Monday, December 13, 2010

Perfect Practice Makes Perfect: Overhaul Your Swim Technique This Winter

This week we're going to focus on swimming!  Yeah!!!

By Steve Tarpinian
Triathlete magazine

The offseason is the best time to overhaul your swimming technique, but the challenge, particularly this time of year, is that drills and yardage without focus or with less-than-perfect technique are barely worth the effort and yield minimal results.

To refine your freestyle for the coming season, select a three-month period during your offseason downtime—ideally a block well out from a scheduled A-priority race—in which you can focus on tweaking technique rather than on big volume and high intensity.

Before starting your three-month swim-technique block (which will be broken down below into three, four-week microcycles), get a video of yourself in the pool to establish a baseline. This will also help you determine which aspects of your technique require greater attention.

For example, if upon analyzing your swim video you see you have a good body position but a short, ineffective pull, you may decide to rework the below schedule to spend more time on those areas in which you're relatively weak. Additionally, videotape your freestyle stroke after each of the following four-week blocks to monitor improvement.

Finally, performing a 500-meter/yard time trial once per month will also help you gauge your improvement.

Month 1: Body Position and Kick Focus

The more streamlined you can become, the more efficient your swimming will be: Think narrow and long. There are many variations of this drill, and my experience shows that the best results come from doing the following three variations in the order below.

Kick on side with no rotation
This is one of the best body-position drills. The objective here is to get comfortable kicking on your side with your bottom arm stretched forward, your ear on your shoulder and one goggle in and one out of the water. This is the ideal position for your head when you breathe. Use fins if you have trouble staying afloat.

Kick on side with one stroke
This drill targets body position and rotation. Perform the kick drill as above, but every five seconds take one stroke and switch from one side to the other. Focus on making a smooth rotation and keeping the body in alignment.
To accomplish this, begin the recovery with your trailing arm, and stay on your side until your hand passes your face, then start to bend the elbow of your leading arm. As the recovering arm enters the water, pull with the leading arm and roll to your other side. Keep your neck in alignment with your spine (don't lift your head) throughout.

Kick on side with three strokes
This drill is the same as the previous drill; however, instead of just one stroke, take three strokes as you rotate from side to side. Drive each rotation with your kick and hips, not your head or shoulders.
I suggest you spend four weeks perfecting these drills by integrating a drill set into every swim workout. For example:
  1. Warm-up: 500 meters/yards
  2. 4 x 50 meters/yards of each kick-on-side drill. Take 15 seconds' rest after each 50 and focus on doing the drill properly
  3. Main set
  4. Cool-down: 300-500 meters/yards

Month 2: The Pull

There are five basic components to the pull cycle: entry/extension, elbow bend (catch), pull, release and recovery. Analyzing your video will show you which parts of the cycle you need to focus on improving. My experience suggests that, most often, pull shortcomings arise when swimmers do not start the pull with a bent elbow, which allows them to catch and hold water.

The Key Drills

Fist drill
This drill is easy to perform: simply swim regular freestyle with closed fists, which will force you to bend your elbow to catch water with your forearms. Be conscious of feeling the water pressure on your forearms as you begin your pull. Swim half a length with closed fists, then open your hands.
The dynamic feeling of opening your hands and feeling the added power from the higher elbow is the positive feedback that makes the change carry over to your regular stroke. Since you actually need to struggle through the water a bit to feel this pressure on the forearm, it's best to do this drill without fins. This is the only drill whose effectiveness isn't enhanced by the use of fins.

Single-arm drill
Swim freestyle but only pull with one arm, keeping the non-working arm either stretched out in front or at your side. Perform this drill in sequences of two lengths, alternating arms with each length. Focus on your elbow bend at the beginning of the pull and on body rotation.
Spend four weeks perfecting these drills by integrating a drill set into each swim workout. Suggested workout:
  1. Warm-up: 500 meters/yards
  2. 8 x 50 meters/yards of fist and single-arm drills. Take 15 seconds after each 50 to re-focus on doing the drill properly
  3. Main set
  4. Cool-down: 300-500 meters/yards

Month 3: Integration

Here's where you start to pull it all together. The main drill here is an old favorite of many coaches and swimmers: the catch-up drill.

Catch-up drill
Begin in a streamlined position with both arms extended straight forward, then pull with one arm, leaving the other arm extended in front until you have finished a complete stroke with the working arm. The catch-up drill can help you develop a longer stroke and body position, which will increase your efficiency.
When first doing this drill, it's helpful to keep both arms in front of your head and kick for a few seconds before switching arms. This gives you time to visualize a proper pull with early elbow bending and good rotation during the power phase. If you see your pull is very short when you analyze your video, scrape your thumb on your thigh at the end of your pull during the drill.
Suggested workout:
  1. Warm-up: 500 meters/yards
  2. 10 x 50 meters/yards catch-up drill. Take 15 seconds after each 50 to re-focus on doing the drill properly
  3. Main set: Start to add long sets to build endurance. An example is 3 x 500 descending
  4. Cool-down: 300-500 meters/yards
There you have it! Take the journey and break out with a faster and more efficient swim next season.

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