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by Terry Heggy

June 30, 2016

Flip your focus to break out of your training rut

Performance improvement comes when you continually add challenges as you increase your fitness and expertise. This process of escalation is called progressive adaptation. Once your mind and body adapts to a certain workload, you become stagnant if you don’t progressively force yourself to strive beyond your current level.

The obvious way to achieve progressive adaptation is to simply work harder (swim farther, lift heavier, go on faster sendoffs, etc.) But committing to a strictly effort-based approach carries hidden dangers—including overtraining, mental fatigue, and injury. An equally damaging risk is that it neglects important technique elements that fall outside the strength-power-fitness trinity.

Scheduling an Opposites Day workout once a month is a good way to keep yourself out of the muscle-head rut. By periodically reversing elements of your normal workout routine, you create a fun and refreshing way to improve your technique. Here are some suggestions:

Contrary Kicking

Instead of merely using kick sets as a chance to rest your arms, look for ways to gain an advantage.

  • Harness the hamstrings—Many Masters swimmers tend to perform flutter and dolphin kick almost exclusively with the front muscles of their thighs, similar to the effort used in kicking a soccer ball. Effective kickers also put effort into the opposite motion (the upbeat of a freestyle or dolphin kick). Practice this by making sure that the feet flex so that pressure is exerted against the top of the foot when extending the leg (quadriceps extension), and against the bottom of the foot (sole) when bending (hamstring contraction). Think of it as continuous thrust that changes direction instead of an effort/recovery cycle.
    Reminder: Even though you’re kicking in both directions, don’t over-bend the knee. Keep your feet within your body’s drag profile. If your knee goes anywhere near a 90° bend, you’re creating more drag than propulsion.
  • Belly-up for breaststroke—Do some breaststroke kicking on your back. Being able to breathe in this position enables you to concentrate on the motion of your feet and ankles without worrying about what your head is doing. You can also watch your knees to make sure they stay inside the arc of your feet and fairly flat in relation to your body line.
  • Ramp up the resistance—Instead of resting your arms on the kickboard as you chat with your buddies, hold the board vertically in the water so it provides a solid surface to push against. If you’re really ambitious, just do your kicking right up against the wall. (Note: If the wall actually moves, your kick is probably good enough.) Drop (or add) fins, do sit-ups before a dolphin kick set to increase your core awareness, or just focus on speeding up your off-the-wall underwater kicking cadence. Whatever you have been doing on your kick sets, just try something different.

Relish the Recovery

We tend to focus on the power (catch and pull) phase of our strokes. On Opposites Day, though, we concentrate on recovery.

  • Relax—Experiment with recovery motions until you find one that seem effortless, but still enables the hand entry position you want for your next catch. Despite the popularity of the “high-elbow recovery” drill for freestyle, the truth is that many Masters swimmers waste energy trying to imitate some swimmer with an entirely different flexibility profile. The critical thing is how your hand gets into the catch position not how it travels through the air.
  • Notice your neckBreathing should also be a relaxed movement. Pay attention to whether you’re throwing your head, lifting it too high, or taking yourself out of line. Are you equally relaxed when you breathe to the opposite side? The more relaxed your neck muscles are when you breathe, the more energy will be available to the muscles in your back and shoulders.

Play with the Pool

Think about the things you do in your regular workouts and find their opposites. Do you always start in the water? Well, then consider going off the blocks for an entire workout. Be creative:

  • Reverse the revolution—Swim circles clockwise instead of counterclockwise. (Of course, you’ll need a consensus from your lanemates for this one. It could be dangerous if anyone loses focus. But it’s a good way to remind yourself that racing is not done in an ellipse.)
  • Withdraw from the wall—Start your set from a treading water position rather than by pushing off the wall. Flip your turns just far enough out that you don’t quite touch the wall. This forces you to focus on kicking and pulling hard to regain the lost momentum. Even though you swim less distance, it’s quite a challenge to try to hit your normal times without using the wall. Try it!
  • Bounce off the bottom—If your pool is deep enough, practice your streamline pushoff and dolphin kick by sinking down to the bottom and pushing off vertically. Your buoyancy will enable faster speed than you can achieve horizontally, and it’s fun! See how much of your body clears the water when you reach the surface (visualize yourself as Flipper). Just remember to keep your head between your arms and in line with your spine; don’t look up.

Any experience in a pool, ocean, or lake (or even a hot tub) can serve to enhance awareness of your body’s relationship with the water. Sculling, gliding, and even running in water can provide an opportunity to grow more sensitive to your efficiency, drag profile, and propulsion technique, so allow yourself days to work on the part of swimming that isn’t about the effort of exertion. Grab your workout calendar right now and schedule your next Opposites Day for well-rounded swimming!


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Workouts
  • Kicking
  • Mental Training