As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve been struggling with my freestyle swimming form. I’ve attended a TriClub technique swim, researched online, read The Triathlete’s Training Bible, and talked to other triathletes about technique and I’ve come up with a lot of different advice. However, the overarching principle that seems to tie all of these sources together is form is everything. I liked the way The Triathlete’s Training Bible put it best: Swimming is like golf. You won’t get any better at golf by going out and playing as much as possible – you get better by learning the correct technique and form. Swimming is the same – great improvements can be made by making some simple changes to your form. In my case and in the case of most triathletes, endurance isn’t what is holding us back from being great swimmers – we can run a half marathon or bike 50 miles easily, but 50 yards in the pool can leave us heaving for air.
The main questions I needed answered were. 1) What is wrong with my current swim technique? 2) What is right about my current swim technique? 3) What can I do to make my technique better? Since my research and time spent at TriClub technique swims wasn’t really giving me any answers to the questions. I’ve taken a look at Mr. Smooth, which is a computer generated animation of a man swimming with the “perfect form” but it was hard for me to figure out exactly what he was doing as compared to me.
So, I did some research on people in San Diego that offer swim video analysis, and I found Coach Jim Vance. I had heard good things about him and I knew he was involved in the Tri Club, so I decided to go with him.
Underwater Swim Analysis
I met Jim at a local pool on Monday after work. After a 200 yard warm-up in which he video taped my form from above the pool, we moved on to a few fast 50s. Jim explained that true form comes out when people are swimming at race pace. After the first 50 he told me that I swam it in 38 seconds with 37 strokes. I have counted my strokes before during a 50 and it was usually 37-38 so this sounded about right. If you haven’t heard of it, Swim Golf is a drill where you swim 50 meters hard and count your strokes (one stroke = right and left arm entering and exiting) and then add it to the number of seconds it took you to complete the 50. In this case my golf score was 75. 75 isn’t a bad score, but the ratio of strokes to seconds wasn’t ideal. Although everyone’s ideal stroke to seconds ratio is individualized, it’s helpful if you can use fewer strokes to get yourself across the pool and therefore use less energy.
Jim had me repeat my hard 50 again and this time he taped me below the water. Then he asked me to do it again but this increase my arm cadence. I felt myself not pulling as far into the water when I tried this technique. He had me swim one more 50 and this time he taped me from the front. After only 400 yards we were finished and after I changed we headed to a local coffee shop to go over the results.
Jim mentioned at the pool that he immediately saw some things I could work on. He told me that he prefers to give his athletes three things to focus on improving so that they aren’t bombarded with information. First, however, he began by explaining that he believes there are three main principles of good swim technique:
- Length. Swimmers should spend as much time as possible in the lengthened state.
- Pressure. Knowing when and how to apply pressure in the water is key.
- Direction. Pressure means nothing if not applied in the correct direction.
Next, he went on to explain that I’m not spending enough time in a lengthy position, I’m not applying enough pressure in the water and I also apply pressure in the wrong direction at times. What a mess!
What I Do Wrong:
I have work to do in all three areas, but first and foremost, I need to work on where my hand enters the water and how far I reach. Oddly enough, my left and right hands enter the water at different times. My right hand enters earlier and then I push forward and reach, dropping my shoulder and losing power. My left hand enters farther out and gathers more water to push down and propel me forward. The left arm is right and the right arm is wrong.
Once my hand enters the water, my “catch” is pretty weak, especially on the right side since I’ve already lost half of the water by letting my hand sink a bit. Once I catch the water, I then pull it in a crazy motion under my body. I was originally taught the “S curve” method where you make an S under your body as you push it down, thereby pushing more water. Then, as I’ve learned that this is wrong, I’ve been trying to correct it and I ended up with a funny looking pull. In this case, both of my arms are wrong, although I tend to pull in a different way with each arm. Instead, I need to focus on keeping my fingers pointed to the bottom of the pool when I am pulling. This will ensure that all the water I’m moving is propelling me forward, not in a different direction. I’ve found that in open water swimming I tend to veer left and this is due to the fact that when my right hand pulls, I end up actually pulling some of the water across my body in a diagonal motion from left to right, pushing me toward the left.
Although Jim was trying not to bombard me with all the things I do wrong, he also mentioned that I need to work on the timing of my stroke so that I can gain that much desired length. I should spend the most time possible in the stretched out position, which means that as soon as I start the pull with one arm, the other arm should be propelling above the water to start the catch.
Practice Makes Perfect
As Jim explained good swim technique and what I was doing wrong, he also had me stand up and practice. We were in an empty coffee shop but I still felt like a nut pretending to swim without water. After several attempts of throwing my arm up and over and then pulling it down as the other arm came up, I really understood what he meant. I could feel my hips thrusting forward and creating extra power as I moved my arms. He pointed out that this power is why great swimmers tend to nearly float on top of the water when they swim, just like a speed boat moves up on top of the water when it accelerates quickly.
Before we wrapped up the session, Jim gave me four main points to work on. He also followed up with these four points via e-mail the next day in addition to sending copies of my video for me to take a look at.
- Further entry point of your hand into the water, out in front of you. Remember, as you get tired you will shorten, so this is the first item to focus on. It will generate momentum for you and keep you higher up on the surface of the water. This will also prevent that hand from shooting down and then back up. I think it will also help you swim straighter in the open water.
- Keep your fingers pointed to the bottom of the pool when you swim. This will straighten out that pull, and allow more of the energy to displace you forward, which is where you want to go.
- Use a snorkel. This item will help you watch your hands and movements without worrying about breathing
Practice bi-lateral breathing. This will help build your coordination of the movements, and become more aware of your stroke.
I was able to get in the pool twice this week and I focused solely on the points mentioned above. Part of me was hoping that swimming would miraculously become much easier and my times would improve dramatically in just one or two session in the pool, but of course this is unrealistic. I did, however, notice a slight increase in speed and decrease in effort expended as I incorporated Jim’s suggestions (focusing on one at a time during each 50 yard interval). I also am much more confident now because I know what I need to work on. Jim told me to drop the drills (ie catch up drill, zipper drill, etc) and instead just focus my mind on specific parts of my stroke as I swim normal freestyle. I know that Jim’s advice is going to improve not only my swim stroke but also remove a lot of the doubt I was having about what the correct form should look and feel like. There’s a lot of advice and various techniques out there which have created a lot of confusion for me, but now that I’ve chosen Jim’s as my own technique, I have a guideline to follow and can finally focus on getting better.
If you are in the San Diego area and are interested in getting a swim analysis, you can read more about Jim and his services here: http://coachvance.blogspot.com/2008/01/coaching-by-jim-vance-trainingbible.html .
Have you ever had a swim analysis done? If not, what ways of learning proper form have worked for you?