6/1/11 - 7/1/11

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Jun 27, 2011

How To Enjoy a Workout In Public Transportation (Do you have enough time to swim?)

Always on a run, never ending feeling of forgetting something important, not having enough time to do everything planned, feeling guilty for not spending enough time with your family and friends or struggling with squeezing in your beloved swimming workout. Does that pretty much sum up your everyday life routine? Well, don't worry you are not the only one who suffers from lack of hours in a day and the failure to successfully debug the sophisticated work/life balance algorithm. So, how do you workout when all you do is work and finding time to swim is an impossible feat.

Pool tranquility
Our biological human nature makes us strive to be the best at what we do and always improve upon our existing skills, so there is no wonder the work/life balance is out of whack for the most of us. Unfortunately, we need at least some money to survive, so the work we do is a big part of our daily lives and it consumes us so much that finding the precious time to do something else such as our favorite sport, swimming :), is very difficult. Or is it really that hard to say no to never ending piles of work? It definitely is not easy, but this article is not about how to manage your work, instead, I'll show you how to exercise during the time you are idle.

As swimmers, we try to optimize our day, so we handle all the necessary work and then still have more free time to get our morning, lunch or evening swimming workout in. This sounds great in theory, however, unless you have mastered the New Rich phenomenon, the reality is that it takes a lot of dedication and discipline to optimize your day properly, so you can enjoy your daily swims without stress.

Many folks who work in bigger cities (not so lucky to work remotely or to have changing facilities at work to wash up after a sweaty bike ride) spend at least 1 hour a day enroute in some sort of public transportation (or a car) to and from their job place. This 1 hour a day translates into 5 hours a week which is a plentiful amount of time for some form of physical activity. I'd replace the stressful commute for a healthy swim workout any day. This being a swimming blog, I'll give you some tips on how you can improve your swimming while out of the water in your favorite public transportation vehicle (be it a bus, tram, train or metro) or even a car.

As discussed on many occassions, the muscle strength in your core body is one of the key elements in faster and easier swimming experience. The stronger the core, the more power you can generate from your hip rotation and the straighter you will swim eliminating the necessary drag. One way to get a better core is to challenge yourself with miscellaneous stability exercises such as standing on one foot, standing on a balance board, sitting on a stability ball, doing push ups with your feet on stability ball, performing hand stands with shifting weight from one hand to another, utilizing bouncing medicine balls, fighting the TRX suspension belts etc. etc., the list is endless. You can let your imagination run wild in coming up with new exercises which work on your stability, but remember to always do the exercise in a controlled manner with a good body posture, otherwise it looses the meaning.

Metro workout routine by Mika
To strengthen your core, you do not have to perform all the workouts in a gym with sophisticated balance muscle strengthening equipment. Why not engage your body in a short workout on your way to or from work in the dreaded public transport. Do you think I am crazy? Maybe :), but it is totally feasible to fit a workout in. I am not talking about sweat drenching, heart pulsating workout, but a seemless series of small core strengthening exercises. Nobody will even know you are exercising, so you don't have to worry about the entire bus looking at you as if you just came from a different planet.

Next time you are in your favorite public transport, how about you do not sit down on your way to work (let the older people sit) and rotate standing on one foot for 1 minute at a time. To make it a less obvious to the bystanders keep the floating foot only a few inches (centimeters) of the floor while holding your body nice and straight (as if you were standing on both feet). I guarantee you that all the turns the public vehicle will make on your way to work will test your balance nicely and nobdy will even notice. In a same way, you can work on your shoulder strength by hodling onto something while standing on one foot and only using your shoulder to keep your body nice and straight and stable. While we are on the shoulder muscle topic, how about if you hold onto the vertical bar which is almost in all public transport vehicles, so you have a ninety degree angle in your elbow and your elbow is at the side of your body. Now push with your palm against the bar and keep the pressure constant for 30 seconds. Then switch to the other hand. Voila, you just have 3 exercise repetition routine for your way to work and nobody in the bus even knows they are witnesses to a very important swimming dryland workout which will help you keep your body aligned properly in the water.

Working out in a bus by Mika
How about on your way home? Don't dispair, stand on your tipy toes to strengthen your calf muscles. Keep this position for 30 seconds and then relax again for 30 seconds and then again back up. You should rise very gently and slowly, so you don't scare off your fellow public transportation souls. In another exercise you can hold the vertical bar with one hand in the height of your buttock, keep your arm straight, but this time behind your back while standing on one foot. Or if you feel up to it, stand on one foot and grab the bar above you while keeping balance with your shoulder and your core. Just make sure you don't loose your balance and take down half the people standing in the aisle with you :).

If you really need to sit down or for you car lovers, the above exercises are obviously not possible as you need to be standing up, however, you can work on strengthening your core through your stomach. Contract your stomach muscles for 30 seconds and relax for 30 seconds. Another exercise you can do, depending on how skilled of a driver you are (at your own caution here), is stick your arms through the steering wheel, keep them streight and push to the sides like you'd be trying to rip the steering wheel apart. Hold this position for 30 seconds and then relax for 30 seconds. (don't break your steering wheel though :)).

I hope the above tips were useful and next time you are on your way to the 9-9 work place, why not be more efficient. (note: I am not suggesting that working so much is good, but if you are really not keen on switching your life priorities, the above tips could just be a bandaid to your problem). I've been battling with gaining my equilibrium in life for a while now, but I think I am getting better. It is not perfect yet and probably never will be, but it has improved. I have now much more time to do things that I enjoy (like writing this swimming blog) rather than work all the time :). If you think that I am nuts, then at least think about taking some time out from your best friend, "the computer" and go for a swim.
Be seen, keep your stuff dry and take a break when needed.

Jun 20, 2011

Toddler Swimwear Made Simple (Five Things to Consider When Choosing Baby Swimwear)

Learning to swim can be quite an enjoyable journey for a toddler or a young child, however, it can also very well cause a lot of stress which could turn into an unnecessary water phobia in later years. There are many aspects in and around the pool which can be stressful for our young ones. For example, going to a pool with cold water, that is not fun:), taking a cold shower before going to the pool, is that fun?, visiting a pool where every time a toddler is taken out of the water, the air is freezing, how much fun is that?, having an over tightened and uncomfortable swim suit, definitely not fun.
little swimmer by malweth


This is a guest post by Kristen Swope, a Fremont, California based freelance writer who lives with her husband John and five year old daughter Isabel in a house with a swimming pool.

Enter Kristen Swope
Comfort and protection are our most important considerations when dressing up a toddler or a small child for a swim session. My daughter Isabel is five, but quite small for her age, so we usually get her swimsuits in the toddler catalogues or department store section. In the five years we have spent picking out swimming clothes and gear for her, we’ve learned to narrow down the choices with five most important things to consider, which I’d like to share with you.

The correct measurement

As previously mentioned, standard toddler or kiddie sizes may not be applicable if children are either big or small for their age. Both height and different body parts should be measured prior to purchasing a swimsuit. Before every shopping trip, I make Isabel stand barefoot against a wall, and mark the wall behind the top of her head with a pencil. At her age, a few centimeters of growth can spell a world of difference between an enjoyable time at the swimming pool because of a bathing suit that fits properly, and one that chafes her and makes her irritable.

To measure her chest, I have her raise her arms above her head and use a tape measure on the fullest part of her chest area and around her shoulder blades. Her entire torso is measured by running the tape measure from the nape at the center of her shoulders, around her crotch, and back up in front towards the neck. I also measure her waist and hip areas but make sure not to gauge size over clothes for a snug fit. However, when Isabel was still at the age when she wore diapers all the time, I was advised to measure her hip area while she had her disposable nappy on, as this influences the type of swimsuit I would be getting for her. I advise this for toddlers still in the process of potty training, as well.

iPlay White Ultimate Swim Diaper

Comfort

Swim sessions, no matter how enjoyable, can make a child grumpy if in an ill-fitting swimsuit. Too-tight shoulder straps, waistbands, and crotches can cause rashes and ugly red marks on children’s sensitive skin. You may be drawn to cute prints and designs on a swimsuit, but learn to look at the tags first to see what the suit is made of. Lycra combined with cotton is considered one of the most comfortable fabrics for swimsuits because they are the most stretchy, glide smoothly in water, and the cotton parts allow the skin to breathe.

Think about other bathing suit considerations for girl toddlers: are the straps adjustable, or can they be tied halter-style around the neck? Halter ties are harder to un-knot, so straps might be a better option. Are they more comfy in one piece or two piece suits? For boy toddlers, consider buying board shorts or trunks in several lengths for different coverage and protection for activities in both pools and beaches, and to have them change into something fresh in-between drying time of previously worn swimsuits.

Diaper-changing capacity

Bear in mind that some toddlers in the process of potty training cannot express when they need to go to the bathroom, especially once they are in the pool. To avoid embarrassing accidents, consider getting swimsuits with buttons or poppers at the crotch area for easier diaper changing. Toddler girls can do with two piece swimsuits because a one piece means harder maneuvering. When Isabel was at potty training age, we got her more swimsuit bottoms to go with a few tops, so we always have a fresh supply of them whenever we need to change her diaper (now that she’s totally toilet trained, she prefers one piece suits). Boy toddlers can have a number of comfortable swim trunks or shorts available every swimming session to go with every diaper change.

Sun protection toddler swimwear

Sun and flotation protection, if available

There are now toddler swimsuits which offer sun protection in pretty much the same way a sun block does, as well as ones that have buoyant panels stitched in to add flotation security for a child while in the swimming pool. They are pricier than regular swimsuits for toddlers, but the extra safety and protection they offer do make up for it. Sun protection swimsuits work to provide maximum coverage on a toddler’s body, especially the single piece ones. These typically come with SPF 50 protection which is perfect at battling sunburns. For the rest of the exposed parts of the child such as the legs, arms, face, neck, and shoulders, keep slathering sunblock to prevent burns, and invest in a sun hat as well.

Price

Last but not least, consider swimsuit price ranges and your budget. We have a swimming pool at home so it means regular swim sessions for my daughter Isabel, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate that she keeps a wardrobe full of swimsuits for each day. Remember that toddlers can outgrow clothes pretty quickly, so investing in a couple of good sturdy pieces (around four or five) is a good idea. Mixing and matching pieces especially for little girls is another great way to keep to your swimsuit budget, and as previously mentioned, can make diaper changing a cinch.

When going swimsuit shopping for your toddler, it is nice to have them choose ones they’d like to wear so that they can practice decision making at an early age. Just make sure to narrow down the choices to a few select pieces so they don’t end up picking ones that are astronomically priced!

From Swimator Blog: As you can see, it is not only about learning to swim, but also about the environment and comfort while taking the plunge to becoming a strong and relaxed swimmer. Who would have thought that choosing baby swimwear can be a daunting task :). I'd also suggest that flea markets might be a good place to start
Learning to swim is priceless and SwimSmooth Learn to Swim DVD is a great start

Jun 13, 2011

How to Achieve Total Body Awareness in Swimming (Do you know what your body does in the water?)

I don’t have to tell you that swimming is a wonderful sport with countless benefits, but many people unfortunately struggle to realize their full swimming skill potential sufficiently to enjoy those benefits. It might sometimes seem there is an impenetrable wall which a swimmer cannot get through to reach the next level. This can also be referred to in sports terminology as a plateau. Reaching a plateau means either that your times are not getting any faster, or swimming just does not seem to get any easier, or that you just cannot seem to learn a particular skill. This can be very frustrating and can often also lead to abandoning a sport which is, of course, quite sad. No matter what swimming level you are at, reaching a plateau at some point in your training or learning is a reality and will happen. What if I were to tell you though that there is a secret passage way through every plateau to get to the next undiscovered world? Just as in Jules Verne’s famous novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, one just needs to find the right passage and new amazing world full of mind boggling discoveries awaits on the other side.

Ok, that is enough of the philosophical mumbo jumbo. What I really wanted to talk to you about today is mindful body awareness control in the water. If you feel like you have reached your plateau, perhaps gaining total body awareness could be just the hint you need to get to the next learning stage.

Do you know what happens to your legs during a breath? Have you ever paid attention to what your hands do when you push off the wall? Knowing the answer to these, and many other body awareness questions, is what separates successful swimmers from the mindless individuals who just go up and down the pool without even giving a thought to their stroke. Fair enough, if someone does not want to learn to swim properly, mindless swimming is a way to get away from the real world and relax, but mindless swimming with a proper technique would definitely give them much more pleasure, relaxation and most of all prevent swimming related injuries. Total and controlled body awareness is a key to a successful and enjoyable swimming experience. Learning to swim or improving on your swimming skills can be at times an overwhelming task as there are million and one things a swimmer should think about: a proper head position, above the water high elbow recovery, hip rotation, front high elbow catch, a nice narrow kick during Freestyle, and proper breathing rhythm. Putting all of these body movements together and controlling them in a proper way is a magical thing which comes with a lot of practice, but if a beginner swimmer tries to think about all of the above aspects of swimming at once, it is usually a disaster and it always looks awful. Do not let that discourage you though :).

To help us with this, we break the stroke down into miscellaneous swimming drills instead of swimming the full stroke all at once. If you read this blog regularly, you have heard me mention many swimming drills which are specifically designed to work on one of the million and one things that you should think about. This drill isolation technique is the only way to learn the proper swimming body movements and then imprint them onto your muscle memory. It is exactly the same with reading. If, when you were five years old, I put in front of you the Jules Verne adventure book I mentioned earlier, you might look at me in dismay and feel overwhelmed. However, if I first teach you the alphabet and then build gradually on those skills, by the time you are ten years old, you will reach for the book on your own initiative and will devour the German professor's adventures within several days.

Arm moving away from middle body line
I’ll not discuss any particular swimming technique drills here today, but I’ll point out and isolate a couple of unconscious movements that you are, more than likely, guilty of. I’ll focus mainly on freestyle as that is the most common stroke, but the same thought process applies to everything you do in the water. One of the toughest things to learn for a swimmer is to separate and control different parts of the body. For example, when a swimmer takes a breath during freestyle, it usually means their entire body rotates at the same time with the head similar to a big, stiff piece of styrofoam float. Unfortunately, this is not the right way to swim freestyle and it causes many problems. If your body is stiff and it rotates as a whole at the same time as your head, your front arm will more than likely shift from being straight and pointing forward to being driven to the side (in other words, crossing over the imaginary line in the middle of your body or going too far away from it). This causes your body to move in a snake-like (zig zag) direction instead of forward. So, lesson number one, relax your body and make sure when you take a breath to the side you do not take your body and arm with it. The proper way to do this is to rotate your hips and then, slightly after that move, your head separately to breathe by rotating your neck when you are on your side. Also, loosen the shoulder joint of the arm that is extended forward and keep the arm stretched out to the front. As you can see, a simple breath requires the coordination of a loose lower shoulder joint, hip rotation and neck rotation - all separate, controlled movements which have to happen almost at the same time. Hence you need total awareness of your body movements while swimming.

Scissor kick for balance support
Another big issue is spreading ones legs too far apart during one kick cycle. Again, you will usually notice this flaw usually during breathing. A swimmer with this problem will appear to have a normal narrow kick but, during the breathing stage of the stroke, he/she will spread the legs apart in a horizontal direction, like a slow motion scissor kick. So the pattern of the kick could be something like kick, kick, kick, kick, kiiiiiiiiick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kiiiiiiick etc. The reason this wide kick happens is the fact that the swimmer uses the big slow kick for balancing support during the breath. Next time you are in the pool with fellow lap swimmers, watch underwater from behind and see if you can spot this irregularity in the kick. Then try to become aware of it during your own swimming. I guarantee that you have it in one size of the kick or another. To fix this scissor kick problem, you should re-read the paragraph above with regard to loosening your shoulder joints:). The loss of balance feeling which causes the scissor kick is usually caused by the cross over of the lower arm during the breath, so by being in control of your separate body part movements and not crossing over you will eliminate the scissor kick flaw. You can also kick to a beat in your head and if you skip a beat, then you know you have the scissor kick syndrome :). Or just rub your toes against each other with each kick and if there is a period without a toe touch, you know you got it bad.:).

There are many more of these small nuances that are done on an unconscious level and, unless a fellow swimmer or a coach points them out, the swimmer in question will never notice them. So remember, next time you are out there doing your thing, practice total body awareness and try to notice what each separate part of your body is doing. Pick one part of your body and follow its movements in your mind through one lap and see if you can visualize exactly what it does. Once you discover an issue, find a drill (not a full stroke) which helps to fix it.
Safer Swimmer - the must have swim safety device for all open water swimmers

Jun 6, 2011

Do you know how to swim breaststroke? (Top 5 most common breaststroke mistakes)

Knock knock. Who is there? Head hovering right above the water, perhaps even with regular rimmed glasses on and dry hair, arms slowly pushing the water to the sides with a rhythmic, lazy, and very wide breaststroke-like kick in a weird angle to the bottom of the pool.

Vertical breaststroke by Mr. Wright
I am sure you know who I am talking about. The most common breaststroke swimming position in our swimming pools all around the world. In the Czech Republic we have a name for this type of head above the water, lazy breaststroke swimming style. We call it "paní Radová" breaststroke. In literal translation, it means "Mrs. Mayor". In the olden days, the stereotypical wife of the town's mayor used to be very respected individual, lazily strolling through the town with her nose held high. And this was translated into the swimming terms when someone swims very slow breaststroke with the head above the water at all times as if they are above anything else.

You know, however, that to properly swim and enjoy breaststroke, the "paní Radová" style is not the way to go. This type of breaststroke puts quite a lot of pressure on ones lower back since the swimmer needs to bend to keep the head above the water. Ok, this is a bit of an extreme and most people who are at least a bit serious about learning to swim breaststroke do not swim like that, but there are a few commonalities and pitfalls that appear in breaststroke swimmers' strokes. Below are just a few of the most common breaststroke mistakes out there:

1) Excessive arm pull past shoulders - one of the biggest pitfalls during the breaststroke arm movements is the exaggerated pull which causes swimmer's arms and elbows to go too far back, passed the shoulders. The current form of breaststroke technique actually puts a lot less emphasis on the arms than the kick, but many swimmers use their arms to move forward instead of their breaststroke kick and this is causing them to pull too far back with their arms. Imagine a wall 1 meter (~3 feet) tall and 5cm (~2 inches) thick. The top of the wall is nice and flat. Pretend like you'd sit on your knees with your chest to the wall and bring your arms over the wall, so you are basically resting on your armpits on top of the wall. Your arms are free and you can move them around on the other side of the wall. Now try to do a breaststroke arm pull. It has to be small, because you cannot move your arms through the wall toward your body. This is almost like swimming breaststroke. Another way to try this in the pool is to hang on the lane rope (as if it was the top of the wall). Hang on the lane line at your armpits, extend your legs horizontally behind you and try to do a breaststroke pull. Again, you cannot move your elbows passed the lane line backwards. You can practice these mimicing exercises a few times and then try it when you swim and remember, smaller is better.

Arm hesitation and head movement by C-Serpents
2) Taking a breath too late - along with the problem of too big of an arm pull as described above, comes the late breathing mistake. One of the first principles of swimming is that if a body part (head, arm) is taken out of the water, there always has to be another body part which serves as a support in the water. The more body parts that are above the water and the longer they are above the water, the easier it is for the swimmer to sink down. In other words, the harder the swimmer has to work to keep afloat. Same principle applies during breaststroke breathing. When your body rises to take a breath, your head is above the water, so you need to minimize the time your body is above the water and use the arms for support. The common mistake here that I am talking about is taking a breath when swimmer's arms are already by his/hers shoulder area or even worse, by his/hers hips (see mistake number 1). When this happens, body (head) is out of the water, but there is no support in the arms to keep the body afloat as the arms already finished the pull, therefore, the swimmer feels like they are sinking every time they take a breath. So, next time you are breathing in breaststroke, remember, take a breath at the same time or before you start your pull (when you arms are still stretched up front) and finish the breath (head in the water at the same time you are stretching your arms forward.

3) Hesitation in the middle of the stroke - if you have read my post about how to use your arms during breaststroke, you already know what I am talking about here, but if not, here is the scoop. The goal position of swimmer's body in breaststroke is right below the surface of the water. The important key element is the hips which should ride at all times very close to the surface of the water. The "high hip" position, is very vulnerable during the time when swimmer just finished the pull and is ready to return the arms back to the front position (this is called the arm recovery). It is at this time (hands are right in front of your chest) when swimmer's hips are forced down by the hands' above the water position. So, the longer the swimmer takes to get the arms back forward the more likely are the hips to sink away from the surface. Many swimmers (even competitive athletes) make a big mistake by pausing the hands in the chest position before returning the arms forward. In reality, it should be totally opposite, there should not be a pause, the arms should actually speed up as the swimmer throws them (along with the upper body) forward. A good way to practice this is by using a drill where you use freestyle kick with very fast breaststroke arms. This drill will not let your hips sink since the freestyle kick is supporting them, but it will get you tired very fast if you keep pausing in the breaststroke arm pull.

Eyes should look more down, not forward.
4) Head movement instead of body movement - this is a very common mistake and if I were to venture a guess, it is practiced by 90% of the swimming population out there. Contrary to the belief, there is no (or very little) neck movement during breaststroke. It is opposite of butterfly, where you should slightly move your neck to get the head out of the water. You can read about that in the top butterfly mistakes post. In breaststroke, you can imagine you have a neck collar (one of those you get in a hospital, also called the cervical collar) which does not allow you to bob your head up and down. Instead you should move the chest along with the head. You might now wonder: "well why shouldn't I move my head. It works fine for me." True, you can swim breaststroke with the head bobbing, however, you are not then swimming properly up to your potential. The head bobbing introduces unnecessary up and down motion to your body which causes you to loose the forward motion engagement as well as hips at the surface position (see point 3 above) and increases your drag. You can practice this by utilizing a few tricky drills. One way to get your head immobilized is to put a tennis ball or a bit bigger ball under your chin and keep it there while you swim. The other way, which I like the best is to utilize the Finis front end snorkel, but use it backwards in the back of your head to not let your head move up from its natural position. In other way to think about this is, if your face is vertical (eyes looking straight ahead) during the breathing cycle, it is wrong. Your head is an extension of your neck, so you need to look in an angle towards the water somewhere in front of you in order for your hips to stay at the surface.

5) Improper breaststroke kick - I discussed the proper breaststroke kicking sequence in one of my older breastroke leg post, however, let's talk about it again. Proper breaststroke kick is a must if you want to succeed in swimming this wonderful stroke. The most common mistakes in kicking are a scissor kick, too wide of a kick or the worst, modified butterfly kick. The main ingredient to a good breaststroke kick is the revelation of what part of your leg actually pushes the water and where. So, let me shed some light on that.

a) Breaststroke swimmers always need to push water backwards behind them since they want the kick to propel them forward. In the scissor kick (wrong type of breaststroke kick) the water is pushed to the sides and in too wide of a kick.
b) The proper way to push water behind swimmer's body is by utilizing the inner shin (from knee down) and the inner foot (from ankle to your big toe) as the main parts. In the scissor kick and modified butterfly kick (wrong type of breaststroke kick) it is the front shin and front foot that is wrongly being used. In the too wide of a kick (wrong type of breaststroke kick), it is only the sole of swimmer's foot that stomps the water backwards which actually generate almost zero propulsion forward. As you see, all the three variations are using totally different less efficient propulsive mechanisms to get a swimmer forward.

The best way to learn the proper inner shin and inner ankle position is to place your feet in the right alignment against a swimming pool wall while holding onto a lane line and then very gently push off (with your inner ankles touching the wall - foot rotated outward). Keep repeating this leg wall alignment many times until you feel comfortable and are able to mimic the same ankle rotation in the water.

There are of course many more aspects to a proper breaststroke swim, however, if I'd list them all, it would be for a short book and who reads books these days, right;). I hope you learned something about breaststroke today and remember, to improve in swimming or as a matter of fact in anything in life, trying new things and understanding why something is done is the key to success. So go out there and modify your breaststroke for the better. One way or another, you will discover something new, even if it is just more realization that this is not the way to do it. Have fun and keep swimming.

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