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Technique and Training

Five Focus Areas for Continual Improvement

Defeat the demons of distraction

Terry Heggy | January 6, 2016

Swimming is a big part of our lives, but it’s not the only thing we think about. Thoughts about family, work, and what’s for dinner can float through our heads as we float through the water. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; swimming is a great way to relieve stress and relax, even while we’re working hard. Singing, thinking about to-do lists, and anticipating an upcoming vacation are all legitimate things to do as we crank out laps to get a good cardio workout.

But if we really want to improve our swimming and get faster, we need to fight the distraction demons and maintain concentration. Here are five focus areas that can maximize the benefit you’ll get from each workout you complete.

1. Streamline Focus

The biggest contributor to success in swimming is drag reduction, also known as streamlining. Reducing unnecessary water resistance ensures that the effort we apply is translated into speed. Major streamline considerations include:

  • Length: Longer boats go faster. A straight-arm, turbulence-free catch not only sets you up for an effective pull, but also extends your body’s length to take advantage of the long-boat phenomenon.
  • Width: Minimize motion that bends your spine, such as reaching to the side for your breath, or stroking too far outside or across your body. Increasing shoulder flexibility can help narrow your profile.
  • Depth: A good catch also helps minimize your vertical drag profile by providing balance in the water so the feet won’t go too deep. Proper kick technique, spinal-aligned breathing, and early vertical forearm engagement contribute to minimal-depth posture, as well.

Giving ourselves feedback on these techniques is certainly beneficial, but our kinesthetic perceptions don’t always precisely match reality. It’s best to get technique verification from a video, a coach, or other observer who knows what to look for.

2. Propulsion Focus

Effectively applying power requires more than just muscular strength. We need to understand and control the tools we use to generate propulsion.

Upper Body

Primary upper-body power comes from the core, the back, the shoulders, and the arms. But the surface that actually creates thrust in the water consists of your hand and forearm operating as a single unit. Critical elements of hand/forearm motion include:

  • The catch: A clean (no bubbles) hand entry ensures contact with the water, rather than just air and turbulence.
  • The hand/forearm paddle: A larger hand surface contacts more water—so make sure your hand isn’t cupped or forming a claw. Keep your hand in line with your forearm and not bent up or sideways at the wrist.
  • Early vertical forearm: As you begin your pull, make sure your hand/forearm paddle leads the way, keeping the elbow high.
  • Acceleration to the finish: Be aware of the entire path your hand takes through the water, and make sure you keep the pressure on to continue accelerating until you finish the stroke and begin the recovery.

Perfect these techniques during drill sets, but also focus on them during work. If you’re doing repeat 100s, for example, you could focus on each bullet for one length of each swim.

Lower Body

Once we master the art of keeping the legs within our streamline profile, we can focus on applying them effectively.

  • Kick cadence: Our “kicks per stroke” tempo may depend on the distance and stroke being swum, as well as our individual body geometry. But it pays to be aware of it at all times, and to make adjustments when necessary.
  • Launch power: The starting blocks and walls are where our legs do the majority of the work, including the push-off, the underwater kick, and the establishment of rhythm into the breakout stroke. Gain an advantage by emphasizing these techniques during every single start and turn you perform during your practice.

Your legs give you plenty of feedback. For example, if you feel pressure on the outsides of your thighs, you might be “fishtailing” out of alignment. (The solution is usually a smoother breathing motion.) If you feel unexpected leg fatigue, you might want to emphasize your exhalation. If there’s no thrust from the legs, it might help to work on ankle flexibility during dryland practice.

3. Turn Focus

In addition to push-off thrust and underwater kick focus on turns, we’ll also benefit from paying attention to the following:

  • Legality: Always practice two-hand touches on breaststroke and butterfly, continuous motion for the last stroke into a backstroke turn, only one dolphin kick on breaststroke turns, etc.
  • Quickness: In the middle of a long workout, it’s tempting to get lazy on turns. But the only way to ensure snappy turns in a race is to make them snappy in practice.
  • Streamline: If you normally swim circles, make sure you somehow find time to practice “down the middle” turns so you won’t revert to slow circle turns in a meet. Get hands together in streamline position before you push off, execute core-driven kicks, and find that sweet spot for the breakout with the best compromise between underwater speed and “held my breath too long” fatigue. To be able to stay underwater longer off the wall, you have to practice staying underwater longer off the wall.

Practicing good technique on turns will help us be more consistent with good starts when we practice them, as well.

4. Spatial Focus

Swimming with others in the lane causes us to unconsciously develop collision-avoidance stroke adaptations, including lifting the head to look forward, altering recovery to avoid swimmers in the next lane, and dropping the elbow on backstroke to avoid walls or lane mates, etc. It’s important to look for opportunities to correct these adaptations so they don’t become habits. Whenever you have open water, take that opportunity to move toward the middle of the lane and perform your entire stroke without spatial compromise.

  • When you lead the lane, you’ll probably have open water for the first length.
  • When you follow in the lane, you may have open water for the last length of the swim.
  • When the set is one-length swims (e.g. 25s), you should be able to go right down the middle.

If those situations aren’t available, ask your coach for more “free space” work sets or find other times to swim when there aren’t crowds.

5. Recovery Focus

Recovery is an essential part of training. But it’s more than merely resting between workouts; it also includes what you do between swims within a workout. Active recovery techniques include:

  • Standing up rather than crouching at the end of a swim to allow the diaphragm to fully process air through the lungs
  • Stretching shoulders, arms, legs, and neck
  • Swimming at an easy effort level while concentrating on breathing and proper form.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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