- Technique and Training
No Blocks? No Problem!
Developing dives when you can’t practice on starting blocks
If your local swimming pool doesn’t have starting blocks (or won’t let you dive off them), don’t despair. Here are some ways to ensure spectacular starts when it’s your turn to take your mark.
Check your facility’s rules before practicing any dives. Make sure:
- It’s OK with the lifeguards for you to practice your starts.
- The pool is deep enough, preferably at least 6 feet.
- You have a stable and nonslip starting surface.
- You have no injuries or weaknesses that could be aggravated by diving.
- Your suit string is tied and your cap and goggles are positioned correctly.
It may be tempting to practice your starts off diving boards, footstools, or even piles of kickboards, but don’t do it. Those methods are extremely dangerous. And even if you did manage to survive, the unstable platform would teach you bad habits that wouldn’t help on race day.
The keys to a good start include the following:
- Balance—Do you have your feet positioned correctly and your center of mass forward? Find that spot where you feel gravity wanting to help you launch but not so far forward that you can’t keep from falling in.
- Reaction time—How quickly do you respond when you hear the starter’s signal?
- Economy of motion—Is every part of your body moving forward? Avoid swinging your arms around, rocking back onto your heels, or standing up straight before launch. Don’t trust your own senses; get a coach to watch (or record) you to verify that you aren’t wasting motion.
- Thrust, launch angle, and entry—Traveling through air is faster than traveling through water, but the water resistance at the surface can immediately erase any air-travel advantage if the entry isn’t clean. The goal is to translate your airspeed into equivalent water speed, which means minimizing the resistance at impact. Rather than trying to fly as far as possible, look for the maximum leap distance that still lets you poke a hole in the water with your hands and then squeeze your entire streamlined body through that same tiny hole. In other words, leap in, not up.
- Streamline and breakout—Always consider the streamline and breakout as part of the start (just as they are part of every turn.) Because of the start’s additional velocity, your optimal depth and kick distance from a start will vary from what you experience on turns, so factor that into your breakout planning.
For further discussion of these elements, read Coach Scott Bay’s article on track starts.
Practicing Without Blocks
I know you’ve already tried this, but I need to mention it anyway—the best option is to find a Masters club with starting blocks, a good coach, and a program that includes meet preparation. If that’s not an option for you, make sure you plan to arrive early at your competitions so you can warm up on the starting blocks that will be used in your events. (Note: Do that even if you dive off the blocks every day at your home pool. Each facility has its own feel, whether it’s the grittiness of the starting block surface, the lighting, or even the undulation you’ll feel on a floating bulkhead.)
The good news is that we can train each of the fundamentals listed above, even without blocks.
For streamline and breakout, every push off the wall is a training opportunity. Stack your hands, press your arms against your ears, and make sure your head is in line with your spine. Visualize holding that position as you enter the water.
Of thrust, launch angle, and entry, the entry is the critical part to work on when you don’t have blocks. If you can practice dives from the side edge of the pool, work on achieving that “one hole” entry by adding a little arc to your dive, so that you come forward and down into the water rather than landing flat.
When diving from the side, select an entry target (visualize a floating hula hoop) that’s only a couple of feet away from the wall, so that you can practice how it feels to enter cleanly. If you try to dive too far out, you’ll smack the water and lose your speed. The key is to create a habit of getting hands together, shoulders narrow, and head down every time you enter the water. If you can’t get feedback from an observer, listen to the sound your body makes as it enters. If you hear a small “bloop” sound, it’s good. A loud “splat” or “ker-whunk!” is bad. If your goggles come off, it’s probably not that they need to be tightened, it’s that your arms need to cradle your head better.
Diving from the edge is all about clean entry, not about flight. It’s a lot easier to take a clean entry up to a higher launch point than it is to clean up a high-flying bellybuster.
Economy of motion and reaction time can be practiced anywhere. Take a stable stance and reach down to place your hands on the floor. You can have someone give you an external start command or you can simply create one in your mind. When that command happens, snap your arms straight out into your streamline position (with head in between them, of course) and take a little hop to simulate your legs firing into your dive. Visualize a clean entry into the water but don’t actually do a dive. (Carpet face plants can be embarrassing and painful!)
Balance and thrust are the two elements that can be enhanced by dryland training that goes beyond simple practice. Enhance balance by doing unstable exercises, such as one-legged squats, squats on a BOSU ball, or standing on one leg with your core engaged. Yoga, Pilates, and any ab-strengthening exercises are also good for supporting balance. Regularly stretching the glutes, hamstrings, and quads can also help you achieve a stable “start-ready” body position when you climb up on the blocks.
Lunges, jumps, and heavy squats can increase your thrust off the blocks. But any explosive-motion exercises can be sources of injury (especially for more mature athletes), so it’s best to perform these under the supervision of a qualified coach or personal trainer.
If you experience vertigo or dizziness when ascending the blocks, consult a physician to see if you have an inner ear problem and perform your starts from the pool deck or in the water.
Don’t wait until a week before the meet to work on your starting technique. Visualize yourself going off the blocks as you begin each workout repeat. Think about reaction time when you’re bored in your office. Watch online videos of great swimmers starting when you’re surfing your phone at the coffee shop, and count perfect entries and arrowlike streamlines instead of sheep when you’re trying to fall asleep at night.