Why it's important and how to get it
The coolest thing about being a Masters coach is the diversity of swimmers that you coach in any workout. From the beginners in lane one to swimmers who have spent their entire lives coming to workouts in lane 5.
From the deck the most obvious difference between lane 1 and 5 is alignment. If Michael Phelps is the 100% bar, than a typical masters elite lane would be 70-85%, intermediate 60-70%, beginner/intermediate 40-60%, beginner 0-40%. No matter the motivation to train, swimmers should always be looking to increase their percentage of good alignment. It does not take more fitness to go faster, it takes less drag! Bad alignment = drag.
Top Down A-lign-ment
Head in “lign” with your spine. You have heard that a zillion times.
Spine in “lign” with your head—less well known or talked about. The spine is extremely powerful, the very center (core) of you. If your spine (cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacrum) is not in the correct place and/or moving about on strokes and breathing, a bunch of muscles will have to fire to help maintain your balance and “lign” in the water. The more muscles you use, the more precious oxygen you use up! I call the bones the “general” and the muscles the “private.” The general knows which private is good at which job, and cues movement via your bones. Your spine is a big, versatile, flexible, and smart set of bones. Think about the following things to cue up good alignment:
Start with your skull (huge bone mass), which is kept in place by the cervical spine or your neck bones. Your neck should be kept as straight as possible, curving your neck to bring your heavy skull out of the water will sink your lumbar spine (belly area) and entire hip region. Curving your neck to push your skull too low will make many parts of the stroke difficult (especially retrieving oxygen). So, keep your neck bones long and decompressed allowing your head to be flush with the water “lign.”
Moving on to your thoracic spine (rib cage area). This is a gold mine of power at best, an alignment disaster at worst. The thoracic spine has a natural curve (up toward the sky), when the rib bones (from the front) are allowed to drop/open toward the bottom of the pool they pull the spine with them removing the curve. The curve keeps your body straight and allows for the natural space between your vertebrae, which in turn keeps all the organs happy and working well for you while you are putting them under a bit of stress. Oh, and it keeps you swimming downhill instead of uphill. Keep your rib bones knit in front and your thoracic spine curved upward toward the sky.
A great drill is to lie on top of two kickboards, kick with hands out in front, spine curved toward sky, kick 25, swim 50 add a board each time you get back to where you have them stacked.
Lower back (lumbar), hipbones (ilium, sacrum, and tail) or better known as “hips,” are completely misunderstood by most. Your hipbones are blood factories consisting of thick powerful bones surrounded by nerves for smart movement. Your lumbar vertebrae are the thickest, biggest bad a** bones of your spine; when the lumbar is stabilized (kept in place with the help of correct head, neck, rib), the all-knowing and powerful ilium/sacrum (hip bones) can rock from side to side so your weight can shift and drive you with speed and power in the direction you want it to go. Your hipbones do not rotate, they shift from side to side like a teeter totter!
Ball joints make all weight shift possible. Much like a car, you can have all the power you need coming out of your engine (core), but if one of your tires is flat you are in big trouble. Take a lane of 8 swimmers racing and I promise you the gal/guy who sends a leg out sideways (not using the ball joint to keep the leg behind) with a breath or stroke will not be the first one to the wall.
Going from hip to knee: keep your knees together like your mother always told you. Super drill for this involves holding a ring (the ones kids dive for) between your knees. Start with a kickboard, go to one-arm drill with breath, and then on to swimming, all the while holding the ring between your knees. When you get good at that, try a dime. Your knees should remain close both from the center point of view as well as up and down. This allows your femur (great big leg bone) to remain stabilized and therefore powerful, while your hips shift from side to side. The fact that you have ball joints makes all that possible. See Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video for a demonstration of what the ball joints are capable of.
Your ankle joint is loosy goosy (not even attached to anything). Leave it that way and it will allow your foot to move in a circle as though it is stuck in a whirlpool in a perfect “lign” behind your body taking on its own effortless speed. Get that foot out of the vortex and you will have to burn a lot of oxygen to keep it moving. Your homework here would be to watch some underwater video of Michael Phelps and notice how his feet really do move in a circle—so cool.
The more you keep your bones right where they were meant to be in “a-lign-ment,” the easier and faster you will accomplish all your swimming goals.