May 132012

Happy Mother’s Day to all of our Mom’s out there! In thinking about what an incredible job that Mom’s do, and knowing how hectic life is these days, I thought a post on something soothing and smooth might be in order. I’m combining our Drill of the Week and Tip of the Week as one post. As you read through, you’ll see why.

Sometimes we have those days in our swimming where it all seems so easy and smooth. You sail through your workout and even contemplate that you just might be Olympic calibre.  Visions of Jessica Hardy and Ryan Lochte dance through your head.

Then there are those days that are quite a bit more challenging. You know what I’m talking about! You thrash, you splash and somehow, most unelegantly, you make your way to the other end. No matter what happens, you just can’t “get your groove on”. What’s up with that?

Ah mate…you just lost your rhythm. Thoughts of the Olympics are dashed and you think you just might need remedial lessons. The good news is that the loss is temporary, and you can work to get it back.

In an earlier write up, I posted about cylinder swimming. It isn’t something that just happens, you have to concentrate and be vigilant about your position, line and balance in the water. There is another component to your swimming, your rhythm, and it requires the same level of attention. You need to pay attention to your rhythm and cadence – in your breathing, in your stroking, in your kicking.

For me, backstroke and freestyle provide optimal opportunity to feel rhythm. Both are very symmetrical strokes. I often find myself counting some form of cadence as I stroke along – 1-2-3-4 or 1-2-3. It can be so mesmerizing and relaxing! Definitely my “Zen moment”. This is possible, also, with butterfly and breaststroke, just takes a bit more work to relax and get into the stroke.  Those two strokes can suck away the oxygen rather quickly, so establishing proper breathing is critical.

Alright then, so how do you find this magical feeling? Allow yourself to experience a practice session without a clock or timing device. Let go of that for the purposes of this goal to find and maintain rhythm in your swimming. Start out by focusing on your breathing. Do some very easy laps kicking on your back while you gently breathe in and out. Don’t kick hard (and fins are fine).  Keeping that breathing relaxed, focus on your streamline, and then your kick. Keep the knee bend to a minimum, kick from the hips, point the toes slightly. Is your kick even? Smooth?

Now try gentle and easy freestyle strokes, continuing to focus on keeping that breathing relaxed. If kicking isn’t your strong suit, for now, put on a pull buoy.

Breathe when you want – don’t worry about whether that is every stroke, every third, or some other cadence. Each time your face hits the water, be sure and exhale – gently and smoothly. Don’t hold your breath for even a second! Just let it flow back and forth. Continue focusing on finding a rhythm in your breathing – whatever your cycle of breathing may be.

When you have your breathing relaxed, swim a lap where you focus on noticing the timing of your strokes with your breathing. Can you find a pattern? Do you have a “hitch” in your stroke that you can smooth out so that it feels like it can match up to a metronome?

As you begin to feel that you’ve got rhythm at slow speeds, take it up a notch. Don’t work harder at your stroking or kicking, just simply increase the rhythm ever so slightly. If you falter, back up a step (or steps) until you begin to find the rhythm. Keep at it! Once you find that incredible feeling, it is addictive and you will want to find it again and again.

For you competitors out there, this is a great way to ramp up for meets or open water swims. Do sets where you first find the smooth rhythm, and then increase the tempo of that rhythm. Focus on those increases in rhythm more than effort in your stroke. You just might like those results. 🙂

Once you can do a few laps “with rhythm”, up the ante. Can you do a 200? Can you hold this for a 500? If you cannot, a few things could be going on. One, your breathing may not be executed properly. Remember, no holding your breath when your face is in the water! Two, you may not have your aerobic conditioning down. Work to increase yardage and decrease rest. Three, other elements may be working against you. If you don’t have proper position, line and balance in the water, finding rhythm will be difficult. Return to some basics on stroke improvement. Use your core, work your catch, align your body.

Be patient with yourself and know that this magical transformation doesn’t happen overnight. I’ve been working on this for over 5 years. I don’t find that sweet spot in every lap of my practice. But, I am now able to find it in almost every practice. Try it in backstroke. This is my most favorite stroke right now. Backstroke used to be my absolute worst stroke. My former coach, Sharlene, used to chuckle a lot when I tried backstroke. I flailed and was all over the place. I very much appreciate all the time she spent with me, because eventually things began to gel as  I worked on it, over and over. And when my best stroke, breaststroke, neeeded a rest due to injuries, I set my sights on dramatically improving my backstroke. Sometime over the last two years, I began to find the rhythm in the stroke and have fallen completely head over heels in love with it. Whether it is 50 back, 200 back or even 500 back (in practice), I just feel strong, confident and smooth, and oh so rhythmical.

Give it a go. Be patient and just keep at it. Once you “find it” you won’t be disappointed. So go swim smooth people!

May 062012

Last week I posted on different freestyle forms (see TOW April 29-May 5). While there are a variety of styles in freestyle, all should share one common trait – Early Vertical Forearm. Are you like me when you first heard that term? One big “HUH?” It really took me a bit to understand first what they heck the term meant, second, how I was supposed to apply  “EVF”, and third, what the benefit would be to my freestyle.

Early vertical forearm – EVF – is actually simple to describe, and harder to attain. A simplified definition is that when your hand enters the water up front and begins to catch the water, you want your fingertips and forearm – as one unit – to go vertical. Your fingertips need to point down to the pool bottom. But, you want to hinge at the elbow! If you don’t, you are pulling through with your shoulder and not getting enough grab on the water. I like to think of my fingers, wrist and forearm as the main fulcrum in my pull. I bend at the elbow (or pretend my elbow is a hinge) to get that position early in my pull.  That means my elbow stays high all the way through as my hand catches the water and pulls to my hip.

How do you know when you have achieved it? Well, ideally, with someone watching from underwater. Even so, you can feel the difference. When using EVF, I feel the use of my lats and the shoulder muscles near my arm pit. It feels as if I am vaulting over a barrel and my stroke definitely feels more powerful. I am able to cut my stroke count down by 1-2 strokes per lap when I do EVF properly. So there is your benefit! You will be more efficient in the water, taking less strokes per lap. That means it is good for all levels of swimmers – fitness, triathletes or pool competitors. An added benefit? Employ the proper muscles in your freestyle pull and you have a lot better chance of avoiding some serious shoulder injuries.

EVF is not a simple transition. It will take you a lot of practice time to train your body for the adjustment. To really grasp EVF, you need to watch different videos of swimmers using EVF, try it out yourself, and supplement that with some isometric exercises that strengthen the muscles needed for this action.

My suggestion is that you focus on some one arm swimming to start. Leave the non swimming arm up front, keep your stroke wide (remember – out from your shoulder – don’t cross into your center line). Try a 25 with one arm, really focusing on pointing the fingertips to the pool bottom while keeping the elbow high. Now try a 25 with the other arm. If you are like me, one arm seems to handle it easier than the other arm. A good visualiztion is to picture yourself paddling on a surfboard. The elbow can’t drop (because of the board) and your fingertips, wrist and forearm, all grab the water and push through to your hip.

After doing some 25s one arm, try a 50 swim where one lap you concentrate on the right arm, one lap you concentrate on the left arm. Just keep focusing on this and you’ll get where you need to be!

Here is a great write up and collection of EVF videos and drills that I found. If you Google “early vertical forearm” you’ll see quite a collection of materials.

Apr 292012

One of the best tips I ever received on swimming is: Swimming is all about minimizing resistance. Minimize resistance and you WILL get faster. Warren Lager, Coach and owner of the Marin Pirates (USA team) & Marin Pirates Masters,  furthered that tip by telling me, think of yourself as swimming in a tight cylinder. For efficiency in all strokes, keep the body in the cylinder as much as possible. The limbs will break the cylinder, but you still want to minimize how far outside that cylinder you let those limbs go. For something like breaststroke, you want to keep your knees no wider than your hips. For dolphin kick, you want that knee action to be minimal, and have the kick generate from the hips and torso – always thinking about that cylinder. For back and free, you keep the legs contained in the cylinder, and on free, you want to make sure not to let the arms pull way outside the body (your cylinder).

Ok, so for freestyle, we know that it is critically important to stay in your cylinder – especially with your legs. How to test whether you are keeping your legs within your cylinder? Well, a great drill is to swim freestyle with a pull buoy held between your ankles (and not your knees where we all like to keep it). This is a great core test as well as this forces you to use your abs and tighten your core in order to keep your legs straight behind you and not allow them to swing side to side. A key is to keep your hips at the surface when swimming in this fashion. And bonus, you can do this same drill with backstroke! Start first (with backstroke) getting used to pulling with the pull buoy between your knees. Keep your feet and legs from swaying side to side. As you get stronger, then move the buoy down to your ankles. You will definitely improve your cylinder swimming with this drill.

Check out the GoSwim video on this.

Apr 222012

This week’s drill centers on your turns, but not necessarily just flip turns. Actually, we are going to focus on using dolphin kicks to come off the wall. Many swimmers struggle to know how many dolphin kicks they should use. Some use just one, others may use up to 12. Those that use those higher numbers have very efficient, tight, compact dolphin kicks (not to mention great lungs). Most of us find our efficiency somewhere in the 2-4 kicks range. Well, this drill will help you determine how many kicks is most efficient for you. If you’ve got aid to a coach or teammate, all the better, as you will be able to time your distance from the wall to a specific point. Here’s how it works. To see a video of this in action, I refer you to my “go to” site for videos on all things swimming – the GoSwim folks. The video is embedded at the end of this post.

Here are the instructions from GoSwim on their video posting – Turns – How Many Dolphins?

We all have to realize that even though the majority of time at swim practice is spent going back and forth, it’s the switching from one direction to the other that is more important than ever.

Coaches can say it until they’re blue in the face, the fastest you’ll ever be going in a race is when you’re leaving a wall… either starts or turns. Since you have so much opportunity to practice turns… you should probably do it.

Why do it:
Switching the sport of swimming from a guessing game to a habit and system will help you improve in both your knowledge and performance. It will take time, consistent practice, and the help of your coach or another swimmer.

How to do it:
1) Set a mark on the bottom of the pool… it doesn’t have to be anything exact, but it needs to be a permanent mark so you have a standard to reach when you practice.
2) To find out exactly how many kicks you’ll need to maintain your momentum, create a progression.
3) Start with one dolphin, which for most isn’t enough, then swim to your mark.
4) Progress this by adding one dolphin until you’re either at your mark or you simply run out of momentum.
5) We added dolphins until we got to five.

How to do it really well (the fine points):
Sure you can practice this based just on feel, but if you want to really know what’s the best for you, you’ll need to add a time factor. Have your coach or friend time you from the wall to the mark. You’ll then have to determine, over time, which solution is going to be the one that allows you to continue to swim at your pace with the most efficiency.

While you may be the fastest with four or five kicks, the day you add this to your practice, you’ll quickly realize it’s not easy to do. You’ll have to build this up over time, so consistency will count for a LOT. This works for both starts and turns.

Go have some fun with this! Get your lane mates in on the action.



Apr 152012

Hey, Happy Tax Day to you all! To celebrate giving all of your money to Uncle Sam, I figure you need to drown your sorrows in the pool, so I’ve got three drills for this week (April 15-21). These are freestyle drills and all three involve swimming with one arm.

There are three ways to swim one-arm freestyle. One is to leave the non-stroking arm extended in front of you. The other is to leave the non-stroking arm behind you, at your side (a much tougher version that really helps you work your core) and breathe to the “open shoulder”. One more twist on this (and another challenge) is to take that same drill and now breathe to the stroking shoulder. These are some of my favorite freestyle drills.

Remember, as with ALL drills, go slow on these drills. Master the technique and purpose of the drill, and don’t race to the other end of the pool. These one arm freestyle drills will help you 1) work your catch, pull through and recovery and 2) understand the critical nature your core plays in developing an efficient freestyle.

The folks at GoSwim demonstrate each of these drills perfectly in videos on their website.

If you want to know if you are doing these drills correctly, send me a video tape of you in action!

Apr 082012

Hey, how is that forearm development coming? The drill of the week for this week, April 8-14, 2012 is a sculling drill. Hip sculling is yet another way to develop a feel for the water by sculling with your hands and forearms. There are two different hip sculling offerings for this week. Bonus!

Scull 3: Hip Scull – Face Down

This drill helps you develop a feel for the water and is especially helpful for backstroke, simulating the end of the push through on back and free. A modification of this drill also makes this a good fit for butterfly!

  • This is done face down in the water, wearing a pull buoy and snorkel. Keep your hands down by your hips and scull the water with just your hands. Your hands don’t travel far from your hips, just a couple of inches, and the sculling pattern sweeps from just under your hips to just outside your hips. Tiny sculls!

Key points to success:

  1. Keep those arms straight throughout the drill, elbows locked.
  2. Start the scull with your hands resting on your thighs.
  3. When you initiate the scull, rotate your hands to press the water slightly out and back, keeping close to your thighs and hips. The sweep is roughly 12 inches.
  4. Think of your hands, wrist and forearms as one unit.
  5. When sweeping out away from your hips, your palms face the sky.
  6. When sweeping in, rotate your hands toward each other, thumbs down.
  • To modify this scull to benefit butterfly, the starting position is to bring your hands a bit further under your body, closer to your belly button and about 8-10 inches deep under your body. Flare out to the side with your scull, not back to or behind your hips. This should mimic the tail end of the fly pull through where you flare out, not back. When you flare out (sweep out and up), get those palms turned to the sky. To complete the arm motion, simply bring them back under your body as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is the one exception to sculling drills where you really don’t scull your hands both directions (outsweep and insweep). In fact, work to minimize resistance when bringing your hands back under your body.

Key points to success on the butterfly modification of this drill:

  1. Keep those arms straight throughout the outsweep and keep those palms facing the sky.
  2. Think of your hands, wrist and forearms as one unit.
  3. When sweeping out away from your hips, your palms face the sky.
  4. When sweeping in, minimize resistance and slice through the water returning your hands to the starting position under your body.
  5. When you are feeling really good, add in a dolphin kick or dolphin undulation, refining the timing to match that outsweep flare.

Here’s a video of the Hip Scull Face Down.

Scull 4: Hip Scull – Face Up

There are two purposes to this drill. First, it will help you develop your forearms, which is crucial especially as you fatigue toward the end of a race. Second, this drill teaches you to feel the pressure from the water. It can help all four strokes! For example on breaststroke, this will help as you begin your outsweep, turn the “corner” and then accelerate through the insweep. It helps your catch in freestyle and your pull in backstroke, and the front end of fly where you begin the insweep.

  • On this drill you are on your back, hands by your side and feet first down the length of the pool. Relax every part of your part that you can – loosen your knees and even allow a slight bend in them. Keep your shoulders loose and neck aligned with your spine. Be conscious of keeping your neck relaxed. Once you have that position set, begun sculling with your hands in small circular motions. The key is to engage only your arms, because most of the work comes from the forearms with some deltoid engagement. Keep your hands close to your hips, scull in that circular motion 6-10 inches out from your hips and only perhaps 4-6 inches deep with the scull. (Circular motion – right hand is clockwise, left hand is counterclockwise). Your hands basically stay parallel to your hips. On the outsweep, your thumbs point down and your palms face to the sides of the pool. Once completed with the outsweep, rotate your thumbs up and palms in and finish this way at your hips before staring your next outsweep.

Here’s a video of the Hip Scull Face Up.

Mar 302012

The drill of the week for this week, April 1-7, 2012, continues our work on sculling. As written in the drill for the prior week (March 25-31), drills are an outstanding way to develop a better feel for the water. The goal is to feel water pressure on the palm of your hand, as well as your forearm, in these drills and then in your four strokes. Remember, don’t race these drills. Master the drill first, then you can work on speeding up on the drill.

Scull 2: Windshield Wipers Head Down

This drill helps you get around from the outsweep to the insweep in breaststroke and the insweep of the butterfly pull.

  • Think of this drill as your arms acting like windshield wipers. Lie face down in the water wearing a pull buoy between your legs. A snorkel helps! Eyes are pointed down at the bottom of the pool and your arms (from shoulders to elbows) are out front by your head. Your fingers are pointed toward the bottom of the pool. You will scull in and out using your hands and forearms and keeping the rest of your arm motionless. Your elbows should be fairly still as you scull. Drive yourself forward using your forearms and hands, always keeping the fingers pointing down.

Key points to success:

  1. From the elbows down, keep those arms straight throughout the drill.
  2. Fingertips are always pointed down to the pool bottom.
  3. Think of your hands, wrist and forearms as one unit.
  4. When sweeping in, thumbs are pointed to the pool wall ahead of you.
  5. When sweeping out, thumbs are pointed to the pool wall behind you (toward your feet).
  6. Keep those elbows high, and always keep the fingers pointing down.

Here is a short video demonstrating the drill.

Mar 262012

I love sculling. Love it, love it, love it!  For developing knowledge and understanding of the importance of hands in the stroke, I have always loved sculling as a method to teach “feel for the water”.  In swimming, your hands and forearms are a critical element in all four strokes. We want you to feel pressure on the palms of your hand (and often your forearm as well). Sculling provides the perfect vehicle to feel that pressure and how the pitch of your hand dictates how long you can carry that pressure through your stroke.

For the next few weeks, I’m going to post different sculling drills for you to try. It is so important, when doing drills, to really slow yourself down and think about what you are doing. All drills have a purpose and will translate to something in your stroke. You want to know what that purpose is and you want to work to master a drill (and that doesn’t usually happen your first time out).

One important instruction on this drill. We want you to relax every part of your body that you can, except for your hands and forearms. You will need to regularly remind yourself to relax your head, neck, shoulders, back and legs, and to put all your concentration in your hands and forearms.

In this drill, it is best not to kick at all, otherwise there is a tendency to kick through the lap more than scull through the lap. A snorkel is a great tool, and a pull buoy or light, buoyant fins (like the AquaSphere brand) work well.

Scull 1: Wide Y Sculling

In addition to providing a feel for the water, this drill helps develop the muscles used in the outsweep of breaststroke and butterfly. It also promotes thumbs down position for the beginning of the outsweep on those short axis strokes.

  • Fins are okay for this drill but only for balance. Go face down in the water and scull with your hands out in front of you. You scull to a “wide y” which is where you would “turn the corner” (to the insweep) if we were following through on the stroke. Here we just want you to scull in and out from your hands (starting in a superman pose), out to the wide y and immediately back to center. There should no bend in the elbow. All of the power comes from your hands and your forearms. If you kick, use only the slightest flutter kick to keep you level and on top of the water. Your head and eyes are pointed down. Breathe when you can and then immediately return to the face down position. Or, wear a snorkel to emphasize the head down position so you can concentrate on the outsweep/insweep.

Key points to success:

  1. Keep those arms straight throughout the drill, elbows locked.
  2. When sweeping out, start with thumbs down, pinkies up all the way to the widest part of the “Y”.
  3. When sweeping in, thumbs are up, pinkies are down.
  4. Think of your hands, wrist and forearms as one unit.

To view a short You Tube video on this drill, see the bottom of this post.

Wide Y Scull