Swim Tech: sometimes bad is ‘good’…

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For many triathletes, swimming is an ongoing frustration. Just when you think you’ve ‘got it’, it vanishes. But, sometimes ‘bad’ swimming is good!

In this swim feature Dan Bullock, Head Coach at Swim for Tri, discusses just why that is the case. He also highlights that swimming is a dynamic entity – alas, it’s not a “fix it and move on” sport!

If you are struggling with the ups and downs of the pool (most of you…), this is well worth a read to gain some perspective.


Swimming: it’s not all bad, not always!

Bad swim technique, bad, bad, bad.

Week in, week out, we have the negative aspect of this driven into us relentlessly from all angles. Tri coaches, swim teachers, the tri media and pro athletes reminding us how we can be better. There is a positive aspect to bad swimming technique that once in a while you should remind yourself of to keep your spirits up during those tough sessions.

Chances are when you feel your stroke breaking down mid tough session, or nearing the end of a challenging main set, it is the result of getting a solid block of hard work done. You could consider it almost the reward of some hard efforts. Problems arise if these hard efforts occur too often with no counter-balance, with no attempt to undo the minor faults introduced.

There are two styles of front crawl drills in my mind. Those for learning how to swim and those for polishing an already established FC technique. Often that is just what is needed, some finessing to bring the stroke back to its fullest efficiency, to its most accurately aligned and effective. Many of the movements are similar to the basic drills and often triathletes are surprised when I show swim videos of Olympians doing some very simple body position drills. Usually the way the movements are practiced differs and there are ways to progress them but the drills are similar.

Problems arise when we let it disintegrate and do nothing to halt the slide. You might feel your running form breakdown more apparently in a tough session and likewise you will try to hold a better position on the bike for longer for best efficiency, but in the swim it is harder to see or feel the stroke breakdown. I am guilty of this along with most. After a sporadic Xmas period of training I headed to Tenerife with our Tridynamic swim camp for a week of training in the sun. With some serious flume technology available I usually try to get in and get some FC drill or tip filmed.

This year’s footage was all useless due to a small kink in my arm pull I had not spotted and could not use. Whether it is from racing a lot, training hard or sporadic attendance you need to keep a close eye on your FC technique. It should not always be thought of as a negative thing and that the stroke breaking down is the reward of fatigue in a weird way.

With better swim technique, healthier and stronger shoulders, more fitness and endurance, the better aligned you can remain, then you defer the breakdown for longer. Don’t feel that drills get practiced for a short while then we move onto the good stuff. We come back to drills time and time again to repair the damage of fitness training.

Here is a recent dialogue from a swimmer who hit a high last September at training camp technically, trained well through to December then, as so often with the Xmas festivities, missed some time in the water. When we got back to Lanzarote and the January training camp the stroke was suffering a little.

“I am getting a bit frustrated as I don’t seem to be making progress and I feel like I am trying to correct one thing which leads to the creation of another fault. This is really apparent in what is now happening to my arm at the front of the stoke as it enters the water…What am I doing wrong?????”

You do not fix your stroke and move on leaving drills behind. Good technique comes and goes, it deteriorates with training and racing and needs to be restored. This was never more apparent then last September as I managed to race well through the summer season and then get filmed at an end of season camp. I was quite disappointed with how it looked but I had not noticed my stroke change or deteriorate.

Your stroke will change with age and mobility, it will stagnate with less frequent training. OK, poor technique due to this aspect is not strictly a reward but it needs to be mentioned. More frequent swimming reduces the time out of the water and just feeling the water on a more regular basis will help you improve or at least stop it falling apart.

The stroke is a dynamic thing that comes and goes … it does not get fixed and remain fixed. Your technique is battling against fatigue and the fitness component you keep overloading it with. Whether age, mobility, lack of tricep strength or loss of awareness in the water, I have recently noticed that I am now pivoting my wrist too early at the back of my stroke and the hand is not vertical <fingertips down>. I am now palm down on the right hand slightly. There is always something to work on.

How to tell if you are back on track? Not all of these are essential for a return to fast swimming but if you suddenly find you cannot do some of them as effectively as previously then something might be up with your FC technique. These are to be considered on top of your usual higher stroke count, more fatigue as more drag is created. Being comfortable again with bilateral breathing if you used to do this. Feeling like you are in control of the timing of the breathing and not that the stroke is dictating when you get to breathe. Feeling like the body is traveling past the locked in vertical hand forearm position rather then the hand slipping past under the body with no reward of moving you forwards.

A good streamline taking you into the blue and white lane rope segments (not always are racing lane ropes blue, white and red, but just look for a break in colour about 5m off the wall), before a single stroke is needed.Three strokes to get you out of the red lane rope zone in most pools is not a good start to a streamlined stroke. Ability to keep HR low on easy swims, if too many inefficiencies creep in then swimming relatively steady can still be tiring as we inadvertently propel ourselves in the wrong direction. For instance, I see swimmers going up not forwards all week long making use of the wrong limbs to do the job, often at a greater energy cost (i.e. kicking from the knee rather then with a straighter leg moving at the hip will sink the legs).

How to tell if you are getting it right?

10 things to feel within your stroke when things start coming together:

  1. A surge forwards over the locked in ‘anchor hand’ when the catch works well in conjunction with a streamlined body position. Stroke count will come down as a result of this.
  2. At a more advanced level the ability to swim slow, medium and fast, yet still take a similar number of strokes per length. Speed should not mean more strokes.
  3. Hand starting to exit close to where it entered in relation to your position against a lane rope as the body travels efficiently forwards and over your locked in hand.When swimming a steady 400m in a 25m pool, count strokes on lengths 4,8,12 and 16. When this stroke count starts to remain constant it is a good sign that the mechanics of the stroke are not tiring you out.
  4. The stroke never feeling so rushed that you are uncomfortable when trying to get the breath in.
  5. Legs only kicking with a board and not going backwards!
  6. Performing the very tricky catch-up drill with a pull buoy (no legs whatsoever.) If you can do this and not roll onto your back then the hand pathways under the body will be working well and not pulling excessively wide or under the body.
  7. A general relaxed state and a feeling of being very comfortable in the water. Being able to exhale under the water and inhale above the water and feel very much in control of this action.
  8. The ability to start ‘even splitting’ or at some point ‘negative splitting’ your longer swims: ie,the second half of a 400m swim being faster then the first
  9. Using a central snorkel without a nose clip (ok, that is Jedi Swimming and may always be impossible!).