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Mar 5, 2014

11 Ways To Enjoy Swimming in Crowded Lane

It is one of those days, the swimming lane I am about to plunge into is overcrowded and even though it is marked with the clearly distinctive letters "FAST SWIMMERS", the lane is plagued with leisurely swimming head up breaststrokers and wanna be swimmers standing by the wall and discussing the latest issues in Ukraine. Argh, this sucks and my day's mood is just ruined. Or is it?

Calm before the storm :)
I’ve long ago realized that it is a lost battle to try to educate every single person about the etiquette of public pool lane swimming. Instead of joining the online rants about how people should get a clue about what it means to swim in a fast lane, how lifeguards should enforce certain rules and be angry half the time, I decided to make the pool my playground. After all, people are people and always going to be people. Some are ignorant, some don't manage their expectations very well and some just don't know any better or don't realize that they are doing something out of the ordinary when entering the dangerous waters of the fast swimmer lane :). Read on and I will show you how you can have an effective workout without the added stress of dealing with human nature.

Next time you feel like slapping someone on the back of their head to school them about their invasion of the fast lane, try the following tips instead and I guarantee you will enjoy your swim more. And as an added bonus, you will actually improve in your swimming, so time is not wasted.

1) Dive Under - when you approach the annoying obstacle swimmer in your lane, just dive under and take it as a sprint underwater kick exercise. Keep a tight streamline to minimize the drag and just kick along the bottom underneath the swimmer until you get passed them. While you are passing them from down under, give them a wave or just show them your funny face to keep it fun. This is great for building your breath control and also for improving your kicking (bread and butter of swimming fast). If you are not a great kicker, grab a pair of fins to help you with the underwaters.

Streamlined underwater kick with zoomers
2) Backwards Swimming - now this one is tricky, but if you stick with it, you’ll get better at it and soon you will not feel like you are drowning. The idea is that you will be quite slow here, so you won’t have the need to pass anyone, thus fitting right in without problems. Backward swimming is a great way to get more versatile in the water and to learn to better control your body position and movements.

3) One Arm Drills - if I'd have to pick one drill that should be done every day, it is one arm swimming. This is the king of kings when it comes to working on your body roll, arm entry, front catch, breathing and maintaining great body position and the list goes on. One arm swimming is the ultimate technique training drill. You can try it with arms down or bottom arm extended, but most importantly make sure that you roll to both sides equally. Do not just gallop through the water skipping the full rotation to the side where you move your arm.

4) Fists and Finger Drills - the opposite of swimming with paddles is to use your fists or just a few fingers to swim. The idea here is that you work on catching the water with forearms or to get a faster cadence into your stroke as you won't require as much power for the arm to move through the water. Remember keep those fists relaxed, you are not angry and not punching the water, just caress it. If fists swimming is not your forte, grab a pair of palm or anti paddles or just a simple tennis ball and have fun.

5) Sculling - if you are not sure what sculling is, you are missing out. In order to swim fast, you need to find support in water and sculling is one very good way to improve your water perception. There are many positions you can scull in: arms forward, arms back, one arm forward, arms in scarecrow position (windshield wiper) etc. etc. etc. Remember, it is not a breaststroke movement, it is sculling (from side to side in a very small figure eight like motion). Try to stay away from kicking while you scull, use a pullbuoy if you cannot resist the kick on your own :).

Butterfly sculling drill
6) Flags to Flags swim - to skip the world's best debaters at the pool wall, just swim from flags to flags doing fast tuck flipturns and fast breakouts from them. What I mean is, when you approach the flag line, just do a flip keeping your body as small as possible to make it fast and efficient. Then since you have no wall to push off from, you will have to work extra hard to get back to your original swimming speed, so dig in with the leg kick and the arm stroke to get back to speed. If you are not up the flag to flag swim, you can do a variation where you will do a 360 somersault in the middle of the pool where your tuck is as small as possible and you do not use your hands. This should slow you down a little to not have to pass anyone (if you are still too fast, just do 2 flips).

7) Open Water Training - why not take the passing of slow people as training for open water races. You can draft a bit, then closely pass them when opportunity arises, at the same time you can sight if someone is coming in the other direction. It does not get more challenging in the pool than this. Overcrowded lane is a perfect playground to mimic the mass starts during triathlon and open water races, so take advantage of it and practice it:). Don't be afraid of touching or bumping into the other people, they will survive and as a side effect, they might actually get the hint and go to a slower lane. Open water and triathlon swims also have a very brisk speed variations and you can fully incorporate those in the crowded lane. Sprint to the next person, pass them as a recovery time and sprint to the next or wise versa etc.

8) Medley Swimming - maybe if you'd switch to another stroke than freestyle, suddenly the slow swimmers might not be so slow anymore, so explore it. Don't be afraid. The more strokes you swim, the more enjoyable your practices will get and you will soon find that you are more comfortable and better aware of your body in the water.

9) Simply Kick - a lot of power in swimming is from legs, so don't be negligent in this department. A crowded slow pace lane is a good reason to get on with the kick and improve your chances of success. Of course, you can kick with a kickboard, but I'd suggest to leave your kickboard at home and stick with just your body. You can do variations of head lead side kick (arms at side), arm lead side kicks (bottom arm extended) or 360 streamline kick rotation etc. etc. Let your mind go wild and be creative.

Head lead side kick drill - keep that spine straight
10) Water Floorball - yes, you read it right. Grab a floorball or a wiffle ball (if it has holes, it is a go:)) and have fun. Do one arm swimming with the ball to see if both of your arm pulls feel the same. My bet is that they do not. Do a catch up swimming where you switch the ball from hand to hand in the front. Do sculling with it to strengthen those tiniest muscles in your shoulders. The holes in the ball will cause your small muscles to work a bit harder when you try to keep the ball from going too crazy out of your movement's control. It is fun, try it.

11) Slow Swimming - I've mentioned swimming slow in a few of my previous posts here and here. A crowded lane is a perfect venue for this. Slow down, relax and only engage the muscles that need to be engaged (example: are your fingers relaxed when your arm is out of the water or are they tight?).

There you have it. I am sure you can think of other ways to make the crowded lane workout more interesting (don't be shy about sharing them in comments below - let's keep the list growing:). The list above will hopefully give you some inspiration when all hope is lost and your anger gets the better of you. Get creative and let the lane and its occupants be your playground. And if you have a friend who suffers from the crowded lane anger, share this article with him or her, so they can be a happier swimmer :)

Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.

Feb 5, 2014

A Surprising Result of Swimming Flaws Analysis

One of the basic skills any beginner student of any activity is the ability to recognize if something is not done the right way. Be it the ability to notice spelling mistakes in written texts, the know how to acknowledge that a ski jumper’s form during the jump is not the best or in our case the deep understanding of the ever complex swimming stroke to recognize many times plentiful mistakes in swimmer’s stroke. The recognition of miscellaneous stroke flaws is only the beginning stretch of an efficient swimming style, yet very very important one.
underwater wonders

After spotting issues is a breeze, the next step in the swimming education is to figure out how to improve those issues. Some are easy to fix with common swimming drills, others require a bit more thinking outside the box to help the individual overcome the issue. What they all require though is patience and dedication from the swimmer to repeat the "correct" movements over and over until mastered.

Below you will find a short freestyle swimming video which includes four identified problems with the swimmer’s stroke. These are the biggest problems in the video preventing the swimmer to get to the next level of his swimming success. They are all easily fixed with a persistent and patient training, bringing great speed improvements to you as a swimmer or triathlete. So, please watch the video below and then scroll down for more detailed discussion of the spotted mistakes.




The Kick

If we look at the swimmer’s outline from the front, knowing that the body should be as small as possible, the image is suddenly disturbed with a very deep kick which protrudes behind the swimmer causing unnecessary resistance to the forward motion.

Deep kick causes drag

As you have guessed it, the idea here is that the kick should be small and shallow and the swimmer should not rely on it for balance. To start with, an awareness of the kick needs to be brought to the attention of the swimmer during the swim. We can try using the analogy of rubbing the toes over each other or putting fins on. Then of course, doing a lot of balance drills like kicking on a side or floating at the surface will help with less reliance on the large kick for balance. The knee driven kick is a bit tougher to fix as to this day, there is no tool which could simply put the legs in the right position. Make sure the kick comes out of the hip with the knee only ever slightly bending while it gives into the pressure of the water.

Body and Arm Alignment

Keeping your hands pointing in the direction where you want to go, therefore, keeping them inline with your body when up in front is a must. In this case, the swimmer has a problem with one arm deviating from the long axis, especially when breathing. Remember, your body should roll as one, like a tree log.

Left arm going away from center line
It comes down to awareness again and the ability to roll your body without stiffening the shoulders. To work on the body-shoulder separation, you can for example try the following drill. While flutter kicking without a kickboard, keep your arms extended below the surface of the water and when your head comes up for a breath, do not move your arms up or down, just use your body to lift your head up, but not your arms. When you master this, you are in a good shape. Another drill you can do is to kick on a side with your bottom arm extended forward and take frequent breaths while keeping your front leading arm stationary, again, not helping you with the breath.

The Catch

The front catch is an advanced skill which takes some understanding to master. The swimmer on the video has some signs of an initial catch phase, but then is not able to hold the catch throughout the stroke, therefore, propel himself forward with the forearm like a paddle.

Deep arm without a catch
My suggestion here is to do a lot of one arm swimming while maintaining a very slow speed and arm motion, so you can concentrate on feeling the forearm catch. Get immersed in the motion and slow down as much as you can. Use fins, if the kick is too tiring, so you can have a good horizontal position and most importantly, spend the same amount of time on each side of your body while you do this. Many swimmers tend to just gallop in their stroke when doing a one arm drill and that defeats the purpose. So as you see, we are again at the balancing discussion. The ability to swim from side to side comfortably without using arms/legs as your supports is the key building stone for successful swimming. Without mastering this skill, you will always swim up the hill.

The Lower Body Level

Most beginner triathletes and swimmers struggle with the concept of having their bodies in a horizontal parallel alignment with the surface of the water. This causes them to swim a bit uphill with inflated chests high up and tired legs down. In this swimmer on the video, this issue is quite visible during the breath, when the lower back just falls down below the surface.

Lower back curve - spine not straight
There are two ways, which are really interconnected, to improve this. One is to keep the eyes focused on the bottom of the pool, keeping the neck nice and flat without wrinkles, thus putting more pressure on the chest which will help with the leg lift. However, this alone will not suffice. You will need to learn the ability to push your flat lower back closer to the surface which actually is the biggest trick to raising one's legs. There is one more issue which can cause swimmer’s or triathlete’s legs to sink and that is the flexibility of ankles. If the ankle angle is less than 180 degrees (meaning that if you cannot point your toes, so the top of your foot is flat in the ankle area), then there is a slight resistance. Your feet are like the flaps on the wings of an airplane. If they are horizontal, plane flies nicely, if they go down, plane is landing and is pushed to the ground.

If your misalignment happens during the breathing cycle, then the problem is not really in your lower back, but in the way you rotate your body. Which brings us again, yes you guessed it, to the balancing drills on sides. :). Master the hip rotation and balance with a nice straight spine and you are 80% there. The rest is just finetuning.

I hope you learned something useful in the analysis and have some material to work on in your swim routines. Keep in mind that everyone is unique and we all need different stimuli to help us achieve our goals, but there are basic principles that need to be mastered to get off the ground. In swimming, one of the key principles is the ability to balance your body alone without your legs and arms.

Learning to swim is priceless and SwimSmooth Learn to Swim DVD is a great start

Nov 27, 2013

8 Ways to Use your Hand Paddles

Hand paddles are commonly used in the swimming pools around the world. In fact, you hardly ever see a pool deck or the infamous Lost and Found basket (yes, they do exist) without a pair of them laying around. They are either loved or hated. The main rudimentary idea behind the original hand paddles was to increase the surface of your hand to pull more water, however, apart from the 100s of different paddle types, there are many other ways to utilize this piece of swim equipment. So without further ado, here is a list of top XX ways you can use hand paddles (note: I am not focusing on the different types of paddles, just different ways to use the regular hand paddle):

1) Strappless paddles - Even though they are used on your hands, they serve an additional purpose. By taking the wrist straps off or using the strapless paddles (ex: Agility paddles from Finis) you basically are more inclined to lose them from your hands if your underwater stroke has some unexpected deviations form the straight pull. The paddle only attaches to the tops of your middle finger(s) forcing you to think about what your hands do.

2) Kickboard - You don’t necessarily need to use a kickboard to do your kicking. Just hold onto one paddle with your outstretched arms and voila. Many swimmers press down on the kickboard when they kick which is not good. You need to be gentle and relax in your shoulders, so the water can carry you. The kickboard is there just to guide you, so using hand paddles instead of it, is a great practice to steady those front arms. Keep your face in the water and when you breathe, keep the paddle without going down.

3) Lopsided swim - This one is a lot of fun. For this you don’t need to put your paddles on different appendages as above, but you will only use one paddle on the hand of your choosing. By using a single paddle, you are basically offsetting the balance in your core body, so one side of your core is forced to work that much harder to keep your body from snaking around the swim lane. You can also make it more interesting and add one flipper to the opposite leg :).

Holding with hand to increase forearm power
4) Sculling - Either put the paddles on the normal way or just grab them between your thumb and your fingers and utilize their surface to make your sculling efforts a bit more challenging. Remember, sculling movement is not a breaststroke movement, just do very narrow figure eights from side to side and feel the water pressure on your skin. The pressure is the same the entire time, refrain from putting a lot of pressure pushing out to the sides and easy bringing your hands back together.

5) Hand holding - Since we mentioned earlier removing straps from your paddles, why not just grab the paddle with your fingers in the front, thus allowing the paddle to extend further into your forearm and therefore, forcing you to swim more with your forearm ores rather than just your hands. It will create a very similar effect as the Tech Paddles

6) Catch up swim - There is no need to put on your paddles for this exercise, but you can definitely utilize them in a different matter. As with the kickboard paddle exercise, just hold one or both paddles in front of your body in one hand and every time you bring your moving arm forward, just replace your grip. This catch up drill is great for working on your underwater catch. Keep those paddles submerged below the surface, so you always have your hand below your elbow in terms of how far they are below the surface.

Homemade breaststroke kicking paddles
7) Breaststroke kicking - If you adjust the paddle straps in a bit different way you can slip the paddles onto your inner ankles and use them to increase the surface area of your foot during your breaststroke kick. Thus giving the correct idea of how it should feel when you push off the water with your inner legs. This is a bit more tough to do properly and not all paddle straps are long enough to achieve this foot fit. If you do go after this, I suggest getting a smaller set of paddles which you dedicate specifically for this. NOTE: I don’t recommend you try this while swimming very hard as it puts a lot of pressure on your knees, so you could end up with an injury right after you spend an hour adjusting your paddle straps :). Patiently and slowly to start with.

Paddle only with a finger strap
8) Splashing your fellow swimmers :) - Since paddles have larger surface, it is very easy to throw larger amounts of water at your swimmer friends or even the onlookers outside of the pool. Try it, it is fun :). You can even make huge water bubbles on top of the water, but about that another time.

And there you have it. 8 ways to utilize your hand paddles without having to spend money on additional swim equipment. You can actually just have one entire workout with your hand paddles without putting stress on your shoulders. So, if you were a skeptic about hand paddles, maybe you can re-evaluate your position and be creative. Now it is time to dust off those good old plastic plates and get in the pool to enjoy them once again :).

If you have any other uses that were not mentioned here, please do share. I'll be happy to include them.

Safer Swimmer - the must have swim safety device for all open water swimmers

Nov 8, 2013

How To Do Back to Breast Turns (Open vs. Bucket vs. Cross-Over)

In the individual medley races, there are a lot of transitions between strokes: fly to back, back to breast, breast to free where each swimmer could either gain or lose time on the opponents. Usually the most complex turn is the one from backstroke to breaststroke and in the history of swimming this turn has evolved into a very fast and sophisticated movement sequence which is quite tricky to master for a lot of us and even very good swimmers take a bit of coordination and time to learn it. Here is a run down of the turn evolution from the time it was required to touch the wall on swimmer's back to execute the turn.

Back to Breast Open turn or Touch turn

The open turn is basically very similar to a one hand touch freestyle open turn with the only difference that one glides to the wall on back. The most important part here is to reach for the wall on a side still slightly leaning on the back and then very quickly bring your legs to your chest. In other words basically you are pivoting on your butt to make this rotation turn. This turn is the easiest to master and when done well can be very effective.


Backwards flip turn or Bucket turn or Rolling turn or Suicide turn

The bucket turn requires a bit more skill, but it basically is just a backward flip with the touch on the wall. The main point to talk about here is that the start of the turn has to be with the palm touch way below the surface of the water. So actually the swimmer has already initiated the turn before the hand touches the wall. After that again tucking your knees is the common element. One problem with this turn is that it requires quite a good lung capacity to execute the breaststroke pull out afterwards, so unless you can hold your breath long enough to not cut the breaststroke pull out short, I would not recommend it. Hence the name "Suicide Turn" I presume :).


Cross-over Turn

This is the newest of the turns. If executed well, it is much faster, so in shorter individual medley distances such as 100 or 200 it would make more sense to learn it. However, if you look at it quickly, you will probably feel confused as to what hand touches the wall and on what side to flip your body to:). No worries, the below video is very good at describing how it is done. I couldn't have explained it better. In short though, after you touch the wall with your upper arm over your body (keep on your back slightly), you will need to drive your butt in the direction below the hand that touches the wall to complete the turn. So in a way it could be performed on a side or as a regular tumble turn depending how coordinated the swimmer is.


Confused? No problem, the pool is yours and with time you will get it :). Maybe the below video will help. It has more detailed explanation with some dryland practice for the open turn and the cross-over turn:


Learning to swim is priceless and SwimSmooth Learn to Swim DVD is a great start