How The Village People Can Improve Your Swimming

We're not joking, The Village People really can help your swimming:

At our recent June 2010 Clinic Series, we counted 76 of the 108 attendees as having some level of crossover in their stroke, where the lead hand crosses the centre line at the front:

This is bad for your stroke because it causes you to fish-tail down the pool and hurts your catch on the water - reducing your propulsion. It's also a major cause of scissor kicks and associated with shoulder injury. All round best avoided then! For these reasons, good alignment in the water is fundamental to a good freestyle stroke and many other parts of the stroke click into place when you remove cross-over.

But how should you go about removing it? All the time we hear swimming coaches telling swimmers to think about going wider with their arms to remove cross-over. Swim Smooth disagree with this instruction quite strongly - it does remove cross-over but it tends to cause an over-exaggerated wide hand placement, reducing the swimmer's body rotation. Very soon after being told to go wider, their hand entry is way too wide - resulting in more problems than it fixed. The subtlety lies in what to specifically focus on when making this correction in your stroke and getting to the root cause of the problem.

Instead of thinking about extending wider, think about extending straighter. In a minute (we're sure you're dying to know) we'll show you how The Village People can help with this. But first, let's think about posture for a second. These days many of us have office jobs and work in front of a computer. This causes us to bend forward at our desks with shoulders slumped forwards to operate a keyboard or mouse:

By spending hundreds or thousands of hours in this position the muscles of the chest shorten, and the muscles of the upper back lengthen. When we go for a swim this predisposition shows up straight away - that rounded shoulder position causing the lead hand to veer across the centre line when extended out front.

How to straighten yourself up? By improving your posture! Really we are talking about the same good posture that your Mum was referring to when she told you to 'stand up tall and proud' as a child, or that feeling of drawing your shoulder back and down when standing to attention.

The Village People's most famous song was The Y-M-C-A. Here's an exercise which is quite similar, which will help you tune into this good posture. It's called the Y-T-W-L :

Perform the YTWL after a gentle land-based warm-up before you swim - or as part of a conditioning routine. If you attend a gym, it's well worth adding a few YTWLs into your routine. Aim to hold each of the positions for about 10 seconds and notice if you have a tendency for the arms to drift forwards and not be straight out to the side.

As you perform the routine, think about drawing your shoulder blades together and back to bring your arms into line. You should find this position isolates and engages the muscles between your shoulder blades (technically: scapular retraction) which are over-stretched and underused in your stroke. The great thing about the YTWL is that it isolates these muscles of the upper back and makes you aware of using them.

Now when you hit the water, we recommend you start with some kicking on your side drills. To become straight and aligned in the water, think about drawing those shoulder blades together and back. This is what we mean by becoming straighter. Practise this whilst kicking on your side - you should find you track much straighter down the pool without veering towards the lane ropes.

At Swim Smooth we call this concept 'Swimming Proud'. Pushing your chest forwards and bringing your shoulders down and back brings you into this proud position. Not only is this great for your alignment, it also helps connect your arms to your core and so generate more power in your stroke.

You can find out more about this subject in our full web article on swimming posture.

Swim Smooth!

Interview with Mark Scanlon - Training for the English Channel

Before we get to today's feature, if you haven't yet taken advantage of our 10% Off Promotion, then act now - TODAY IS THE LAST DAY! Find out how to receive the discount off our products at: 10% Off Happy Birthday!

This week on Feel For The Water we are lucky to be joined by Mark Scanlon from Perth in Western Australia. In just a few weeks time Mark will attempt to conquer the mighty English Channel, a cold water swim of approximately 34km as the crow flies. Swim Smooth Head Coach Paul Newsome takes up the story:

Mark has been tapping into our Swim Smooth squads at Claremont Pool and Challenge Stadium in Perth for the last 3 years, tweaking and refining his stroke as he goes. To see him swim, most people's comments are centred on how strong and powerful he appears to be in the water. You can view some of Mark's training footage here and here.

In 2008 Mark finished 3rd male overall in the hugely popular 20km Rottnest Channel Swim in Perth, and will now look to nearly double that crossing distance in waters much more inhospitable than the relative luxury of the Indian Ocean! Cold, fatigue, nausea and battling with the notorious tides and busy shipping lanes of the English Channel are all sure to take their toll on any swimmer. Arguably these challenges make a successful crossing the pinnacle of the sport of marathon swimming. Tell most laymen that you are an endurance swimmer and chances are the first thing they'll ask is "Have you swum the Channel?". It's the Hawaii Ironman, the Marathon des Sables and the Mount Everest of marathon swimming all rolled into one - in fact, if records are to be believed, twice as many people have successfully sumitted Everest as have swum the Channel!

The English Channel swim is not a race on a given day, instead swimmers go individually throughout the summer season as conditions suit. There are normally 7 or 8 tidal windows each lasting for 5 to 7 days across the summer period, at these times the tidal flow is at its lowest and the chance of a successful crossing is at its highest. These periods are called 'neap tides' and swimmers book a boat and skipper (know as a 'pilot') for a given neap tide up to 3 years in advance!

The month of August is the most sought after, as sea temperatures are up to 16-18 degrees with higher air temperatures than at other times during the summer months. At the last count there are 14 registered pilots who are legally allowed to escort you across one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Each pilot will normally book 2 to 4 swimmers into each neap tide window. The weather conditions need to be ideal to make a crossing and since only one swimmer can start per day, if the weather's bad then many miss their window and don't even get to start! This is incredibly frustrating given the huge training and financial commitment of preparing for the event.

Historically only 10% of swimmers have successfully completed this swim, though with better technology and training preparation this figure is slowly increasing. The Channel was first swum on the 25th August 1875 by Captain Matthew Webb. Petar Stoychev (Bulgaria) holds the current world record (set in 2007) for the crossing in 6h 57m 50s which is twice as fast as a good average crossing of 12 to 16 hours. Alison Streeter MBE (UK) holds the world record for having successfully swum the Channel on 43 separate occasions (truly amazing!), and Philip Rush from New Zealand holds the three-way world record of 28h 21m set way back in 1987. For most though, one way and once only is more than enough of a goal, so let's hear a little more from Mark about his preparations for this grueling event.

PN: Hi Mark, thanks for joining us today.

MS: My Pleasure

PN: So, what made you think about taking on the challenge of swimming the English Channel?

MS: I'd thought about doing it as a teenager and it has kind of been at the back of my mind ever since. I got back into swimming in 2007, after travelling for a few years, to keep fit during the week so I could surf on the weekends. I decided to set my goal on a Rottnest solo swim, and things have just rolled from there. A mate of mine who I swam with in Tassie (Ed: Tasmania) back in the day, Anne Steele completed the swim in 2007 and started heckling me to do it. That was enough motivation to get me into shape for my attempt this year.

PN: Many swimmers raise money for charity and aim to raise awareness for certain campaigns when they tackle this swim - do you have any such charities that you'll be helping and if so why did you choose them?

MS: Yes I decided that I would use this swim to raise money and awareness for The National Stroke Foundation (NSF). I wanted to do something positive with the swim, and I figure it will also be a great motivator for me to keep swimming knowing I'll be letting down more than just myself if I don't make it! I chose the NSF because a good mate of mine Rob Goyan was struck down with a stroke at the start of 2009. Luckily Rob has fully recovered but at 35, it showed me that it can happen to anyone.

It got me thinking it might be an idea to use my English Channel swim to raise money for the NSF. As I researched strokes, I discovered that behind heart disease, strokes were the second biggest cause of death in Australia in 2009. That's right, more people die of a stroke each year than from all types of cancer combined!

Then late in 2009 I was on a training run with Rob in Cottesloe when an extremely distressed woman ran out of her front door screaming for help. Inside we found her husband had collapsed on the floor unconscious in a pool of vomit after suffering a severe stroke. Rob and I performed first aid until the ambulance arrived which was pretty full on. The man, Malcolm Tew, is alive today but in a bad way and will live with a permanent disability for the rest of his life as a result of his stroke. These events brought home to me how little is known about strokes and their effects, and I kind of took it as a bit of a message from above that I should use the swim to raise money and awareness for the NSF.

I've set up a website where people can read a bit more about myself, the swim, the NSF and make a donation to this great cause.

PN: Can you tell us briefly about your background, where you're originally from, how long you've been swimming, who your heroes are in this sport etc?

MS: I grew up in Tasmania in the Hobart area and joined the local surf club as a nipper when I was about 8. I spent my childhood summers in and on the water swimming and surfing. I represented Tassie as a junior in surf lifesaving and got into my swimming pretty seriously in my early teens for a couple of years, training every day. My brothers then gave me a surfboard and that all went out the window. It's only been the last few years being tied to an office job and swimming before work most days that I've gotten back into it.

My heroes growing up were Trevor Hendy and Kieren Perkins. These days my heroes are the last solo swimmers who arrive across the line at Rottnest each year. The guys that aren't technically great swimmers but are mentally tough and never give up. I'll be using them as inspiration for my channel crossing.

PN: So, you're just a few weeks away from the swim itself, can you tell us a bit about your training program over the last 12 months? What has it entailed in terms of volume, intensity and even specific things such as rough water swimming and coping in a range of elements?

MS: Yeah its creeping up on me. I guess in a way it's more than just the last 12 months, I've done the Rotto swim (20km) for the past 3 years so that's built up a solid base. From preparing for those swims it gives you a pretty good idea of what you need to do. Basically I swim with several groups to fit in around work commitments. I train in a 4 week cycle, building up the kilometers / intensity every 4 weeks followed by a recovery week which is important. I've had a lot of guidance from Peter Tanham who smashed a crossing in 2005 in just over 9hrs and taken a lot from Bill (Kirby) and Shelly (Taylor Smith)'s Rotto swim programs as well as swimming with you guys at Swim Smooth!

I guess the main difference for this swim is the elements and preparing for the variety of conditions that can get thrown at you. When I train for Rotto I might only do one or two ocean swims to prepare for them as water temperature isn't an issue and I like training in the pool to measure how I'm going. I know that just won't cut it for the channel so now it's winter here I have been swimming in the ocean and Perth's Swan River 3 times a week to acclimatise to the rough water and the cold.

Coming from Tassie and surfing, I've always been pretty comfortable in colder and rougher water but it's a whole different kettle of fish when you're in your budgie smugglers for 10-12 hours! I've also been playing with feeding myself in these conditions and working out what works good for me.

PN: Have you done a particular session in the last 12 months where you've thought 'Yep, I can really do this!', and if so, what was this session and how do you think it will help you during the bad patches in the Channel when you inevitably start to feel tired?

MS: Definitely my 13-14km Saturday morning swims with my friends Dave, Maryanne and co are giving me confidence. I'm a bit weird, it often takes me 5-6km to really get into my groove so I've been really happy that I'm holding around 1:20/100m pace at the end of these sets and knowing that I can build into those longer swims.

There's been times during those sessions where I've felt absolutely crap in the early parts of the session and mentally worked through that to get back to my target pace. I know I'll face similar times in the channel. Also the cold river swims in 13-14 degree water are really good psychologically. To know that I can handle water that is (hopefully!) colder than I will be swimming in is a real plus.

PN: I'll be tackling the swim myself next September (2011) and one of the things that everyone jokes about when it comes to swimming the Channel is how much weight many leaner swimmers need to put on in the lead-up to the event in order to maintain warmth. Personally I put on 8 kilos for the Rottnest Solo swim last year (18-19 degrees water temperature) and this certainly paid real dividends for me on the day. I likened it at the time to how a Hollywood actor would approach a role for a movie requiring a little weight gain for a certain character.

Having swum with you for an hour last week in the Swan River in just 13 degrees of water, it is clear that not only are you much faster than me at the moment but that you're also much more acclimated to this cold water than I am. Can you share with us the physical and mental preparations that you've put yourself through in the last 6 months to reach this level of apparent "comfort" in water which would freeze most people to the core within minutes?!

MS: I'm not sure about me being much faster but I sure am much fatter! I like to think of myself as trying to get my body shape somewhere in between Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie Twins - ha!! My body shape is short and stocky anyway so it's usually quite easy for me to put on weight (a real danger post English Channel swim!) but given the volume of training I'm doing it's actually taken some effort.

I'm basically eating double breakfast, lunch and dinners with desert, as well as snacking all the time to pile on the spare tyre for insulation and fuel during the swim. But the analogy of preparing for a role in a movie is a good one. This swim has pretty much ruled my life for the 6 months leading up to it.

Getting used to the cold is definitely a progression thing, I started swimming in the ocean and river consistently from May, and that progression of gradually decreasing water temperature each week makes it easier for the body to adjust. Your body gets used to that feeling when you first get into the water and mentally you know your breathing will settle down after 10 minutes or so of swimming. You get used to that feeling of the cold on your skin and it becomes almost normal. I think also just having a calm relaxed approach about it all and not getting worked up helps. Some swimmers tend to talk themselves out of it before they even get in the water a lot of the time. It's definitely mind over matter.

PN: What specific aspects of the Channel swim are you really looking forward to? Equally, what things would you say you're most concerned about?

MS: I'm looking forward to touching the shore in France, and most concerned about leaving the shore in Dover!

No, I'm really looking forward to having a mate of mine who I carried to Rottnest in a Duo in 2005, Dougal Harris, on my support boat. I'm looking forward to him being there as he's in Tassie these days so we don't see each other much. We used to train and surf together a lot when he was in Perth so it gives me a heap of confidence that he'll be looking out for me. I'm looking forward to seeing some big tankers in the shipping lanes, that should be good. My only real concern is bad water quality and bad conditions on the day. But they're out of my control so I'm not wasting energy worrying about it.

I guess a successful crossing will mean reaching the biggest sporting goal I have, which will be nice.

PN: How is your race nutrition for the day looking? What products or old-wives potions and cocktails do you plan to consume? You hear a whole range of wild and wacky things that people use as fuel and hydration sources on this particular swim Mark, so what is it that you'll be using and how often will you be pausing (and for how long) to refuel as you make your crossing?

MS: I keep it really simple. I eat as much pasta as I can and hydrate well the days before a big swim, and load up on weetbix and a sports drink until I'm about to vomit on the morning of the swim!

I usually use a combination of Hi5 gels and Staminade for the Rottnest swim which has worked really well for me. I've just been introduced to another drink that is very similar called E3, which is made by a local Perth Company. I've been using it in training and will probably use it on the day. I also usually chew gum the whole way to give some relief from the salt water taste!

For the channel I'm going to also eat some banana cake and some home made nut/oatmeal bars. I'll stop for 10-15sec max roughly every half hour.

PN: Who will be your pilot for the swim and how did you make contact with them initially?

MS: My Pilot is Chris Osmond, I booked in with him mid 2009. Chris was Peter Tanhams pilot in 2005 and I think it's an advantage to have a skipper that knows exactly what level of swimmer you are so he can plot an appropriate course. From what I know, a skipper that doesn't know a lot about you will typically plot a conservative course to make sure they get you there but if they have a bit more confidence in your estimations of your swimming abilities they should be able to help you get across a little quicker.

PN: Everyone reading will probably want to know what sort of financial cost is involved in swimming the English Channel - can you estimate for us how much you think it might end up costing you and maybe even give us a brief breakdown of those costs?

MS: It's not cheap. I think all said and done I probably will have shelled out around AUS$14K:

Pilot: approx $5500
CS&PF Membership: approx $500
Airfares: approx $3000 (my support crew is already in the UK so I haven't had to pay for that)
Accommodation: approx $1500
Website & Communications: approx $1500

Then there's things like pool entry for the year, coaching, bathers, goggles, sports drink etc on top of that which all adds up (probably $2-3K for last year - ouch). I hate to think of what my food bill has increased by over the last 6 months!

PN: What is your set date and do you have a game plan in mind or a target time that you're aiming for? This is obviously hard to quantify given the changeable conditions on the day, but given good conditions, how do you think you might fare?

MS: I arrive in UK on Friday the 13th August (hopefully not an bad omen) and the official window starts on the 17th with me as the third swimmer. There's a chance I might jump the queue and swim on the 16th if weather permits, otherwise I've got a month off work in case of crappy weather. Given a great day I'd like to think I could get there in a similar time to what Peter did in 2005 which was 9hrs, but I know I'll be happy to just make it so I'm prepared for poor conditions and being in the water for 12-15 hours if needs be!

PN: Is there a way in which we can track your progress online during the swim?

MS: Yes I'll be putting a real time tracking system up on my website I'll also have updates on a Facebook page I set up.

PN: Lastly, you have a great Blog running at where people can donate towards your swim and Stroke Foundation charity if they choose to do so - you're about 25% of the way towards your goal of $100,000 aren't you?

MS: Yes I think I'm going to have to readjust my target though, I've only managed to raise just over $27,000 so far, so if I manage to raise $50,000 I'd be very happy. It's for a great cause so if any of your readers are able to make a contribution it would be very much appreciated! Donations can be made by clicking the "Donate Now" link on the website

PN: OK Mark, thanks so much for your time today. Best of luck with the swim - you've just got another 23,000 supporters behind you here at all wishing you well!

MS: Thanks Paul, I'll keep you posted, and can't wait for next winter when I'll be the one standing by the river all rugged-up watching you guys swim!

--- Interview Ends ---

Finally, we'd love to hear from you if you are swimming the Channel in 2010, 2011 or indeed 2012. We have a group of 10 individual swimmers from Perth (myself included) who will all attempt the swim in 2011, it'd be nice to touch base and share stories and ideas with you as we go. Hope to hear from you soon!

Paul Newsome

10% Birthday Sale!

Our blog - Feel For The Water - is one year old today!

To celebrate this milestone, and as a thank you from us for reading the blog, we're running a 10% Off Birthday Promotion on all physical products on our website - for one week only. Combined with our always-low shipping costs it's time to get a real bargain!

Simply enter the code 'Happy Birthday' into the voucher box within our shopping cart - click and your 10% discount will be taken off your order! So if you need straighten up your stroke with some Finis Freestyler Paddles, would like to tune up your stroke's timing with a Wetronome or fancy treating yourself to our DVD Boxset, then take advantage of this one week only offer! Applies to all DVDs and swimming tools.

(We're only announcing the discount code to subscribers of the blog but you can tell your friends if you like, it'll work for them too.)

Highlights Of The Last Year

Here are ten of our favourite posts from the last year - take a read, especially if you missed them the first time around:

1. Open water swimming legend Shelley Taylor Smith gives us a fascinating insight into her famous mental toughness: Stop And Think, Who's On My Team?

2. Struggling with breathing in your stroke? Read this inspirational story from one of our readers:
Don't Forget To Breathe, Doctors Recommend It

3. Are you a technique hermit swimming only one or two laps at a time? We explain the dangers in being a Technique Hermit

4. For northern hemisphere athletes in the middle of their triathlon season, try this perfect session 4 or 5 days before your next event: Pre Race Swim

5. One of the most discussed posts of the year, a simple but crucial concept when you're developing your stroke technique: Six Is A Magic Number

6. Are you an uncoached swimmer? Struggling to work out what you need to work on in your stroke? You need: Stroke Contrasts

7. Sometimes simple is best and this very rarely fails to be beneficial to a swimmer: Swim Faster By Brushing Your Big Toes

8. Inspired by one of the presentations on our Swimming Clinics, our complete myth-busting guide:
What Makes An Efficient Freestyle Stroke

9. That's the easiest way to take ten minutes out of your open water swim split? Find out!

10. And to finish on a light note: Cheesy Friday, The Results! Believe it or not, 3 months later, we're still receiving cheesy offerings in our inbox. Mmmm, we like cheese.

Swim Smooth!

A Stroke Worth Emulating?

Our post a few weeks ago about your ape index generated a lot of interest and discussion - in fact your emails about it are still coming in! The most persistent question we've received is: "I have short arms and really struggle to develop any speed, what should I do?"

To help answer this question we've put together a short video clip of one such swimmer who we've worked with to develop her stroke. A big thanks to Hannah for letting us share her footage with the world:

View Video Normal SizeView Video In Hi-Def

Hannah's a great example of a Bambino who's developed her stroke very nicely. Bambinos suffer from very poor rhythm and timing in the stroke and poor feel for the water. Their hands just tend to slip through at the front of the stroke and so developing a better feel and connection with the water is a priority for them over reducing drag. (Incidentally, this is the opposite of what an Arnie has to do.)

We showed Hannah's footage on our recent clinic series and it made for extremely popular viewing - more so even than our footage of olympic swimmers. Sometimes watching the greatest swimmers in the world is just too big a jump and watching a nice stroke of a 'normal' swimmer like Hannah is easier to target in your mind. Especially if they have the same build and body type as yourself.

Find out more about our exciting new Swim Type system and how it can benefit your swimming here.

Swim Smooth!

Poor Pace Awareness (And How Yours May Be Ruining Your Race Performances)

There's something about swimming that throws your pace judgement out of the window. Compared to other sports such as cycling and running, the vast majority of swimmers and triathletes have very poor pace judgement in the water. In our experience this harms more race performances than any other single factor, whether you're a beginner, intermediate or advanced level swimmer. In fact in our recent clinic series, only 6 out of the 120 attendees had pacing skills good enough to pass our Pace Awareness Challenge (see below)!

Even if you are swimming well at the moment it's very likely that your pace awareness is harming your race performances. It feels normal to start out too fast when you feel fresh and then fade badly in the second half, losing all the time you gained and a lot more. Since most swimmers and triathletes swim this way, it seems normal as everyone around you is doing the same thing. Even in a drafting race where it is an advantage to get on a fast pair of feet, you need to be careful. When you start at the right pace you may lose some meters but then you can work your way up the field, jumping from feet to feet as those ahead fade and slow down.

You could easily gain a minute over 1500m through better pacing skills. If you're an Arnie or Arnette, you could cut your splits by two minutes plus - Arnies have notoriously poor pacing skills and the athletic ability to work hard and do themselves a lot of damage at the start of a race!

Give your pacing skills a test and try our simple Pace Awareness Challenge: Swim 150m (or yards) as fast as you can with your best pacing through the whole 150. As you swim, get a friend or coach to record your splits every 25. The challenge: see if you can swim each 25 within a second of the others. Most swimmers will start 15-20 seconds / 100m too fast!
On this video (previously released on the blog in September) you can watch some members of the Swim Smooth squads in Perth attempting this:

Insert this little pacing challenge regularly into your swimming - it shows you just how easily you have to go over the first part of a race to pace things out well. Remember, if you start too fast you can't recover, the damage has all been done and you will fade badly - losing lots of time and suffering much more than you need to in the second half of the race.

Swimmers tend to think of technique in terms of arm angles and body rotation but pacing skills should also be at the heart of your stroke technique. Only 3% of World Records in the pool or on the athletics track are set with a positive split (where the first half of the race is quicker than the second). The other 97% are set with even pacing or with the second half a little quicker than the first.

You might never set a World Record but improve your pacing skills and some big personal-bests will be yours.

Swim Smooth!

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