gold medal ever won by the country. This sparked a national interest in the sport and public pools began springing up across the country.
However, they faced a problem when it came to trying to replicate the success at the highest level. During this period swimming was dominated by the Americans. The typical build was epitomised by Johnny Weissmuller who was famously to go on to have a successful movie career portraying Tarzan. He was tall, powerful and broad-shouldered, attributes which did not apply to the average Japanese competitor.
To try and narrow the disparity the Japanese turned to scientific analysis and they set about developing a style more suited to the shorter stature of their swimmers. They studied underwater footage of Weissmuller and noticed that his method was to remain stable in the water relying on his powerful arms to propel him forward. They experimented with allowing their swimmers to roll their shoulders more and increase the length of the arm movement. They also placed a far greater emphasis on the kick. This was what became known as the Japanese Crawl.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The results were astonishing. In the 1928 Games, the Japanese swimming team had won just one gold, one silver and one bronze whilst the Americans brought back three golds, a silver and two bronze medals. By 1932 the fortunes had been completely reversed; the Americans achieved just two golds, a silver and two bronzes but the Japanese haul comprised five golds, four silvers and two bronze medals. In the process, they proved that superior technique could win out against raw power. The 100m Freestyle was won by a 15-year-old schoolboy Yasuji Mijazaki who not only won the gold but, during the semi-finals, also broke Weissmuller’s Olympic record.
And Mijazaki was not even the youngest winner in the team. That honour went to the winner of the 1500m event, Kusuo Kitamura who at 14 years and 309 days remains the youngest ever male swimmer to win a gold medal. (His overall record remained in place until 1988 when Hungarian swimmer Krisztina Egerszegi won the gold in the Women’s 200m backstroke).
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to analyse the importance of the Japanese Crawl to the overall development of the stroke. In many ways it was rather ahead of its time, and indeed in the immediate aftermath of the Amsterdam Games, it tended to be dismissed by other countries as being uniquely relevant only to the shorter stature of the Japanese. Today, however, whilst the emphasis on a big kick has once more been reduced in significance, the relevance of using rotation to generate forward momentum is widely adopted. Neither should we overlook the importance of analysing the swimmer from below the surface to the eventual success the team achieved. Today, this seems an obvious and essential process but in 1932 to use of underwater cameras was in its infancy and somewhat revolutionary.
All of which makes one wonder what techniques and methods which we take for granted today will over time become outdated and irrelevant and what may develop to replace them. Like the Japanese Crawl, no doubt some innovations will prove to have elements relevant to all whilst other features will fall by the wayside. Only time will tell
The pace of change is relentless and seems to be increasing. If we were to pop into a time machine and end up a hundred years into the future I have little doubt that many new and exciting developments will have occurred.
Who knows. We might even have made a start on those propellers.
One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others. Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets. With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible. Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away. It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game. If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.
However, it is important to recognise the limitations too. It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives. The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite. It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication. Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak. Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.
But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own. There are, however, other factors to remember. Swimming is a “whole body” sport. Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result. Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water. Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns. Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.
Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash
Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training. Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race. This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes. If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change. The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.
And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers. A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic.
There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level. These are not normal people! That is not intended in a derogatory way. It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals. In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone. Some were much taller. Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot. For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone. In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties. However, an athletic build is often just the starting point. To take Michael Phelps as an example. It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick. He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility. He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height. His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.
Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.
In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming. There is much to be learned from this approach. However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming. Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.
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.
Photo by Mohamadreza Azhdari on Unsplash
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?
Photo by Quinton Coetzee on Unsplash
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
So you think you can become a better swimmer, do you ?
Well, don’t hold your breath!
One of the wonderful things about the human body is that most of the time it gets on with the job of keeping you alive without requiring the slightest intervention from the conscious mind. Can you imagine how busy we’d be if we had to remember to blink the eyes, digest our food or beat the heart ? ! By and large the conscious mind can let the body just to get on with these things – and that includes breathing.
So, let’s try a couple of experiments and introduce a little crisis into the system to learn something about how it works…
Just where you are, take a deep breath in and hold it for as long as you can. Time yourself if possible. Observe carefully what happens.
Have you done that ? Good. Now, this won’t be true for everyone but I am expecting that many of you began to feel a little light-headed during that, and far from comfortable. A little strain in the chest maybe and a build-up of pressure in the ears ? And, although you were completely in control of the situation, even a slight panic towards the end ? Then finally a big expulsion of air and….. then what ? Did you have to tell your body to start breathing again ? Or did it do it all by itself ?
There are lots of observations to make!
Before we go any further, let’s do it again. Only this time try moving your arms up and down, fairly vigourously. Notice what’s the same and what is different.
OK. So I would have thought there were two significant outcomes from that. The first being that you felt all the same things but this time slightly more intensely. You may have been unable to hold your breath for quite as long.
So what does all this tell us ? It tells us that that the body is quite capable of breathing all by itself without us having to worry about it and that even a little exercise tends to intensify the ramifications of being unable to breathe.
Photo by Stefano Zocca on Unsplash
So why do so many swimmers hold their breath while going along, or even just fail to breathe in the most efficient manner they possibly could? When we are running or cycling we wouldn’t do that; we would be taking deep breaths in an out constantly. So why do so many hold breath when swimming ?
The answer is ‘natural’. When untrained human’s face is submerged in water alarm bells will begin to ring. The brain knows that we are not naturally aquatic beings and that if we remain face down in the water very long we will drown. It is understandable then, that in order to protect its life and not accidentally breath in water, it believes the most prudent course of action is to shut everything down. So the breathing cycle stops and the breath is held. Even experienced swimmers can be found to hold their breath more than they should. The resulting discomfort and distraction (let alone the panic that some people feel) from breath holding will no doubt be detrimental to the overall efficiency of the stroke.
To overcome this, the body needs to have the skills for breathing in this submerged swimming position and the brain needs to be convinced that it this will work and all will be OK, so it can turn off the alarms and quit trying to keep itself alive so aggressively. It can take a long while – weeks and months – to build this skill and to calm the vigilant brain and its survival instinct. Consciously breathing out is the first important step to training the brain that all will be OK. The more that the brain feels all will be OK with breathing, the more space opens up for it to give attention to other things.
Thus, it is vital to practice – and keep practicing – the air exchange cycle, including that conscious exhale. The deep belly breath in, the slow release of air out, and the final blast to clear the airways as the face breaks the surface – these build confidence that the re-filling of the lungs will take happen more easily, even automatically. The more you practice, the smoother you get at this, and the more space you have to concentrate on the rest of the stroke.
Time spent practicing the air exchange is never wasted.
…Hmm, what ?
Are you still waiting for the second significant outcome from your exercise earlier ?
Oh, I thought that would be obvious eventually… You can’t hold your breath for long!
Author: Tracey Baumann; Editor: Phil Stocker
It seems that finally, possibly, we have, perhaps, come to a turning point in this extraordinary year.
Which Part To Concentrate On?
But as pools and public spaces begin to re-open, albeit under new rules and regulations it seems we can finally begin to look to the future again and begin to make tentative plans for the continuation of our swimming journey. And one question I have been asked is what is the most important part of the stroke to concentrate on after such a long break?
Of course, there is no one answer to that. People swim for many different reasons. Some swim to exercise, of course, but some do so to clear their minds or alternatively to keep their minds busy! Others enjoy the healing nature of being in water and the camaraderie they feel in the swimming community as a whole.
For competitive swimmers, the COVID crisis has often resulted in their plans for the 2020 season being cancelled completely or pushed back to 2021. Whilst a few still have their swims this season they have not been able to do their normal swim training practice to prepare. The psychological repercussions of all of the above must be acknowledged and not be taken lightly.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Locked Down But Not Idle
During the lockdown, I have been in touch with all of my clients and swimming friends and have been blown away by the support everyone has been giving and receiving. I have been intrigued to watch the determination and ingenuity shown to continue swimming, this being via pop-up swimming pools, the use of static tethered lines or even dry land exercises balanced on dustbins!
Here at SwimMastery, we have done our best to continue to grow as coaches and swimmers during this period. We have held many coach-training online classes, continual development webinars and some live lessons online sometimes with the coach and pupil several hundreds of miles apart! As a group of coaches, we have managed to submerge ourselves in the world of swimming and coaching and I would say each and every SwimMastery coach is coming out of this lockdown with a much greater understanding of the freestyle stroke and how to teach it. As the bodies of water have slowly opened again it has been very exciting to hear the stories they have to share about practising their new skills with their clients and friends. I look forward to this continuing as more and more coaches are able to begin coaching again.
And it has been amazing to watch, as the lockdown rules have slowly been lifting here in the UK, the excitement that the removal of this barrier has brought generally. It has been quite overwhelming to witness. It has brought me a renewed sense of joy that I feel about swimming and swim coaching. It is the age-old saying, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. This has been true for so many people, particularly with swimming, who have had no available body of water to use.
So, as we all begin to swim again if I had to pick just one area relevant to all swimmers I think it would be the connection between the legs and the torso. Imagine that your legs are actually part of your torso. I can see some question marks on your faces as you read that statement so I will explain further. It is literally impossible to swim freestyle efficiently using the correct sling systems in the body without using the legs. Equally, it is just as impossible to use those sling systems without the legs being connected to the rest of the body.
As a swim coach, I often see both errors in new swimmers coming for their first lessons and in more experienced swimmers coming for stroke tune-up sessions. I either see the legs trying to do nothing because often the swimmer has been told that they don’t need to use them or the opposite whereby the legs are kicking frantically but are completely unconnected. So a great way to start changing either one of these challenges above is to swim as if your torso starts at your shoulders and finishes at your feet. People are often surprised by how different they feel with this simple visualisation.
Over the coming months, we at SwimMastery will be reaching out with our top tips and ideas for getting back into the water and beginning your stroke practising sessions again. We will cover stroke-specific topics and topics on how to practice. Meanwhile, stay safe, be sensible, observe the new rules but, most of all, enjoy your swimming again!