Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Faster Swimming? SURE!!!

So many people think swimming is complex. Swimming is all about the following:

  1. Technical Skill
  2. Strength and Fitness
  3. Mental Toughness/Focus

These are not necessarily ranked for importance in this order, because for many, one is so much more dominant than the others, that they have mixed-up the order. For example, I have heard many say Andy Potts is not a technically sound swimmer, but obviously he has some other skill sets which make him one of the fastest, (if not the), swimmers in the sport of triathlon.

I want to examine each of these items, and discuss what they mean, and how you can get better at each one. Today, we’ll start with Technical Skill.

The definition of Technical Skill is the ability to maximize strength for propulsion and to reduce drag. These two key concepts should be the basis for everything you do in the water, and try to do in your training.

How do we develop the ability maximize strength for propulsion? According to Coach Paulo, ( infamy), he claims the catch, (or the amount of water held) is the most important aspect. Certainly, if we look at the biggest difference between faster and slower swimmers, the catch is most visible by the position of the elbow, relative to the rest of the body. A high elbow holds a large amount of water in the carriage of the hand, forearm, upper arm, and chest. As soon as the elbow drops, this volume of water is decreased, and therefore the ability to maximize your strength with a large volume of water to displace yourself past, is lessened.

Though I agree this characteristic is probably the most common, this doesn’t help to address the problem effectively. If simply keeping the elbow higher was that simple, everyone would do it. The issue is the steps to the elbow position are not effective from the beginning in poor swimmers. This makes fixing the problem at the point of elbow position difficult, if not impossible.

The root of the poor catch begins before the catch even happens. Too many athletes do not understand, nor value, length in the water. First off, with length the swimmer gains lift, reducing drag. (This is why speedboats are long and fast, and tugboats are short and slow). Once an athlete has maximized their length, they naturally have a high elbow! Too many athletes enter the water with a goggle-line entry, (preached in some swimming camps). They end up shortening their stroke, never giving themselves much volume of water to hold on to, and/or end up creating a low elbow position to begin with. When they get tired, this shortened stroke is only exacerbated further!

Notice the length these two swimmers achieve? It puts the elbow high to begin with.

Notice the higher elbow, and length?

The longer the arm goes out in front, the greater size of the lever to catch water with, and better maximizing of strength with your catch and push/propulsion.

Alan Voisard, who in 2007 became the first person to successfully swim Catalina Island, the English Channel and Swim Around Manhattan Island all in the same year, told me recently when he swam, “75% of my energy is directed forward, while only 25% goes to actually pushing the water back.” Though some think distance swimming is not the same as what we try to accomplish in triathlon, (although he could make the front pack of nearly any triathlon in the world), his goal in long distance swimming is the same as ours, efficiency! (Show me a triathlete who wants to be dead coming out of the water, and I’ll show you a bad triathlete).

Length is your friend in the water, and if you focus on it, you will find many benefits, including improved elbow position to maximize your strength with a great catch, and reduced drag from increased lift.

The other side benefit you will find is a decreased stroke rate, and stroke counts in the pool, because your glide time will be increased from reduced drag.

So what can you do to improve your length? Good question! Here are some tips:

  1. Put your hand entry point much further out in front of you. Too many people enter the water shortened up, and as they get tired it only gets worse. Make yourself long by having the hand enter WAY OUT in front of you, with it ALMOST fully extended.
  2. Throw that energy directly forward! If your hand and arm are headed down in the water, your energy is going down. You don’t want your energy going down, you want it going FORWARD! Last time I checked, all swim races were forward, never down to a deeper depth. You want the hand and arm to be just below the surface tension of the water. Refer back to the pictures above, and look where their arms are relative to the surface of the water and their bodies. It's not deep!
  3. Work on your range of motion and flexibility in your shoulders and scapulas. If you can’t move them, your length is diminished.
  4. Practice lowering your stroke count per length in the pool, but able to keep the same time, by getting length. Once you see the result first hand, you will value it, I PROMISE!
  5. Don’t waste your time with drills. Doing a bunch of drills only makes you better at drills. Too few people understand how to connect drills to actual swimming. Most swimmers would benefit from simply swimming slowly and focusing on the aspects they need to improve on, which is probably LENGTH! Drills are just a tool, designed to help “turn the light switch on” for you to understand the concept the drill is stressing. I shake my head when I see people spending most of their practice time doing drills.

So that’s the LONG, (and short), of swimming’s Technical Skill. Certainly, there are all sorts of other technical aspects, specific to each individual, but this is the most common flaw, and I believe the most important.

Stay tuned for me to address the strength and fitness, as well as mental/focus aspects of swimming.

Coach Vance

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Is heartrate alone, a good enough training tool?

One of the bigger questions asked by athletes is, "Do I need a heartrate monitor?" Certainly, a heartrate monitor is a great tool for increasing the quality of your training sessions, but heartrate alone is nearly worthless.

To give a better example, let's consider building a house, and the only tool we use is a drill. You certainly could build a house, but chances are it wouldn't be a high-quality home without also using a saw, hammer, level, etc. A heartrate monitor is a single tool, in what should be a tool chest of training tools.

Many athletes judge the quality of a training session based on the activity of the heart, specifically the heartrate they reach. A common saying is, "I wasn't able to get my heartrate up," or "I got my heartrate up and it stayed there!"

The problem with these statements are that heartrate is extremely variable, based on many, many factors outside of intensity. Whether heartrate is able to rise might mean great intensity, or it might show a lack of fitness. If heartrate doesn't rise, it might mean you're tired, or that the body is fit, and able to effectively handle the load you're giving it.

If we take an unfit person, and put them under physical stress, their heartrate will rise exponentially. This doesn't necessarily show a quality session, only that their body is not fit. Again, this illustrates how heartrate alone does not give you much useful information.

So why use heartrate at all? Remember, heartrate monitors are a single tool in a toolbox of training tools. Heartrate is a great indicator if it is compared to something objective, such as watts or pace. If your heartrate goes down at the same watts you rode 2 weeks earlier, then you see fitness! If we judged on heartrate alone, we would be wondering if we were any fitter than 2 weeks prior.

Inversely, if we rode at the same watts as 2 weeks prior, and our heartrate was higher, it would show itself as fatigue, or possible sickness. If we judged the ride strictly as being able to raise our heartrate, we would be hard pressed to understand that possibility without a power meter.

But what if heartrate raises and watts go up? Well, then we can take a ratio of average heartrate to average watts, to see how the workout went. (We can generally replace watts with pace for all these examples as well, whether running or swimming.)

What about heartrate compared to perceived exertion? Good question! Remember, heartrate needs to be compared to objective measurements, and perceived exertion, by definition, is subjective. You may feel great, but that is not an accurate picture of what is going on.

The more information you collect, and the more variables you are aware of, the better picture of fitness and quality training sessions you will have. Certainly, knowing your heartrate is a great thing, but heartrate alone is not enough information without something objective to compare it to.

Coach Vance