Off the topic of photography. Working on that pesky freestyle stroke.

The heck with cameras and silly arguments about megapixels. Let's talk about something more important: good freestyle technique! Practicing a stroke incorrectly, day after day, makes that stroke harder to correct down the road. Today is a good day to start working on better technique.

I've been swimming for a long time and I'm here to tell you that your impression of your arm position and its actual position in three dimensions can be completely different. Case in point, I thought I was placing my arms directly in front of me on my freestyle recovery and had been practicing that way for years. A month or so ago one of the coaches stopped me mid-set and told me that I was "crossing over" way too much. That meant that if you drew a line from the top of my head down the center of my body my arms were crossing over that center point in front of my head as I placed each hand in the water. Crossing over reduces the efficiency of your stroke because a certain amount of your catch and pull is spent pulling your body left and then right instead of having all the power of the stroke pushing water back in the direction of your feet. That side to side wiggle is just lost energy and requires even more energy to keep pulling your body back to center.

If you want to see just how much you are crossing over a good drill is to have a fellow swimmer walk backwards in front of you in the pool holding a kick board at the center point of your head. (The board is held perpendicular to water instead of its usual flat on the water position). As you stroke, if you are crossing over, you'll repeatedly hit the board with one or both of your hands. That's a sure sign that you are crossing over.

The cure is to swim wide. You have to swim with the feeling that your arms are entering the water much wider. And even better is to tilt your head back and watch your initial entry to make sure you are getting wide enough. Over time what felt awkward will become normal. (don't keep tilting your head up, you don't want to affect your overall balance in the water...).

Another thing to consider is that the pull of the stroke, from the entry to the final push at the top of your thigh, needs to be more or less a straight line with the intent of anchoring your hand in the water and pulling your body past that point. Moving your arm in a wide "S" curve during the front end of your stroke takes time and uses unnecessary energy to move the body laterally. Every unintended lateral move has to be corrected by use of power expended in the opposite direction.

A quick catch, following by a pull with a high elbow position, and increasing speed and power at the end of the stroke is the optimal way to swim freestyle, provided you don't waste energy and mess up your body position by crossing over.

When you are working on correcting or fine tuning a stroke you may find it uncomfortable at first. The key is to drop down a lane and swim with slower swimmers so you can concentrate on technique instead of speed and endurance. Trying to do a stroke correction while maintaining training at a high level is a recipe for failure as you'll get tired and allow your stroke to fall apart. When the workout is tough most swimmers working on strokes revert to what's familiar and that's exactly where you don't want to go. If you normally workout in a lane that repeats 100's on 1:15 you might want to drop down to a lane that repeats on 1:25 so you have the energy to focus on your course correction. 

And now a photographic tie-in: It's helpful, when reconstructing your freestyle, to see what your stroke looks like both when you are doing it right and when you are doing it wrong. Get a friendly swimmer or coach to video tape you swimming toward the camera. Best to get your person to stand at the end of your lane and for you to swim toward them so you can see clearly your arm entry and catch. Watch the footage pool side and then hope in and fine tune it.

I spent the morning workout really concentrating on my stroke technique. I've been at it for a month. It's feeling easier and more efficient every day. It was wonderful to be in the pool early this morning and to watch the sunrise as we swam. Coach, Tommy Hannan, (Gold medals at the 2000 Olympics) was on deck and coaching with gusto. It's a great day to be a swimmer.


Kirk Tuck said...

I can't believe this one didn't get any comments... :-)

I guess there wasn't enough controversy over which goggles are best, Tyr or Speedo. Don't try to tell me Barracuda or I'll know you're not serious...

Dan Higgins said...

Your freestyle stroke tips were 'on the money' for my lunch-time swim training today. Thanks!!

Fred said...

Sorry I was late on this, I have been moving snow and fixing the snow blower. I have been thinking that if I can get my shoulder loosened up to swim properly I will need to get some instruction on current technique.

Dan said...

I have been thinking for a while that I need to have someone look at my strokes. I am a once a week swimmer as crossing training for running (marathon and ultras), but better is better. Thanks.

Tony said...

Hi Kirk, as a bumbling amateur shutterbug I love reading your blog, and many others like it, to learn and enjoy what is just a hobby for me. In a past life I swam competitively for 10 years and went on to do a couple of degrees in sport science and then coach swimming to national junior level here in Australia - I used to jokingly say I had a Masters degree in swimming. I might be able to help you out here.
What you've said about "pulling" and particularly "S pulls" is classic terminology quite usefully used to teach basic technique, but does have a tendency to create a false image of what is really going on.
There is nothing wrong with using these images but to make the next leap you need to understand a couple of things. One is that such descriptions are two dimensional representations of three dimensional actions AND they use an incorrect static reference point. In reality your body moves past your hand - your hand does not travel past your body in a mechanically efficient stroke.
Secondly you need to get past thinking in Newtonian physics terms (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) which is completely appropriate in most terrestrial movements/sports and get your head around basic fluid dynamics (Bernoullli's Principle)which is what comes into play with all water and air based activities - swimming, anything with an oar or paddle and anything involving sails, gliding or flying. The important fundamental difference is that when "sculling", or employing the principle of hydrodynamic lift, resultant propulsive forces act at right angles to the direction of movement whereas in action/reaction situations (running, jumping, striking balls with sticks....)the resultant forces are acting at 180 degrees to the direction of movement.
This hand and forearm of a truly efficient swimmer is moving upwards and downwards and from side to side to generate forces on the palm of your hand (which is acting as a hydrofoil)to push you forward. Rowers do a similar thing. They don't put their oar in the water and push it back - they "lock" the oar in one spot and drag the boat forward around the pivot point of the oar in the water.
Tying it back into observing or filming. Try observing side-on and look at where a swimmer's hand enters the water with respect to something stationary on the deck. Backstroke flagpoles, a railing for the steps at the half way mark, a kick board jammed into a slot of the gutter or any of the depth signs etc. Then observe where it comes out of the water with respect to that same point. Mechanically inefficient swimmers' hands will exit the water behind where it went in, good swimmers' hands will exit about the same place and really efficient swimmers' hands will actually exit the water in front of where they entered.
All this without telling you how it's done. I could go on and on....but it is all about sculling, not pulling back and the real feedback you want to pay attention to is the amount of pressure you can feel on the palms of your hands. More pressure is the result of more efficient sculling and means more force being generated to push you forward. A simple exercise (and an absolutely everyday part of warm ups when I was doing this for a living)is to swim laps where the first half is done with your fists tightly clenched and the second half with your hands back open in their normal position. The rush of sensory information coming from your palms will probably startle you at first. But it is always there, it is just a matter of tuning your brain into it. From there you work on increasing the pressure you can feel by playing with your sculling actions - the pressing out and in and up and down as well as rotation of the forearm as you are doing it.
This is not to say that your hand entering across the mid-line isn't a technical fault. It is and is important to the other side of the forces equation - the resistance ones.
Do you want to discuss "kicking"?!

Tony said...

Sorry - having just re-read your article I can see you do understand that the hand anchors in the water and you pull your body past it. I rushed in there and started waffling!
However the S pull image does need to be understood as a representation of how the hand is perceived to be moving past the body when in fact it shouldn't be.