Saturday, May 17, 2014

The swim lesson

I've been working a lot on my swimming, and hey, guess what? I've been getting slower!

How encouraging.

I like to swim (kind of), I'm comfortable in the water, and I could swim forever at a "walking" pace, but I'll be damned if I can build any speed.

Water is a lousy medium for human performance, and we are mechanically inefficient in it. Only a small fraction of the calories we're spending in the water are actually propelling us forward--the others are lost in this thick mass out of which our ancestors crawled so many millions of years ago. Body position, drag, stroke technique, momentum: all these things and more affect how well, and how fast, we swim.

Because efficiency plays such a huge role in the quality of the swim--far more than it does in biking and running, where strength, force, and power are a bigger part of the overall equation--it's worth working hard on technique and form. If I can execute my stroke with a heart rate that's 10 BPM slower, then I'm freeing up energy for improved speed and endurance. So I went back down to Brunswick, where a couple of months ago I took part in a great little swim clinic with Brad Burnham, the head coach of Bowdoin's swim team. I needed to understand how to apply Brad's teaching concepts. I needed him to watch me swim and tell me specifically what was wrong and how to fix it.

There's way more wrong with my swim than even he could fix in an hour, but his coaching was incredibly helpful.

For you fellow swim geeks: Brad's approach focuses on body position and momentum, creating an integrated stroke that's fluid (pun intended) and connected. "Swimming freestyle should be like walking down the pool,"  he says. You can hire him for small group and individual sessions. He tells me he's re-doing his website, but there are some resources and great info on it already:

This just in, 5/18: Here's the follow-up email I just got from Brad. I think it speaks to his approach and the quality of his coaching far better than anything I can write, so I'll just paste it in full.

Posture - keep that long line in the spine, especially in the neck. You can find a piece of pipe at any hardware store or home depot for a couple of dollars. Cut it to length - tailbone to hairline on the neck. You might feel it better on land without all of the water around you.

Walk down the pool but do it with a little more energy in the swing. The rhythm won't necessarily increase but the stroke will move forward. The rotation of the body will tell you when to start the recovery. You swing the recovery, that leads the body into a rotation, that rotation allows the anchoring hand to exit the water with momentum. I like to say that when your belly button passes your hand it is time to focus on the recovery.

Your kick looks excellent. Keep is small and quick. From time to time think about lengthening your legs. Walk with long legs and swim with long legs. 

Breathing - the big issue - the head needs to be centered when you breathe - both in the vertical (one goggle in and one out - and in the horizontal (look slightly forward) to keep the head on the line. Focus on the exhale to make sure you do that part before you roll so the inhale takes less time. Get a snorkel to develop a solid stroke pattern then take it off and try to keep the pattern with the breathing in there.

Drills - learn the drills but then focus on the elements of the stroke you are working on. 
Sneak Switch - Recover (Sneak underwater), Anchor, Switch - Focus on the timing of the body roll and breathing.
Whole Stroke Switch - Recover (Swing over the water), Anchor, Switch - Focus on swinging the recovery from the shoulder blade and the timing of the switch. You should get more distance out of each switch.

What I did: 30 mins elliptical, then 42-minute run in 55 degree pouring rain, wishing someone I knew would drive by and notice what a badass I was. Instead got only strangers noticing an injured drowning rat. Swim lesson, then 20 minute swim when I got home.

What I ate: pretty much everything. See my fiddlehead pizza.

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