Written By: Ray Delahoussaye
In this blog, I will briefly discuss the five pillars of swimming and their importance.
Swimming is hard. I get it. It requires, work, focus, patience and dedication but it also requires one to self-assess, identify with one’s weakness and fight those head on instead of being afraid of them.
So many athletes focus on their strengths 95% of the time. Why? Because failing scares us. Can I do this? You can! Turn that fear into excitement about learning something new and the chance to be better at something. So, let’s look at the pillars and hope they shed some insight on your swimming.
Breathing - This one is huge and one people struggle with the most. Breathing is a natural function. It is how we survive every day. It is natural when we bike, when we run, when we walk but when we get in the water it is not. Mistake #1- You hold your breath when you swim. Most think holding your breath while you swim will keep you afloat more efficiently and therefor swim easier. If only! Next time you go running take in a deep breath and hold it and continue running…. Doesn’t work, well does it?? Same with swimming. Don’t hold your breath. Holding the air in causes a build-up of carbon dioxide in the lungs, which causes tightening of the shoulders, chest and entire upper body and creates panic. It also increases your upper body to sit higher in the water which in turn causes your hips to sink in the water and add more drag to your body. Take in only the air you need, as the head goes back into the water breathe the air out immediately out of the nose/mouth and then continue to roll to the side to take your next breath. As practice, take a normal breath, push off the wall in a prone position and kick, then rotate to the side and take a breath. Continuing practicing just this until you are comfortable and then add 1-3 freestyle strokes in with it. You can also do this drill with a kickboard. Use the warmup to do exercises like this, they will pay off in the end!
Body Position – Where your head is in relationship to your spine makes a big difference. Some swim with an aggressive head up position-looking forward, which causes the hips to sink, water hitting at almost eye level. You see a lot of sprinters employ this technique but your kick must be very efficient and powerful to overcome the drag that it creates. Some have a head down position-looking directly at the bottom of the pool. This can cause excess frontal drag as the water is now hitting your shoulders and not rolling off the head properly to create a bow wave. With the head being this low it makes it very difficult to take a breath. So, what is a good position? You are essentially looking to remain neutral, somewhere between the two above mentioned positions and the water should be hitting the crown of your head. When done right this creates a bow wave off the front of your head. In doing so a pocket of air is formed between the surface of the water and the person’s head. It takes some practice but once you find that sweet spot, taking that breath becomes easier.
The Kick – To have a good kick one must work on it. If it’s a weakness don’t shy away from it, embrace it as a weakness and truly put in the time and quality work to get it done. Don’t just do endless laps of kicking drills without knowing why it is being done. Know the focus of the drill. Most triathletes employ a 2-beat kick. Timing; when the left hand enters the water and begins pulling the right leg/foot should be performing a kick. This should happen naturally with most but it is something to pay attention to as this helps balance counter rotation and driving the hips for propulsion. Also, having good flexibility in the body especially at the hips and feet is very important for a strong efficient kick. Being able to keep your feet in plantar flexion is a must to have propulsion from your kick. The other issue I see is swimmers trying to kick from the knee. This is common in those who have either been cyclists or runners their entire life and try to drive power from the knee. The leg remains straight with a soft bend in the knee. Focus on the heel of the foot breaking the surface. The kick should be vertical, not horizontal. Having an effective kick allows one to engage the core and hips as part of the full swim stroke. I won’t get into SD (Shoulder driven), HD (Hip-driven) styles of freestyle. I’ll save that for another blog.
The Arms/Hands – Propulsion, the arms and hands are a swimmers main source of propulsion, so naturally we want to take care in making sure this is efficient and effective. Hands should enter the water with fingers pointed down and relaxed. The arms and hands should also remain on the outside of the body; meaning they should not cross your centerline. What’s my centerline? Thing of an imaginary line that runs from your head to your feet through the center of your body. Anytime your hand or arm crosses this line during swimming, you are creating frontal drag, reducing angular velocity and force on the water, misalignment of the stroke and shoulder injury. The elbow should remain at or close to 90% as possible. The closer the elbow is to the surface of the water the better to an extent. This depends on one’s flexibility a great deal. Working on flexibility with yoga and functional strength can be very beneficial for a swimmer. Also, allowing one’s shoulder to drop in the water can also cause frontal drag and efficiency problems in the water.
Technique - So how do I fix all this? Ah, the 5th pillar and probably the most important. Technique! Whether you do a self-analysis or have a swim coach analyze your swim stroke, this is a perfect way to get an idea of and visually see what you are doing incorrect. Drills and technique exercises can be put in place to help all the systems align and work together as an efficient system through the water. The warmup and cooldown is a perfect way to focus on technique and drill work, and slow everything down and focus on 1 or 2 areas at a time. If you are doing drills make it a priority to know “Why am I doing this Drill?” “What is the focus of this drill?” Focus on feeling the water and how you move through it. Separate each system and pillar individually each swim session. For the warmup focus on kicking technique and drills, for the cooldown focus on breathing or hand entry.
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