Get your hand behind your elbow …

“What are you talking about? Get your hand behind your elbow? What does that even mean?”

A long straight freestyle stroke is much more efficient than lots of short strokes. And long strokes are faster through the water, even though your stroke rate falls.

Freestyle technocrats – swim geeks who focus too much on correct technique (like me)  – have an important, if obscure, rule:

Get your hand behind your elbow as soon as possible and keep it there as long as possible, even in the recovery stage.

Left hand is behind the left elbow, even in the recovery phase

Step by step, that means:

  1. After your hand enters and catches the water, get your forearm vertical as soon as you can, bending from the elbow, using your bicep strength. This brings your hand ‘behind your elbow’ if looking from above.
  2. Keep your elbow high and forward during the pull and push phase of the freestyle stroke and lead with your hand.
  3. Brush your thigh, or hip, with your thumb to ensure that you have long straight freestyle stroke.
  4. At the end of the stroke, as your hand exits the water down near your thigh, lift and pull your elbow (not your hand) to bring it back to the front. Drag your hand forward by pulling with your elbow. Leave your hand behind and let it ‘hang’ off your elbow as you recover your arm to the front to begin the next stroke.
Right hand is ‘behind’ the right elbow

Don’t be a crab. Crabs can’t get their claws behind their little elbows. Their claws are always pointed forward from their elbows and many, many freestylers are a bit like crabs.

As soon as their hands exit the water at the end of their stroke, they lead with their hand and get it back in front of their elbow. This leads to shorter strokes, shoulder injuries and pain in the elbow joint. Also leads to heartache for your coach when watching from the pool deck ☹.

John Travolta Staying Alive (from Saturday Night Fever). This is a great freestyle drill

Try the ‘Stayin Alive’ (John Travolta) drill. Like the Fingerdrag drill, this one is mostly about your elbows – keeping them high and forward and getting your hands behind them.

In the Stayin Alive drill, you get both arms straight at the same time and really push them straight.

One arm is stretched forward to 10 or 11 o’clock and the other arm is stretched back to 4 or 5 o’clock.

It’s an exaggeration of good freestyle (like all drills). It will help you train your brain to tell your body to keep your strokes long and get your hand behind your elbow.

Wakey wakey – are you a snaky swimmer?

“I’m raising awareness about Swim Self-Delusion-itis. You could have it now and not even realise.”

You might not even realise that you’re snaking your way down the pool or through the open water. This is one of those bad technique habits you can get into without even knowing you’re doing it. 

Is everything just a bit difficult? Are you looking up at the sky when you turn to inhale? Are you swimming off in an unpredictable direction in the open water? Are you trying really hard but not really improving as much as you’d like? Is there lots of splashing and moving and not enough gliding and sliding through the water?

Right now, you’re probably saying: NO this doesn’t apply to me. But how would you know?

You most probably don’t even know that you’re rolling around too far and not keeping your hips steady. You might be bringing your arms under your body in an S-shaped pull and that will lead to over correcting, sinking and not enough strength pushing you forward.  

You might be creating a lot of resistance through the water and don’t even realise how good it can feel when you get things right.

You’re probably also be doing a big scissor kick if you are a snaky swimmer, especially on the stroke when you are turning to inhale.  This is part of the over-correction and balancing act that snaky swimmers have to perform to stay traveling in a straight direction. 

Video is the best friend of the snaky swimmer and the enemy of Swim Self-Delusion-itis, a serious condition impacting millions of people around the world. I’m raising awareness about Swim Self-Delusion-itis because this huge problem can affect even the most confident swimmers. You may not know you have it right now.

So please, get it checked out. A friend watching on poolside might be able to tell you, or show you with a simple video on their phone. A coach is best placed (of course) to give you advice and analyse your technique. But left undiagnosed, this condition can worsen so don’t put your head in the sand and pretend that it can’t affect you.

Being a rolly and snaky swimmer is best diagnosed with video because, when told about it, most swimmers flatly deny it..  

“I am staying firm in my core.” 

“I am reaching out straight, I’m pulling through straight.” 

“My legs are straight and my kick is small and steady.” 

Sure. Sure. sure. Let’s fix you up Snaky. 

First: Swim down the centre of a pool lane with the line underneath you. Make sure you keep your hands well wide of the line through the entire 360-degree cycle of each arm stroke. That means your hand will never break your view of the line. 

Your hands need to point to 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock upon entry. Your shoulders are wider you’re your eyes so you might think you are reaching straight in front of you when you are clearly coming in close to your body’s centre line. 

Second: Do some kicking practice. This is important but you probably don’t want to hear it. I don’t like saying it. You don’t need a board, just kick for a few laps. Keep your kicks small, and your legs straight from the hips down to the toes. Practice a fast furious kick and a slower more deliberate kick that still keeps you moving forward. 

Third: Buy borrow or steal a swimmer’s training snorkel – This will really help you develop a nice balanced stroke technique.  

Try these drills: 

The Swordfish – kicking for three strokes on each side is a good one for this. Like all drills it exaggerates the movements we need to develop the good steady core technique that stops snaking. 

The John Travolta Stayin Alive drill – that means both your arms should be straight at one point in the stroke cycle. One arm reaching forward to 11 o’clock and one arm reaching back, down near your hips pointing at 5 o’clock. 

One arm freestyle – Hold one arm out in front perfectly straight and complete a whole lap of freestyle with one arm. This helps you develop balance and core strength when you need it – during the pull phase. You should be able to swim straight even using just one arm.

Ten tips to build your aerobic capacity

Do you lose your breath and get ‘puffed out’ after swimming just a short distance?  Do you want to be able to go further than you have gone before – not just while swimming but during all physical activities?

Or maybe, like a lot of athletes, you can run or bike for an hour, non-stop, but you can’t swim for more than a minute or two without needing a rest?  You’re not actually tired, you don’t have muscle burn, you’re just ‘puffed out.’ 

More than other sports and physical activities, you need to develop excellent aerobic / lung capacity for endurance swimming. And using swimming to develop aerobic capacity – the ability of the lungs and body to absorb oxygen and transport it to your muscles quickly – will help in other activities.

You build aerobic capacity by swimming long distances but this is difficult when you have to keep stopping. Swimming only works as a fitness activity when you have developed good aerobic capacity. You can speed up the process by trying these ten aerobic training tips. Some may not apply to you but at least some will definitely be worthwhile thinking about and trying: 

  1. First – go back to basics. Every now and then playa round in the water, diving down, blowing bubbles. Forget about inhaling. Your body knows how to do it without thinking. Just make sure you are breathing in deeply and quickly when you do emerge to get air.
  2. Exhale and relax – You only need to consciously think about getting your exhale correct. But are you actually thinking about it? Or are you focused on: ‘When am I breathing in again?’ Sit on the bottom of the pool or sea and exhale. When you have no air left in your lungs, stay down for a few seconds before coming up – to reprogram your body to not to be impatient about inhaling. 
  3. Once you can breathe out a steady stream of small bubbles for ten seconds, then make sure you can emerge to quickly breathe in and submerge again and repeat the ten second exhale. Just because you can do it once doesn’t really count. You have to be able to come up for air and go back down again, sit on the bottom again and make your exhale last ten seconds again. And again. And again.  
  4. Master bi-lateral breathing. Breathing on both sides means you have more control, more confidence and more choice about when you breathe. There’s no reason why you can’t inhale on both sides of your body while swimming, except in your head. Your head controls your body and all its movements. Take control.
  5. Keep your head down and exhale for three freestyle strokes for four full 25m laps. Then try going for five strokes, then seven strokes. This is difficult. Try swimming a whole 25m lap with no inhaling. The longer you can go without breathing in the better you are getting at using the oxygen you have in your lungs already. Don’t overdo this. Don’t get light-headed. 
  6. Even when you are doing a lot of strokes without inhaling, avoid holding your breath as much as possible. When your head is in the water, you need to be exhaling as much as possible – so a long slow steady stream of bubbles from your nose (mainly) is the key to all this. 
  7. In the open water the general rule is we inhale more often than in the pool but we need to be more confident about our aerobic capacity in the choppy sea than in the flat calm pool. If you want to swim in the open water, these skills are twice as important for you. Don’t breathe everything out, keep a little air in your lungs when swimming in the open water. But be able to keep your head down if needed.
  8. Swimming fast in intervals with an elevated heart rate will build your aerobic capacity a lot faster than long slow swims – but you won’t feel it initially because you’ll be having interval breaks. Keep an eye on the timing clock – improvement is incremental so may not notice without checking your times. But most importantly, occasionally go for a long swim – longer than you think you can manage and you will surprise yourself. You may have developed good aerobic capacity without really testing it out. Then you’ll really be getting fit, feeling the muscle burn because you’re at the edge of your aerobic system’s ability to supply the muscles and your anaerobic system is taking over. 
  9. There’s a wall in swimming similar to The Wall you hit when going for a long run. It can be harder to just push through it in swimming (without stopping) because, you know, you’re in the water and you want to keep moving and not drown. That wall will dissipate (have faith in yourself) and keep going. When you are puffed out, your anaerobic system is ready to take over.  
  10. The better you get at all this, the better you’ll be at all aerobic sports and activities, not just swimming. Developing your lung capacity with these swimming exercises will make you a better runner, cyclist, sportsperson and human person. Swimming is the best way to build your aerobic capacity. Once that’s done your body starts to build strength and anaerobic ability itself when you workout. All sportspeople, footy players, netballers, runners, cyclists, couch potatoes, armchair experts etc, should be going for a regular swim and they will, after the Coach Jason revolution, when it will be mandatory.

Ten tips for a magical Lazy Freestyle

Murray Rose in the early 60s did it as did Shane Gould and many other Australian crawlers but then it fell out of fashion in the late 70s. 

“Congratulations Jason, you’re getting a gold medal,” said my coach sometime in the 80’s. 

“You’re Australia’s laziest freestyler. Why can’t you have a go?” 

I thought I was having (a bit) of a go, but these were the days of trying to be Mark Spitz, of S-shaped pulls, big splashy kicks and high stroke rates.  

Since then, science, the genius of Ian Thorpe, Alex Popov and others have shown us there is a better way to swim. 

A long, strong, straight stroke is faster and easier than plenty of short, fast strokes. When you get it, the feeling is magic. You can slide through the water easily for thousands of metres without getting exhausted. 

“When you get it, the feeling is magic”

We’ve all seen a lazy freestyler, often as they cruise past us, going much faster than we are. A lazy freestyler can look slow but mysteriously speeds through the water. The water loves the lazy freestyler largely because they have worked out how to slide through the water by minimising resistance. They get extra speed from swimming well.

Not everything needs to be done totally perfectly for lazy freestyle to work. You don’t have to be a zen master of technique to be able to swim easily for miles and miles. But you do need to think about a few very important things.

Have a quick read of these ten elements of lazy freestyle: 

  1. While it’s called lazy freestyle, your mind is active the whole time. You are managing every little movement, because they all count. You are never dreamily going through the motions without thinking. You are never leaving it up to muscle memory.  
  2. You are putting your hand in the water at the beginning of each stroke , pushing it forward and feeling the water. This is essential. You have to love this part of the stroke and know how important it is. 
  3. Meanwhile your other arm is pulling back powerfully, with a high elbow and a vertical forearm. 
  4. This is when you can take a breath. When your breathing arm is passing your face and your opposite arm is stretched forward holding you up. 
  5. Controlling your exhale is crucial or you’ll be rushing to get to your next arm stroke. If you can’t go under the water and exhale constantly and steadily for 10 seconds, that’s where to start. 
  6. Your core muscles, your abs are powering all this. Your shoulders are rotating almost 180 degrees but your hips are fairly steady and firm. 
  7. Your kick is narrow, not very big, it’s at the top of the water (most importantly) and is working independently of what is happening above your waist.  
  8. You feel long, narrow, tall, strong but lean, sharp, fluid. You feel powerful but never heavy. You’re in charge, in control but also fluid and in touch with the water. 
  9. And you are using significant strength to make it happen. But there’s more to lazy freestyle than muscles. You don’t need big muscles, you need a willingness to use what you’ve got. 
  10. You have to love the water for the water to love you back. You have to feel the water, not smack it, you need to want to be in the water for everything to happen smoothly.  

How to taper for swimming events

Have you got a big event coming up? Have you heard about tapering your training but don’t know exactly what that is about?

Tapering is not simply reducing your training or not training before a big event. Swimming tapering is different to the reductions you might make for running or cycling.

Plus it’s a very individual thing. It’s different for everyone and every kind of event. Ideally, you need a coach to give you some individual advice on how to taper your swimming and exercise regime as you approach your event.

If you are training for a long-distance swim event (or triathlon) try these 8 tips to adjust your training as the event gets closer:

  1. Tapering or resting? Firstly, ask yourself – have you been training hard enough to warrant a taper? No really, tapering is for people who are training seriously most days of the week and a swimming taper lasts up to four weeks (or more). Maybe you might be better off taking a few days rest before the race. Even then, you are best advised to still go for a swim, but make it an easy one, with a few longer reps with rests, a few drills and short sprints, again with rests.
  2. Get in the water. Tapering still involves plenty of swimming. You need to be swimming a lot in the lead up to an event or you risk losing some of your inherent feel for the water. So, in the last couple of weeks, you lower the intensity of your workouts but still spend plenty of time in the water. Maintain the frequency of your training – if you usually train four times per week, keep it at four or go up to five, don’t go down to three.
  3. Go easy. Double your easy, slow, warm-up metres and double your easy, slow cool-down metres. Cut out some of the hard main-set metres. You can mostly forget about butterfly but dolphin kick is good to keep your core activated and your feel of the water strong.
  4. Swim at race pace: Do a few laps at race pace, as hard as you can. But because we are in taper and going pretty easy, these have to be short with plenty of rest in between. So, sprint for just 25m, do it a few times with plenty of rest between these reps.
  5. Drills. Along with plenty of easy swimming, do all the drills, like Catch-Up, Fingerdrag, pool buoy, one-arm freestyle and kicking sets. You can use flippers and paddles but sparingly.
  6. Yoga instead of weights. Ease off weight training and heavy gym work a couple of weeks before an event. If you are into weight training (not compulsory for many distance swimmers), tone it all down a couple of weeks before an event.
  7. Don’t stress. Distance swimmers are used to hard work and long training sessions. Missing out on hard training can make endurance swimmers stress that they are not working hard enough. You taper your training when you know you have been doing the work.
  8.  Go to bed: Look after yourself in the lead up to an event. Don’t party too hard, eat well and get to bed early for a week beforehand. Try to get one hour more sleep per night than you usually might manage.
Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.com

I swim a lot … but I’m not getting faster …?

Ten tips to beat The Swimmer’s Plateau

Do you swim a lot but have stopped improving? You’re no longer getting faster?

This is a common issue for swimmers of all levels of ability – learners, people who are training for an event and elite competitive swimmer – and is called The Plateau.

Even elite swimmers can hit The Plateau and despite training for hours each day, they are not recording faster times, sometimes they are even getting slower times than they have done in the past.

The solution is not training more. The solution is to train differently, even just small changes can bust The Plateau and get you improving again.

If you aren’t getting fast anymore, despite lots of swimming metres and hours, think about these ten tips to beat The Plateau:

  1. Make sure you are having fun: Swimming is fun, that’s just science. Swimming only works if you’re having fun. Moving fast through the water, diving in, feeling strong in the water. These are all 100% enjoyable. If you have hit The Plateau go back to doing the stuff that drew you to the water in the first place and have a bit of fun every time you dive in. Don’t get out of the water if you’re not smiling and feeling amazing.
  2. Ask someone to watch you: A coach or an experienced swimmer may be able to see something small that you can improve to help you through The Plateau. You might be making a small mistake, every stroke that is keeping you from improving. The trick then is to act on the advice and feel the difference.
  3. Change things: Change the way you train. Go to a different venue. Complete a different set of reps. Swim for longer reps, or shorter sprints. Do more backstroke, breaststroke or some stroke that you rarely use.
  4. Be Patient: Think positively and stay conscious and in charge of your body every single stroke. If you are just going through the motions, you are not maximising your potential to swim well and swim effectively. Every single movement of every part of your body is important. Feel your way through and stay attuned to how your body is moving through the water.
  5. Go to the physio: If you have aches and pains and niggling little shoulder injuries, go and get help, get a massage, get fixed up. Little aches and pains might disappear from your conscious mind when you’re swimming but they don’t go away and could be impacting on how you move.
  6. Do some dryland training: Change things up a bit and move your body in different ways. This can help you get out of the rut and break through The Plateau. Go running, cycling or head to the gym.
  7. Use some swim gear – Fins (flippers, paddles, snorkel) to get you moving differently and using your systems more effectively. What is really happening is you are focussed and making more of an effort with specific muscle systems.
  8. Just do sprints – Do some sessions of short sharp superfast sprinting. Maybe you have adjusted t the hard endurance training and the long-distance reps. Break through The Plateau by just going flat out.
  9. Swim with friends: Ask a friend to come train with you or find a group to swim with. Sometimes we hit The Plateau because we have made our swimming a isolated, lonely activity. Make it a social exercise and don’t be concerned if you are not as fast as other people.
  10. Take a rest: have a rest week away from the pool or the open water and get recharged and reenergised. Maybe you’ve been pushing it too hard. During your week off, do plenty of stretching and other activities.
Photo by Jennifer Polanco on Pexels.com