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Feb 27, 2012

The Most Useful Drill for Each Stroke

Being a beginner swimmer is definitely not easy. Where do I start? How do I do it? It seems much harder than it looks, how come? These are just a few questions I get asked all the time. As I discussed on many occasions, swimming is not as simple sport as it may seem. Sure, what is there to it, just go back and forth between two walls. However, in reality the swimming motions are actually quite complex and very difficult to master. It is quite complicated to learn a stroke (be it butterfly, breaststroke, freestyle or backstroke) without breaking it down to specific swimming drills. This means isolating one or two aspects of a stroke and zooming in your focus. However, this brings another dilemma. Which drills should I do? What are they good for? Lauren, a competitive swimmer of 13 years will share with you what she thinks are the best drills to add to your swimming repertoire.

Enter Lauren:
Any competitive swimmer can give you a list of their favorite and least favorite swimming drills. Drills are an essential aspect of swimming and training. While putting in the yardage/kilometers is certainly essential to becoming a better and faster swimmer, training your mind and body to perform the strokes properly is just as (if not more) important. Swimming is a sport of practice and patience. Dedicated swimmers must spend hours and hours in the pool each week training their bodies to perform their strokes in the most efficient, most powerful, and safest way possible. To help them, swim coaches use different drills to deconstruct strokes for their swimmers. By deconstructing the strokes and focusing on each essential movement using different drills and techniques, swimmers can learn to feel the correct way in which a stroke should be completed. When mere hundredths of a second stand between you and your best time or the swimmer in the lane next to you, every movement you make in the water counts and every technique glitch you encounter can harm. More importantly, performing a stroke the wrong way can be harmful to your health as joints get pressure in the wrong places etc. Here is a list of drills that I find the most useful in my swimming workouts and feel that they are an essential aspect of mastering the stroke they are accompanied with.
fingertip drag example

Fingertip Drag Freestyle

Freestyle is the fastest and most used stroke in swimming. Because swimmers will do the majority of their workouts swimming freestyle it is essential that they perform the stroke correctly. Incorrect posture or placement during freestyle can lead to serious injuries and will slow a swimmer down.

The fingertip drag drill is one of the more straightforward and simple drills to master. While swimming freestyle, keep your fingertips grazing the surface of the water as you take your stroke. The underwater pull will be in the normal fashion, but as you are breaking your arm from underneath the water you should keep you fingertips down on top of the water and position your elbow high in the air. This should slow down your stroke rate slightly, but for the most part will look similar to a normal freestyle stroke.

By forcing yourself to keep the tips of your fingers on the surface of the water during the peak of your stroke recovery, you are helping yourself to master the correct high elbow and body position of the freestyle stroke. Often, particularly in younger athletes, swimmers will throw their hands high up towards the ceiling when they swim freestyle. The fingertip drag drill forces swimmers to keep their elbow in the correct position. A swimmer's hand should never reach higher than their elbow. This drill also helps swimmers refrain from "slapping" the water with their hands thus catching a lot of bubbles under the palm of their hand. For the best results in freestyle, the fingertips should enter the water almost splash free and be relaxed throughout the entire recovery cycle.

Note from Swimator Blog: Often we hear coaches telling their swimmers during this drill to put their fingers into their arm pit. This is just silly. Nobody swims by putting fingers in the arm pit. This position is very unnatural and the swimmers have to twist their hand to even reach the arm pit. Instead, drag your relaxed fingertips through the water next to your body. If you'd extend your thumb towards your body, it still wouldn't touch it, there should be about 10 cm gap between your extended thumb and your shoulder when they pass each other. Another important aspect of the fingertip drill is to make sure that you lead with your elbow and not your hand. So your elbow leaves the water first pulling the relaxed fingertips with it. At the peak of the stroke recovery your hand with your fingers should just be dangling down pulled by gravity towards the water.
Keep one arm by the body and one arm swimming
(not straight though)

One Arm Backstroke Drill

What many swimmers do not realize is that backstroke and freestyle share many of the same drills and mechanisms when you swim them. Both are longitudinal strokes, working on the same axis. For this reasons, your body position and movement from side to side should be almost the same for both freestyle and backstroke. One of the biggest issues with backstroke for swimmers is timing.

The one arm backstroke drill helps swimmers master the somewhat tricky timing of the stroke. You can perform three strokes on your back with your right arm while your left arm is relaxed at your side and underwater. You want to be almost on your side in the water when you are taking the three strokes. Though the stroke is called backstroke, it is important that you understand that you should almost never be completely flat on you back in the water. This drill helps to demonstrate the side to side movement successful backstroke produces. After you take three one armed strokes with your right arm, you then immediately do three normal backstroke strokes using both arms. Next, you put your right arm relaxed at your side and do three back strokes with your left arm. You should repeat this three step process over and over.

The one arm backstroke drill will force you to concentrate on your body position while you pull under water and will help you slow down your stroke movement. By doing a one arm pull, you can feel the strength of you pull and focus on ways to achieve optimal catch in the water with you hand and more importantly forearm. This drill will also help you to learn to dip your shoulder to the side at the correct time.

Note from Swimator Blog: There are many variations of this drill to keep the drill interesting, one variation uses the stroke count where you could swim one with left arm, two with right arm, three with left arm, two with right arm, one with left arm etc. I am sure you can come up with your own fun way to vary this drill. Also, do not forget that your backstroke hip rotation is the product of your hips guiding the way. Your shoulders are not what rotates you from side to side. So always lead your rotation first with your hip and then the rest of your body will follow.
streamline during the breaststroke double kick drill

Double Kick Breaststroke

Breaststroke is often one of the most difficult strokes for swimmers to master properly. Correct timing and body position are essential aspects of mastering breaststroke. One of the most common mistakes that swimmers make with breaststroke is timing when to take a breath and when to kick.

During the double kick breaststroke drill you should perform the breaststroke the way you normally would, however, do two breaststroke kicks one after the other. During these two kicks, your arms should be tight in the streamline position and your head should be down facing the ground. By doing two kicks in a row, you are forced to draw out your breathing process in the stroke. This is great aerobic training and is a good way to get you to breathe at the appropriate time during your stroke. Furthermore, the breaststroke kick is one of the most powerful kicks in the water. By performing two kicks, you are forced to concentrate on finishing the entire kick and getting the most power you can out of it. Don't forget to squeeze your ankles all the way together with each kick. This drill is a wonderful way to help you recognize the power of your kick and master the timing of your breathing for the stroke.

Note from Swimator Blog: When you do the two kicks, make sure your body is fully submerged and you are parallel with the swimming pool bottom holding your streamline. Try to refrain from too much up and down motion during the kick. Also, play with the positioning of your kick, so you find the most efficient kick with the least resistance.
Keep arms shoulder width apart for butterfly pulse drill

Pulse for Butterfly

Butterfly is also one of the more difficult strokes to truly master. There are several positioning and timing tricks that can be hard to get a hold of for beginner or intermediate swimmers. As with breaststroke, one of the most important aspects of swimming butterfly is mastering timing and body position.

The pulsing drill is a little bit trickier than some of the other drills I've described here. First, start by floating on your stomach with your arms out in front of you in a "superman" position. This means that arms should not be tight together in a streamline position, but instead with hands about shoulder length apart. Your face should be looking down in the water and your ankles should be squeezed together, but not tense. The pulsing drill works just as it sounds — you will pulse up and down using your core and sternum to move yourself forward. Press your chest down towards the bottom of the pool while keeping your hands at the same water depth as before. When you do this your butt should go up some in the air and your arms should come further apart from one another. Then press your hips down towards the bottom of the pool, this causes your chest to come up some and your arms to move together again. It is at this time that you should peak your head up for a breath.

Essentially, you will be doing a butterfly kick and body movement without doing the arm pulls. The slight up and down movement of your body should very slowly propel you forward. This pulsing drill also simulates the body movement that you should perform while swimming breaststroke. You can do this exact same drill to master the body motion and breathing pattern for breaststroke as well. The butterfly pulsing drill is one of the most important lessons to learn for the latitudinal strokes (breaststroke and butterfly).

Note from Swimator Blog: When doing the pulse drill, you do not need to breathe with every pulse. This drill is best performed with the swimmer's snorkel Don't let the breathing confuse you. Instead, worry about the right rhythm of pulses. Also, do not worry about going forward too much. When you get it right, you will move forward inch by inch. With that in mind, do not kick with your legs. Let your legs just follow the wave of your body initiated by your sternum and hips. Lastly, during the chest press down motion, don't think that you head has to go with it. Keep the back of your head right at the surface and push the chest down, so in other words, make sure your neck is relaxed :).

This guest post is contributed by Lauren Bailey, who was a competitive swimmer for 13 years while also being a swim coach on a side.

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

Feb 20, 2012

Breaststroke Like an Inch Worm

Swim breaststroke like an inch worm? Yes, however, not in the sense of up and down movement, think more horizontal :). Breaststroke is probably the easiest stroke to learn, however, the toughest along with butterfly to learn correctly. If you look around your local swimming pool, you will see many people casually swimming breaststroke or at least something that very distantly resembles proper breaststroke. Many open water swimmers or triathletes also use breaststroke to take a break from their swim or to take a few moments to orientate themselves and sight their target (whether breaststroke is the best choice of stroke for this is another discussion :)). So, one could make the assumption, there is not much to breaststroke since majority of people can perform some sort of variation of the stroke. As someone wise once said though, "the devil is in the details" and this principle can also be applied to swimming breaststroke on a higher competitive level.
Breaststroke glide - Needs a bit more work :)

On my masters swim team in Finland, I have one very capable breaststroker (Johanna) who is a multiple national record holder in her age category and was second in all her breaststroke events in the 2011 European Masters Championships in Yalta. Very impressive results, however, there is always room for improvement right? :) And furthermore, one should never stop striving to be better otherwise we'd never evolve.

Since Johanna is an advanced swimmer, she masters all the common beginner breaststroke mistakes, so we need to look at her stroke from different angles. One of the approaches is to streamline her stroke with the focus on converting all her power and energy to help her go forward by minimalizing any other movement which would cause her body to slow down in the dense water. This may seem a simple concept, but it is not as easy to achieve as one might think.

We made an underwater video of her breaststroke swim and looked at different ways (not all) to make her body glide through the water smoother. Here are just a couple of pointers which you can take away from the analysis:

1) Streamline off the wall and on the underwater pullout: It is very important to keep the body in a long tight streamline when coming off the wall or off the start. Since you have a great momentum from your push off, your speed is the fastest during this part of the swim, therefore you need to take as much of an advantage of this as possible by making sure your body is as smooth as an arrow. (btw, this does not pertain to only breaststroke). After the initial streamlined glide, you will need to do the underwater pull with a breakout which consists of one double arm pull, one double leg kick and another double arm pull to get you swimming at the surface. Even if your off the wall streamline is as smooth as a javelin, a lot can go wrong during this arm pull and leg kick sequence. Any movement of your arms and legs which deviates from your body line or goes against the direction you are going in is a hindrance, so eliminating as much of any unnecessary big movements is a key.

a) On your initial arm pull, make sure to pull water backwards and not lift your body one or two steps up in the water column. Very common mistake indeed. Many swimmers, are very excited and try to make the initial underwater pull as large as possible not realizing that while doing so, their entire body is bending under the exerted arm pressure and instead of going smoothly forward, they travel upwards in a very abrupt jump. This first breaststroke pull is nothing else then anchoring your arms in the early vertical forearm stage and moving your body around those anchors forward. It cannot be rushed otherwise you will miss out on finding the proper initial catch. Hint: after you finished your catch and are gliding through the water in head first position, try shrugging your shoulders, you will be amazed at the effect:).

b) After you pulled and glided for a bit, you need to move the arms back forward (also called the recovery). We usually do not pay much attention to this, however, during the recovery your elbows can easily come high above your back and your hands far away from your body thus causing a disruption in your body line. Keep your arms and elbows as close to your body and chest as possible, so you minimize the drag and finish in an extended streamlined position again.

c) The breaststroke kick that comes after the recovery can also cause you to slow down. (this does not only pertain to underwater breaststroke, but to breaststroke as a whole). If you think about it, when you are loading your legs by bringing them closer to your body, the motion is against the direction where you are going. So ideally, the kick will be quite narrow staying within the constrains of the hole our body already made through the water. Obviously this is impossible as we have to bend the legs, but we can get very close. First, do not bring your knees forward, keep them back and think of it more as bringing your heels to your butt (practicing breaststroke kick on your back while keeping your knees under water is very good drill for this). Second, when you do the actual kick, do not concentrate on pressing out with your legs, but push the water backwards as if there was an imaginary wall and you are using your outer rotated ankles and shins to push off of it. Finally, don't forget to squeeze your legs together. Use those butt cheeks and inner thighs at the end of every one of your kicks to squeeze the soles of your feet together at the end of the kick. This will make sure your body is nicely streamlined during the glide phase of breaststroke. Word of caution here though, this squeezing part of the stroke, as simple as it sounds, is actually quite tiring on your body and on your mind, so introduce it into your stroke gradually. Perhaps, you can utilize this techniqe every other lap and see how you get on, before you add it to your stroke permanently. Just a reminder, don't forget the dolphin kick during the breaststroke underwater pullout phase.

Inch your way to breaststroke success by just_a_name_thingie
2) Horizontal body line is another aspect of how swimming breaststroke can go all wrong. If you look under water at majority of people who swim breaststroke, I bet you'd see an up and down motion at the beginning of their stroke. During the arm recovery, hands are shot out forward and downward which causes the entire body to follow down into the water only to later angle up to start the breaststroke pull closer to the surface again. This wave at the beginning of the stroke causes a bit of resistance as oppose to just shooting arms forward and keeping them at the same water level without going down and up again. Many coaches compare breaststroke to butterfly and teach it in a similar fashion, however, I am not convinced this is as good of an idea as it sounds, exactly for this reason. When we tell a swimmer that the breaststroke motion is like the butterfly motion which in turn is very wavy (at least from the sternum down), it brings up the idea in the swimmer's head that he/she should move the body as in butterfly which is one cause of the initial arm dip after recovery. A more accurate way to swim breaststroke would be to compare it to an inch worm movement, where the front legs and back legs are in the same horizontal plane and only get closer or further apart from each other as the worm inches forward. There is no up and down motion of the front body anywhere.

Johanna, the masters swimmer I mentioned at the beginning of this breaststroke streamlining post, has been working very hard to optimise her stroke in the last few months, so it will be very interesting to watch, what the little tiny improvements she has made to her stroke will do to her swims at the 2012 World Masters Championships in Riccione. So far, it has been quite exciting as she has been breaking one record after another to cause any disturbance in forward motion.

The above pointers are quite advanced when it comes to learning the correct breaststroke technique as they are tedious details, however, no matter what your breaststroke skill level is, you can take away the fact that swimming is not as simple sport as one might thing. The truth is actually the opposite, since water is so much denser than air to optimise a swimming movement, one must really pay attention to everything a body does, be it better streamline or less up and down motion etc. So if you are frustrated with your swimming skill level, don't worry, even the top swimmers in the world are battling little tiny details. So, be patient, mindful, and go out there and optimise your breaststroke :).

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

Feb 13, 2012

Guide to The Swimmer's Diet (Carbohydrate Me Please)

Should I eat those smiley gummy bears lurking at me from the cupboard? One more piece of chocolate before I give it back. I'll just even out this corner of the ice cream box and then stick it back to freezer. I know we have all been there :). The temptation is everywhere and the media bombardment with delicious looking advertisements do not offer much help. However, eating something in your regular daily life is totally something else than creating a diet in order to give your body maximum chance to perform at its best. In this post, Marina will give us more insights on what it means to have a swimmer's diet.

Eat more sweet potatoes
This is a guest post by Marina Salsbury who planned on becoming a teacher since high school, but found her way instead into online writing after college. She writes around the web about everything from education to exercise.

Enter Marina:
Swimming is an excellent form of exercise, not only providing huge improvements in cardiovascular fitness but also developing muscle strength. In addition, swimming is easy on the joints, making it ideal for anyone with aches or injuries that other sports like running simply exacerbate. For those who consider themselves to be swimmers, a healthy swimmer's diet is an important part of feeding the muscles, having enough glycogen for workouts each day and adequate protein for recovery. Medical transcription services are beginning to be used in sports-related injuries, and as a result medical experts are becoming more understanding of the rigors of sports injuries. This guide introduces readers to the typical recommended diet for swimmers, as well as how to calculate calories required to perform as peak potential. It will also outline what foods and drinks are necessary leading up to and immediately following an important swim practice or swim meet.

What should your daily diet consist of?

During a typical week, swimmers should focus on their carbohydrate consumption. Carbohydrates are the main sources of energy that will be used during exercise. However, it is important not to think that focusing on carbohydrates means eating processed foods like cookies or chips. Instead, focus on healthier, wholesome foods like rice, whole wheat breads, fruits and sweet potatoes. Avoid high-fat and high-sugar foods that provide only empty calories and no nutrition. Having a small dose of these high-sugar foods will give you a temporary burst of energy, but the energy that comes will only result in a crash later in the day.

Pasta me up baby

Determining how many calories to consume?

In order to determine how many calories you'll need to consume daily, consider wearing a waterproof heart rate monitor during a typical week of swim training. This will help you see exactly how many calories your body burns in a week, which will need to be added to the maintenance calories you already consume. You should be consuming enough calories to provide you with adequate energy for swim workouts, but not so much that you are gaining weight while training.

What to eat BEFORE a swim meet or an open water/triathlon race?

The days and hours leading up to an important swim event are the perfect time for you to load your body with sufficient food to perform your best. Swimmers should ramp up their carbohydrate consumption in the days prior to a major event, but when doing so being careful not to over consume calories. Simply replace some of the typical fats or proteins you eat with high-carbohydrate items instead. Avoid trying any new foods or liquids, and focus on plain, typical foods that the body agrees with. Eat 3 hours prior to the swim meet, topping up your glycogen stores with pure carbohydrates just prior to the event.

What to eat AFTER swim meet or an open water/triathlon race?

After a strenuous swim event, it is important to refuel with food immediately. Some swimmers don't feel hungry right after exercising, but it is important to consume some calories within 30 minutes of the swim meet. There is a small window of opportunity where protein and carbohydrates can do the most good to replenish and restore muscles for a faster recovery, so take advantage of this and drink chocolate milk or eat a protein bar for quick nutrition.

By understanding what to eat during a typical week, it is possible to get more from your swimming and dryland workouts. With the right nutrition before and after your swim races, you give your body best shot on having a great race.

Note from Swimator Blog: I am no nutritionist, and am true believer of eating what you are hungry for, however, I've had my fair share of good and bad eating and swimming experiences, so I do know thing or two about what works and what doesn't when it comes to swimming. One anecdote that I find the most interesting would relate to the carbohydrate rich diet before swimming competition. Long time ago, when I still lived in the Czech Republic, I was in Viareggio, Italy at a Carnevale swim meet. We were there a few days and every day for lunch and dinner we had exactly the same pasta (baked Ziti I believe). As a young kid, I hate it to eat the same thing every day, however, that meet was one of the best ones in my life. I broke all my records and I felt like my swimming was out of this world. You also have to realize we drove down to Italy, so it was like 24hrs in a small car, no great picnic to be competing after :). Magic authentic Italian al dente pasta :).

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Feb 6, 2012

Best Swimming Tips of 2011

After a short break, we are back with some highlights from the Swimator Blog archives for 2011. What swimming tips did you find the most interesting in 2011? That is the question. Below is a short list of the top 10 Swimator Blog swimming tips:

Libor from Swimator Blog in action
1) As traditionally, our novice and beginner swimmers are taking over with the two part beginner tips series on floating and standing up from floating tips and on relaxation and elementary body position tips.

2) Many visitors also wanted to know more about the proper body position in swimming and how to be more efficient in the water. Without mastering this concept, you might as well swim against the current.

3) Swimming faster is an elusive reality for many swimmers, so no wonder everyone wants to know how to do it. However, swimming faster is about stroke technique improvements, not being a yard/meter junkie, so be patient and master the basics first and always come back to them.

4) Among the popular topics on Swimator Blog is also a brief freestyle video analysis. One step in the learning to swim process is the ability to recognize issues in someone else's stroke, so knowing how to pick out the top freestyle stroke flaws brings you one step closer to your swimming success.

5) Getting water up the nose is an ongoing problem for many swimmers. Some swimmers master it from the start without even thinking about it, for some it is an unbeatable challenge. The two part series on how to stop water from entering your nose teaches you about the connection between the mouth and nose and how to close it and the more advanced human nose clip technique. Say no to choking on water :).

6) Ahh, the legs and the kick. This continues to be a pitfall for many triathletes and beginner swimmers. You should learn what to do with your body when your legs sink and how to improve your kick with special kicking workouts.

Open water and triathlon swimming tips
7) Swimator Blog has also avid breaststroke enthusiasts who are keen to learn more about the complex breaststroke arm movements, to conquer the even more difficult breaststroke kick and to recognize the top breaststroke flaws.

8) Finally, many swimmers and coaches are starting to focus more on the "if this than that" approach, than just blindly swimming laps. Swimator Blog's article on the effect of streamlining and better technique on the drag forces is also among the top 10, so that is exciting.

9) Along the same thinking as above, knowing what your freestyle swimming type is can help you determine what drills and workouts are the most beneficial for you. Do you know which freestyle type you are?

10) Not everyone is as comfortable in water as the most of us. And it appears it is actually more people than we might think, so no wonder that our novice swimmers or concerned parents found the "what should I do when I am drowning" article useful.

Bonus: To improve your swimming even more, join our 360swim Facebook or Twitter @360swim communities where we have daily posts of useful swimming tips, swimming advice, swimming trivia, swim workouts and many more.

There you have it. The most popular swimming tips from Swimator Blog for 2011. Happy belated New Year to everyone and don't be afraid of 2012, for what we know, the end of the world prediction was just a clerical error :).
Learning to swim is priceless and SwimSmooth Learn to Swim DVD is a great start