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by Kerry O Brien

January 3, 2011

You cannot armchair a football game on Saturday or Sunday without the commentators educating you on the importance of "success in the Red Zones" as a barometer for a team's success on the scoreboard. This is a special part of every game plan, and worked into every day's practice schedule.

If a team is incapable of executing from twenty yards out from the goal line, a winning outcome is highly unlikely.

It doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to see how this same philosophy can be incorporated into our game plan for successful racing.

Our "Red Zones" are the five yards in and out of every wall and the 10 yards into the finish, and our race success will depend on the elements within this area being executed with speed and precision. Preparing these techniques should be a part of our race strategy – practiced and rehearsed many, many times before race day.

Consider the following:

  • In 50- and 100-yard sprints – over 40% of your race is made up of the start, turns and finish.
  • If giving your turns a little consideration enabled you to take two tenths of a second off each turn, that would reduce your 500 time by 3.8 seconds without ever changing your swim speed. If, through focus and diligence, you could shave five tenths of a second off each turn, the same 500 has now dropped a whopping 9.5 seconds, again without really changing the swimming in between.
  • A 3,000-yard short course workout gives you 120 opportunities a day to practice your Red Zone skills. How one chooses to use those opportunities often creates the gap between good and great swims.

It is common knowledge that you are never traveling faster than when you dive off the blocks or push off the walls. Everything after that is a deceleration. How quickly you lose that speed is dependent on different factors, such as strength of push-off, streamlining, angle of ascent to the surface, and timing of breakout stroke. These are all things that can be focused on either separately or collectively to increase "Red Zone" efficiency.

Your first Red Zone encounter is the start, and unfortunately, most clubs and workout groups lack sufficient space and time to give this the focus it deserves. Learning proper technique is first and foremost a safety issue. Once this hurdle is cleared, focus then transitions to: 1) stance for optimal force, 2) reaction time, 3) angle of entry, 4) streamline, 5) leg drive, and 6) breakout stroking – we should never arrive at the surface in a streamline kicking position. It is important to learn how to swim to the surface to carry speed.

Our turns are actually a 10-yard (five in and five out) negotiation of speed, timing, and technique. Within these 10 yards, we have the: 1) approach – the idea of increasing speed into a turn instead of slowing is not instinctual, and needs to be trained, 2) the turn itself, 3) feet plant, 4) the push-off, 5) streamline, 6) leg drive, and 7) breakout stroking.

The last Red Zone encounter will be the finish. The 2008 Olympics showed us what a difference a well-timed finish can make, and how that could affect your place on the podium. Here our Red Zone actually extends to 10 yards out, as 1) speed is increased, 2) breath control might be managed differently, 3) stoke length adjustments can be made to assure 4) a well-timed full stroke finish is made with 5) hand/hands stabbing the wall.

Each Red Zone skill obviously has multiple pieces, many of which are replicated from skill to skill. Streamlining is crucial to all three. Therefore, any focus on this that you incorporate into your sets will benefit all three areas.

One day a week, the concentration can be hand-over-hand, locked elbows against the side of the head and eyes looking down to begin the send-off of every repeat. Another day can focus on extended streamlines and leg drive off every wall, learning how particular pieces build off one another. Perhaps a third day can stress build-up speed so that every repeat has its fastest swimming within the final 10 yards. Challenge yourself or your swimmers to begin thinking about number of strokes to the wall as early as possible, so adjustments in stroke length and tempo can be made outside of the flags to ensure a full stroke finish. This is one of those skills that take time to develop. An important element to working finishes is to structure your lane send-offs and swimmers so that everyone has a clean shot at the wall.

Red Zone Training only helps to strengthen the argument that swimming is a highly skilled sport. We need to always strive to be creative in our teaching and coaching, and continue to stress that we will race only those skills we have practiced – good and bad.