Friday, September 27, 2019

Another Great Stretch To Bring Your Body Position Up In The Water

How often do you make time in your schedule for stretching sessions? Daily, weekly, monthly or even less? When delicately juggling the balance between work, family and your exercise routine, stretching sessions are normally the first to drop to the bottom of your priority list. Most people state lack of time as the main reason for not including stretching sessions in their exercise programmes. But the question is, what impact is this having on your swimming?

Check out this image of five time Olympic Gold medallist Ian Thorpe:

You can see the full extent of the "body bend" that is required to extend the lead arm forwards in front of him while still keeping his hips and legs high near the surface. This is all down to the large degree of flexibility that Ian has in his upper and lower back, shoulders and lats.

Note when you try and get into this position yourself, you are not consciously thinking about bending through the body (or you could easily end up snaking laterally through the water). Instead you are simply aiming to extend forwards beneath the surface whilst keeping the legs high.

Without good flexibility, when extending forwards into this position with the lead arm, your body and legs will be pushed lower into the water:

As adult swimmers it's unlikely we'll ever get to the level of flexibility that elite swimmers such as Ian have in their upper body but even small improvements will bring the legs higher and so give you significant gains in speed and efficiency.

Way back in 2011 we posted here about a simple hip flexor stretch to bring your legs higher in the water: and in this post we're going to introduce another key stretch to bring you similar results:

The Mermaid Stretch 

For our variation of the Mermaid stretch you will need to sit on the floor and position your legs such that the sole of one foot rest above the knee of the other leg:

If you find this leg position uncomfortable then release the knee and let it slide up the other calf a little.

Hold a towel, or even better a theraband in both your hands and raise above your head. Apply a light tension to the towel or band and lean over towards your outer foot, as demonstrated here by our new Community Manager Myffy (welcome to the team!!):

You should feel the stretch run all the way down your tricep, through your lat, your side and down to your hip. Take long, controlled breaths during the stretch.

This is a powerful stretch so only apply gentle pressure and stop right away if you experience any back or shoulder pain.

If you are nice and flexible (like Myffy above), then you can increase the power of the stretch by pressing the arms further apart, applying more tension to the band.

Without moving your legs, also stretch to the side away from your legs. This will feel significantly easier:

Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds and repeat two or three times to each side.

Whilst we can’t promise this stretch will have you swimming as fast as Ian Thorpe, we can promise that an improvement in flexibility will definitely improve your freestyle stroke!

Also see our dry land training programmes in the Swim Smooth Guru to increase your flexibility and further finesse your freestyle stroke:

Swim Smooth!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Sarah Thomas' Incredible Feat Of Endurance

You've probably read in the news about an incredible swim that took place this week:

Starting in the early hours of Sunday morning, Sarah Thomas from Colorado battled through the harsh currents, weather and cold water to break a new world record by swimming four times non-stop across the English Channel! That's 209km, 54 hours and (only!) 1 jellyfish sting - a truly astounding achievement!

Considering your own long distance swim? Would just like to improve your stamina a bit in the pool? Distance swimming is both physically and mentally demanding. Sarah Thomas claimed that ‘every length had something hard about it’. Therefore, both physical and mental preparation is key to ensuring success in these type of events.

You can read Sarah's full race report here.

The English Channel did not make the life easy for Sarah with each lap presenting a new challenge to overcome. In the first and second lap, nausea set in and eventually led to sickness. Despite this, Sarah's mental strength shone through. Her goal, in the darkness of the second lap was to keep swimming and 'make it through until daylight'. After the turnaround, the sickness escalated and was now a certainty after every feed. The crew on the boat were instructed that if the sickness didn't subside, Sarah would have to be pulled out of the water. Unaware of the severity of the situation, Sarah was given anti-sickness tablets in her next feed and carried on swimming, 'daydreaming about being dry, warm and asleep'!

With the sickness under control, the final challenge (if there wasn't enough already!) in lap four presented itself - the early change of tides. Sarah was instructed by her pilot to crab across the current with the hopes of breaking free to the other side. As you would expect from Sarah, she did it, but at the cost of a huge time delay. Fortunately, she had support in the water from her friends, Craig, Elaine and Karl, in the final 4 hours of the challenge. She even managed to sprint to the finish and was welcomed on the shores by crowds, champagne and M & Ms! Sarah describes it as one of the hardest mental challenges she has ever overcome - "I wanted to quit - and had good reason to do so. Yet, somehow, my crew gave me the strength to keep going!" Her focus, determination and perseverance throughout the swim is incredibly inspiring and highlights the importance of mental control during long distance events.

Sarah Thomas had her crew supporting her the whole way - even at the end!

Swim Smooth’s Paul Newsome has first hand experience of the mental challenge of long distance swimming as he took on the challenge of swimming the channel himself in 2011 and since then has completed several other long distance swimming events. How did Paul prepare for this and keep motivated during the whole event?

Paul immediately before starting his channel crossing in 2011.

Paul: I think the most important thing about a long distance marathon swim is to break it down into much smaller component parts. Whilst Sarah had the goal of swimming 4 laps of the Channel (unprecedented in the history of the sport), on the day, I’m very doubtful if she would have allowed herself to think that far ahead.

If you’ve ever swum for 1hr continuously you’ll know how daunting and challenging that is. Imagine getting to the 1hr mark and someone telling you you still have another 53h10m to go! Psychologically that would be hugely difficult to deal with, but if the goal were just to swim for another 30 minutes until your next feed, then suddenly that starts to become more manageable, such that, rather than thinking too much about the stress and strain of what your imminent future holds, you can try to remain in the present and even break it down so granular as to just visualise keeping each stroke balanced smooth and efficient in that particular moment.

Whenever I’ve personally thought too far ahead I’d get daunted by the challenge and start to lose motivation, but I can specifically recall when swimming 46km or 28.5 miles around New York (where I am right now), all I was saying to myself was “bubble-bubble-breathe” (seriously!) and eventually this became “just focus, stay focused now, concentrate, concentrate, concentrate” when I eventually took the lead at 2.5hrs in and went on to win the race.
It gets very lumpy in the middle of the channel!

Giving yourself or your swimmers something simple to focus on here and now in the present is absolutely essential to stop that drift of focus into the “what if” future. When we swam around Manhattan, Adam clocked my initial stroke rate as 88-90spm which I knew in training wasn’t sustainable, but I knew 81spm was. As soon as he fed me back this data, the next 30 minutes was all about falling back into this predetermined feeling and gaining confidence that, whatever happens to the other competitors, I know that this is what I can personally sustain. So I doubled down on that and eventually it all came good.

Sarah's swim from her GPS data: England -> France -> England -> France -> England!

I would imagine that Sarah knew exactly what pace she could hold and dialled into that. This is evidenced by the fact that, acknowledging her favourable conditions on the day, the first 3 GPS traces describe a very similar sine curve pathway, indicating that she was getting pushed equally left and right (east and west) with the changing of the tides as she progressed forwards. In lap 4 (which no one has ever done before), she starts to drift a lot more left and right with the tide indicating that her speed has dropped considerably, but when you turn around for your 4th lap after 37hrs and face the impossible or literally the final frontier where no person has gone before (for you Star Trek fans) then this is to be expected. She’s essentially been swimming for 2 continuous days at this point without sleep and so it’s no wonder that she would slow down. The point is that she made it through and it was all that savvy pacing, focus and will power in the first 3 crossings that enabled the impossible to become possible. Truly amazing stuff!

If you are interested in completing your own long distance challenge (in the pool or open water) head to our Long Aerobic Interval sessions on the SwimSmooth Guru, designed specifically to physically and mentally prepare you for long distance open swims.

If your goals are a little bit more modest then what can we take from Sarah's stunning achievement? Well perhaps take inspiration from this extreme display of endurance and push your own regular swim sessions a little bit longer. Swimming 2km right now? How about a 4km challenge this weekend? If that's too easy, perhaps even 6 or 7km? Sometimes the barriers in place are more mental than physical - give it a shot and when you're feeling a little tired, stay in the moment, ask yourself can I do one more stroke, and then one more lap, and then one more 100...?

Swim Smooth!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Why Do Elite Swimmers Recover Like This?

If you've watched elite swimmers in the pool you might well have noticed they often recover over the surface of the water and angle their hands back behind them like this:

In fact our freestyle animation Mr Smooth also does the same as he swims:

Ever wondered why and if you should try and do the same?

The reason elite swimmers do this (either consciously or unconsciously) is that they have been coached to swim using a classical high elbow arm recovery over the surface:

This certainly looks pretty but with the forearm becoming so vertical, they run the risk of the hand hitting the surface of the water as they swim (as if performing old-school finger-trail drill). The backward angle of the hand gives them a bit more clearance over the flat surface of the pool.

A high elbow recovery could be the right thing for you in the pool if your upper back and shoulders are flexible enough to achieve it. However in open water, where the water is much more disturbed, you run the risk of catching your hand on the surface, which would slow you down:

Far better in open water to user a slightly straighter arm recovery and bring the hand up and over more. This is why you see elite swimmers and triathletes swimming like this:

Even if you swim in a perfectly flat lake, the surface very quickly gets disturbed by other swimmers. In fact you can see this in both images above that the swimmers are moving through quite flat water but immediately around them it's turned to mush.

So, if you are a triathlete or open water swimmer, don't focus on developing a classical high elbow recovery because it will be a major hindrance when you are in open water. A loose relaxed high recovery is better, as we can see demonstrated by super-fish elite triathlete Richard Varga here:

[You can study Richard's stroke in full in the Swim Smooth Guru here (subscription required):]

Should you swim this way all the time? All year round? Yes you should! It's the right habit to get into and it works perfectly well for pool swimming. And, if you are a little tight in the upper back or shoulders you'll find it makes for a more relaxed recovery that is easier on the shoulders.

Here's Swim Smooth Coach Fiona Ford practising this with her London squad:

Swim Smooth!

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Still Trying To Glide? Check Out These Two Images

Who are the greatest female and male swimmers of all time? Undoubtably Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps with 28 Olympic and 42 World Championship gold medals between them!

Check out these two underwater images of them in action at the same point in their freestyle strokes. They are both finishing one stroke at the rear and visibly starting to tip the fingertips downwards to start the next stroke at the front:

Why is that significant? Because in a single image each, we can see that neither of these GOAT swimmers is gliding - there is no perceptible pause between one stroke finishing and the next starting. Both Katie and Michael are smoothly transitioning from one stroke to the next down the lap.

Despite our best efforts, there are (still!) many swimming coaches out there teaching swimmers to pause-and-glide when they swim. This is a massive mistake as water is 800 times more dense than air and by pausing in your stroke you instantly decelerate before having to reaccelerate on the next stroke. An incredibly inefficient and ineffective way to swim!

When you watch elite swimmers on TV they can look they are gliding forwards through the water but this is an optical illusion brought about by the length of their strokes. The fact is they achieve that length through good streamlining and a great catch and pull technique, not by gliding.

You should follow the same philosophy in your own swimming, work on your stroke technique by improving your body position, becoming more streamlined and developing a good propulsion technique - transitioning smoothly and continuously from one stroke to the next.

By actively trying to glide you are trying to artificially lengthen the stroke - putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Swim Smooth!