Friday, March 03, 2006

Swimming Physics 101

There is one general premise to swimming, and that is, you must push the water in a direction opposite to that of the direction you wish to travel. Basic physics here, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction.

A variety of action-reaction force pairs are evident in nature. Consider the propulsion of a fish through the water. A fish uses its fins to push water backwards. But a push on the water will only serve to accelerate the water. In turn, the water reacts by pushing the fish forwards, propelling the fish through the water. The size of the force on the water equals the size of the force on the fish; the direction of the force on the water (backwards) is opposite the direction of the force on the fish (forwards). For every action, there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction force. Action-reaction force pairs make it possible for fish to swim.

Of course, we are not "swimming" in a vacuum, so other rules of motion and friction come into play. We must also consider the more complex and dynamic properties associated with stroke mechanics, mass and buoyancy as we strive to swim FASTER and more EFFICIENT. To explain this part, what I have found works best is to first off, throw away the physics book and other mumbo jumbo...everyone is different, so keep it simple! Second, our simple goal is to generate as much force (propulsion) as possible, with as little effort as possible! Believe it or not, a good portion of the force we exert while swimming is not transferred to actual propulsion at all, but is lost due to friction, or misdirected due to other factors. Some of the factors which reduce the forces directed towards propulsion we have no control over, but others are directly effected by our stroke mechanics. The 3 most important factors effecting a swimmers force of propulsion are as follows (in no particular order): (1) Body position; (2) Turnover; (3) Leverage. Next month we'll get into the details as to why these 3 factors are so important for the swimmer wanting to go FAST.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Stroke Technique: Breathing Fundamentals

For this month, I thought I would begin our specific analysis of stroke mechanics with a topic that is near and dear to our hearts, or should I say lungs. That's right, this is all about BREATHING. Despite our futile attempts of breathing water (I hear all the coughing from those of you bound and determined to keep trying =) we're unfortunately going to remain land lubbers for at least a few more evolutionary ticks. However, being the air-breathing creatures that we are, that's not to say we cannot become more efficient at doing what we do best while in the water.

An article written by's swimming expert, Alex Kostich, offers a good perspective on the fundamentals of breathing while swimming. Although we may not entirely agree on some of the points (my comments are in bold), one thing is for sure...swimming and breathing go together like water and oil.

Breathing while swimming is a lot different than breathing while running, biking, or doing any other form of exercise. Last week I heard from many readers who had trouble establishing a breathing pattern while in the water, so I thought I'd address this surprisingly common problem, which seems to affect triathletes and non-swimmers who take up the sport. Swimming is the only sport I can think of during which there are moments you are unable to breathe even if you want to. By virtue of elementary stroke mechanics, you can only inhale when your face is not submerged underwater, and for most of you it should come as no surprise that the most efficient way to swim is, of course, when your face is in the water! So when is it best to breathe and how best do you maximize your air intake without compromising your stroke? Some of you may even have a more rudimentary question than that: how do you swim a lap or two without gasping for air and feeling exhausted (when you used to think you were in great shape)?

The first thing you need to do is pay attention to your breathing when running, or biking, or doing any other form of exercise. Notice that once you are in your ?groove? in the midst of activity, your breathing is steady, achieving a certain rhythm. Now make sure that when you swim, you maintain a similar inhale-exhale pattern, keeping it steady and rhythmic. Many athletes who are unsure of themselves in the water tend to panic slightly (even if they do not realize it) and alter their breathing patterns, hyperventilating themselves into exhaustion. Concentrate on calmly exhaling while your face is in the water, and inhaling when you turn your head to breathe. Some novices may not even realize that they are inhaling and exhaling all at once, while their face is out of the water, and while submerged they are holding their breath without bothering to exhale! To maximize your air intake, make sure you exhale completely while your face is submerged, and when you turn your head to breathe take a big hearty dose of oxygen, filling up your lungs. Do not take little sips of air, as you will become fatigued quickly and start hyperventilating.
(Not exactly true...during strenuous exercise, the diaphragm and other muscles in the abdominal cavity are busily working as they inflate and deflate the lungs. Taking large gulps of air is extremely taxing to these muscles because they're doing a task that is outside of their normal/routine range of exertion. Although there may be periods where you find your inhalation volume to be greater than normal, the rate at which this occurs should be directly related to your level of exertion. Additionally, taking larger gulps of air also requires the swimmer to remain in the inhalation phase of the stroke cycle for a longer period of time. This may not always be necessary or even possible during certain times of the swim. My recommendation here, is to let your body dictate how much air you need. Become familiar with your breathing pattern at rest, as well as during intense exercise periods. Expect AND anticipate these changes in your breathing pattern as you experience variable exertion levels. Lastly, understand that your breathing pattern is naturally going to be different while swimming in water, as compared to any exercise on land. So the only way to really improve the conditioning of your breathing muscles is to swim.

If you are a triathlete capable of running at least six miles or completing an Olympic-distance triathlon, there is no reason why swimming should be exhausting. Have your stroke checked by a swim coach or instructor to make sure you are not exerting too much energy in wrong ways, and then begin working on your breathing as mentioned above. (Running and swimming have very little in common from a physiological and mechanical standpoint...there are many reasons why even a marathon runner could become exhausted while swimming, even with an excellent breathing technique. An unbalanced or inconsistent breathing pattern is one of the primary causes of an inefficient stroke. A stroke efficiency check must include an analysis of the breathing pattern, and they should be worked on simultaneously. Even when a swimmer has excellent stroke mechanics, when the element of fatigue is introduced, the chances of the stroke breaking down is more likely if the breathing pattern is not effective.)

What is the ideal way to breathe during a race vs. during a workout? Believe it or not, there are several different breathing patterns you need to be aware of for different occasions to maximize your potential. A 2:1 breathing ratio means that you take one breath for every two strokes. In other words, you take one breath on one side (your left or right) while taking a full stroke with your left arm and a full stroke with your right arm (total: two strokes for every one breath). This breathing pattern is ideal for long-distance races and distance training. It allows you to breathe as much as humanly possible and is a good way to establish a steady inhale/exhale rhythm. The drawback to 2:1 breathing is that you only breathe on one side. This has the effect of potentially lop-siding your stroke to the breathing side you favor, thus causing you to swim crooked and strengthening one arm more than the other. Over long periods of time this can give you a slightly asymmetrical ?hunch-back? of overdeveloped muscles. I don't mean to induce panic or infer that you will turn into a Frankenstein monster if you don't practice proper breathing technique, but I bring this up as an extreme example of what can happen if you only breathe on one side. Another drawback to 2:1 breathing is that during competition you will not be able to see half of your competitors, who will sneak up on your non-breathing side and put you at a disadvantage. While training 2:1, pick a side of the pool (either the left or the right) and always breathe facing that side. This way, on your way up the lane you will be forced to breathe on your left, while on your way down the lane you will be forced to breathe on your right. This will get you accustomed to bilateral breathing and allow you to keep your stroke evenly balanced. Then, during a race, you can switch from left-side 2:1 breathing to right-side 2:1 breathing with ease, keeping an eye on your competitors and aligning your body to swim efficiently and in a straight line. 3:1 breathing is ideal for longer, easier swims. You may want to try this during a long pulling set or while swimming warm-up and recovery. Breathing every third stroke, you alternate breathing on opposite sides (thus keeping your stroke even and deformity at a minimum ? just kidding). It also forces you to exhale slower and more conservatively, preventing hyperventilation. The problem, if any, with 3:1 breathing, is that you are breathing less often than the 2:1 pattern and you may feel oxygen depletion if you are exerting yourself. If so, simply switch to 2:1. I personally favor 2:1 during competition and 3:1 during training. (Consider doing a combination of 2:1 and 3:1 for most training swims. For example, one length of 16-24 strokes would consist of 1-2 3:1's with the remainder being 2:1.) 6:1 breathing is six strokes to every one breath. You may only want to try this during an anaerobic drill, or as a cardiovascular challenge. I practice this breathing during long pull sets wearing a buoy and paddles. It forces you to hold your breath and allows you to really even out your stroke. Because you are breathing so infrequently (and thus rotating your head and body a lot less per lap), you can really notice your stroke mechanics and whether or not you are fishtailing, or bouncing, or swimming left to right instead of forwards. This type of breathing pattern is only recommended when exerting minimum energy over long distances, or doing the complete opposite, short explosive sprints. Either way, it is a good drill to try while analyzing your stroke and getting a good workout.

Get into the habit of only breathing when you have to, but not with excessive ranges of inhalation and exhalation (take advantage of the benefit of buoyancy by always keeping some air in the lungs). Although your breathing pattern MUST remain consistent, your breathing frequency can and should change often. Knowing how to comfortably breathe on both sides is very important and can be beneficial, but it is NOT a requirement to having an efficient stroke. Remember, an efficient stroke should remain consistent whether or not you are taking a breath.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Swimming Lingo

Remember your first Master's workout with us...walking onto the pool deck having no idea what to expect, getting into the water, and after a nice leisurely warm-up you hear some strange words coming out of my mouth, such as..."OK, we're doing an interval pyramid set of 10x100's, descending/ascending doubling the top and starting on the 2 minutes. All free with no break at the half - READY GO!!". As you push off the wall following the feet in front of you, the one question that runs through your mind, as well I'm sure many others in the pool is... "WHAT IN THE WORLD DID HE JUST SAY??".

First off, let me just say that I completely understand that sometimes the swimming lingo we use can seem like a foreign language, and sometimes I'll run through a set explanation very quickly in order to get everyone swimming again. Although I can usually tell when I'm talking in some foreign language by all the puzzled looks, if the set explanation doesn't make any sense, just let me know and I'll be more than happy to repeat the set...just don't ask me to draw pictures, or then we'll both be totally confused =). Once you get familiar with all the new terms, you'll probably be able to know the set even before I finish explaining it. In fact, some of you who have been swimming with me for quite some time are even able to predict what the next set will be...but I still have a few more workout surprises left up my sleeve to make this more give it your best shot!. Here's a brief definition of some of the workout terms and lingo you'll be hearing:

*"ON THE TOP" or "ON THE UP" or "ON THE 60": This is the starting time of the set, which refers to the position of the pace clock's seconds hand (the 60 is in the straight up position, like 12:00 on a normal clock). The pace clock is divided into 60 second increments, with one full revolution equal to 1 minute. It is important to become very acquainted with the pace clock since much of your workout may be spent gazing up at it...and hoping it would give you just a little more rest!

*PYRAMID SET: Refers to a set of variably changing distances and/or intervals with a given pattern. For example, 200, 150, 100, 50, 50, 100, 150, 200 is the appearance of a typical Pyramid Set, with the 50 doubled at the top. A pyramid can also refer to timed intervals, as in .40, .50, 1:00, 1:00, .50, .40. This set would be for a set of 6x50's, starting on the .40 seconds, doubling at the top (1:00), and then coming back down to .40

*ASCENDING/DESCENDING: The terms "Ascending" and "Descending" can be used to refer to either timed intervals, and/or distance. Descending times mean the pace increasingly gets faster, whereas Ascending means the pace is getting slower. A set that is both "Ascending/Descending" is an interval pyramid such as the example given above. The first half of the pyramid set is Ascending, meaning the pace starts fast, and gradually gets slower. Then at the top of the pyramid, the set starts descending, meaning the slower pace gradually gets faster again. A distance set which is Ascending refers to an increase in distance, and Descending means a decrease in distance. Therefore, a distance pyramid that is Descending/Ascending would be decreasing in distance the first half, and then increasing in distance the second half (such as the example given in the Pyramid set)...So, is your head spinning yet?

*LADDER: A ladder is a set which is Ascending or Descending in interval or distance, but in one direction only. A pyramid is basically two ladder sets back-to-back.

*LAP: Equal to 1 (one) length of the pool - 25 yards. A lap is NOT 2 (two) lengths - 50 yards. A 200 yard swim equals 8 laps...NOT 4. I know this may not make sense, but at least we'll all be confused together now.

*CIRCLE-PATTERN: Used to safely and practically accommodate numerous swimmers in a single lane. Refers to swimming on the RIGHT side of the lane line (the little black line on the bottom of the pool), so as to allow others to swim in the opposite direction without collision. It is recommended to swim as far to the right as possible, but not to the extent of hitting the lane divider during any portion of the stroke (or anyone in the next lane over).

*LANE-SPLITTING: Only possible when 1 or 2 people are swimming in the lane. Refers to swimming on 1 side of the lane line at all times (right side or left side). This is not recommended when swimming in unsupervised lap pools because it can result in a collision if a 3rd swimmer should join the lane.

*VERTICAL KICKING: A drill done in the deep end of the pool where swimmers position themselves in a vertical position, and kick with rapid, short strokes. The hands should be used as little as possible to assist in maintaining a proper body position. This drill provides an increased resistance to normal kicking, and is a good drill for building sprint-kick muscles.

*STATIONARY SWIMMING: AKA "Torture Cables!!" This is a drill we use on occasion where stretch cords are attached to the end of the pool, with the other end attached to the waist of the swimmer. The swimmer begins, and once the cord is stretched out to a certain distance, the resistance on the cord will cause the forward progress of the swimmer to come to a complete stop, and may even reverse at times. This is considered a very high intensity resistance drill, and is only possible for short durations. Stationary swimming is excellent for working on weak technique areas and form breaks, provided a proper technique can be maintained while swimming in a stationary position (very difficult to do). Needless to say, this is an exercise that will definitely KICK YOUR BUTT!

*NEGATIVE SPLIT: During a swim of a set distance, swimming the 2nd portion of the swim faster than the 1st portion is called negative splitting. This can be done in a number of different ways, but basically it means to do a swim at 2 speeds, with the 2nd part being faster than the 1st. A build-up swim is an example of a set that consists of repeating negative splits.

*SPRINT: I'll leave this one to your own interpretation. However, in order to get the most benefit out of your swim, sprints are done at maximum effort. Of course effort is a relative term, and varies throughout the workout, so the idea is to swim as hard as possible at that particular time.

Refer to this listing from time-to-time for lingo additions and updates.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Know your limits and test them frequently

This will be the last bit on generalizations...from now on its all SWIMMING SWIMMING SWIMMING, in-depth, up close and personal =)

OK, so you’ve made it to every available practice and do exactly as the coach asks you to do. You have practiced until you are blue in the face, and practically need a hoist to drag your tired, worn out body out of the pool after each workout. You’ve been in the water so long that your hair is turning a shade of green, and you can’t remember the last time your hair was completely dry. All the objectives necessary to becoming a better, more efficient swimmer have been met, but you still notice little to no improvement...SO WHAT'S WRONG?

Absolutely nothing! Before the terms "more efficient" and "better" can be applied as a gauge of progress, these terms must first be defined. Does "better" mean faster? More endurance? Technically efficient? Ask yourself a couple questions before coming to any conclusions regarding improvement:

*First, are you testing yourself regularly? Sometimes its difficult to realize how much progress is made if you aren't exactly sure how to see it, or what to compare it to. You need to establish a starting point, benchmark or zero point based on your own performance, and then work from there.

*Second, have you overlooked progress because you were looking for something else? It's very possible for someone wishing to swim faster, for example, to be training more as an endurance specialist. If you want to gauge your progress with this kind of specificity, know what you want and train appropriately.
*Third, look for progress in other areas as well, not just swimming. Do a little assessment of yourself: Are you fitting into those clothes a little more comfortably now? Are you walking up that flight of stairs a little easier? Do you feel generally less stressed, and more focused? Are you sleeping better at night? These are but a few areas where you can potentially realize a benefit that can be attributed to swimming. Typically, we don't recognize these forms of progress when we're so engrossed in trying to be better swimmers, but it's important to also look at the big picture. And keep in mind that these other areas of progress may actually compliment your swimming, so keep up the good work, because you are definitely heading in the right direction!
Lastly, don't base your progress solely on swimming reference books, tapes, or what's on TV. Just because you don't swim like the swimmers in the book, doesn't mean that your stroke is incorrect or any less effective. These books are great reference aids, and are good for getting you on the right track, but they do not necessarily show the best way for YOU to swim. That part is up to you and your coach…except for the part about the green hair and wet head.
So to sum up...To realize progress, know your limits and test them frequently.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Proper Practice Makes Proper Progress

MODERATION and CONSISTENCY in swimming are the keys to success. There are 2 parameters here that all athletes (yes, you are an athlete!) must keep in mind at all times in order to realize an optimal level of progress. First, it is important to know when it is most beneficial to work hard, and when it is most beneficial to rest...both are EQUALLY important and must remain balanced. Going over or under the optiamal balance of rest versus effort can result in a number of different progress stalling consequences, ranging from motivation deflation (aka "Couch Potato Syndrome"), all the way up to severe injuries by not allowing your body to rest and recover. We're not out here to routinely hit maximum pulse rates, or reach maximum muscle fatigue. The body responds a lot more positively to workout regiments with the majority of the exercises based on moderate intensity levels. Now this doesn't mean that workouts cannot venture into the higher levels of intensity. In fact, the occasional "animal" workout is essential. The body needs to be tested and challenged from time to time in order determine our fitness level, and more importantly, to realize the achievement of doing something we were unable to do before...THAT'S PROGRESS!

But keep in mind that establishing that balance between rest and effort is only part of the progress puzzle. Swimming efficiently is a highly technical skill that requires constant repetition in order to train the muscles to move the body through the water with the least amount of resistance, combined with the maximum amount of propulsion. In order for you to start moving towards the realization of your progress potential, think about channeling/focusing your efforts (both mental and physical) into swimming efficently at all times. Start slow, but by all means, throw those bad swimming habits away right now! It's not easy to break old habits, but in time, your body will learn these new more efficient stroke mechanics to the extent that they become second nature. Now here's the payoff...regardless of your reasons for swimming, realizing progression in your swimming skill is a fun and motivational booster that will enhance your swimming experience by introducing you to a level of swimming you have yet to encounter. In other words...WHAT A RUSH!

But wait, there's more! I'll keep you in suspense until next time =)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Swimming is a constant work in progress

For the first few we'll concentrate on basic swimming generalizations that you can immediately apply to your daily swimming routines, with the first being more of a philosophical reminder. To apply these tips and techniques, and to make them "second nature", you will have to do four things... 1) THINK about what you're doing, and 2-4) PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! Making a conscious effort during workouts to concentrate on even the smallest element can make a difference, and you WILL see progress.

Remember, for your body to learn the process of efficient swimming, you must establish a pattern for your body to follow and get use to. This "process" will result in your body adapting and/or compensating to the conditions you have subjected it to. As your body learns the process, and makes the necessary changes in order to adapt to the conditions, the ability for you to repeat a particular function while subjected to these conditions becomes less demanding. In other words...The skill of Swimming is a constant work in progress.