Swim Power and Efficiency Begin on Land

I was among the few members and coaches from Arizona who took advantage of the tremendous opportunity to attend SwimFest ’10, the two-day swim clinic recently hosted in San Diego by USMS. USMS has produced and posted a great video that shows what you missed! USMS will also publish my personal account of the experience for the benefit of all USMS members in the next issue of Streamlines. (Watch for it in early July.)

Shortly after I filed that story, I received in the mail the results of my Power Swim Test by Dr. G. So, I will devote the rest of this blog entry to sharing with you some of the lessons it spawned, in hopes that you’ll find them as enlightening as I did.

As I point out in my upcoming SwimFest review, Dr. G’s patented GST Swim Power Test measures and analyzes changes in velocity, force, acceleration and power at each phase of one’s stroke. He has conducted the tests on USA Olympians from 2000, 2004 and 2008. His data proves that even the best swimmers in the world have room for improvement, to say nothing of the enormous potential for improvement in average Masters swimmers like me, or you.

After Dr. G. rigged me up to a belt connected by a thin string to some sensitive electronic equipment of his own design, and video-taped me underwater doing a series of freestyle and breaststroke maneuvers (streamlines, breakouts and fast swimming), I eagerly awaited my results to arrive in the mail.

They came within a week: A three-minute video overlaid with a velocity graph (measured in meters per second), plus Dr. G’s two-plus page analysis, including many excellent suggestions for correcting my lifetime of imperfections.

I can’t possibly go into all of my flaws and his suggestion here (though if you email me, I’ll be happy to share them). Suffice it to say, most are very common mistakes.

For example, about my attempt at underwater streamlining, he says "You are generating your underwater fly kick from moving shoulders up and arms down. Try to initiate your underwater kick from the upper abdominal." And, in freestyle, "You are driving your stroke from head and shoulders, but not from hips. As result, you are losing balance during the swim." (Hence my ‘tail wag.’) These are just two of many examples he gives me.

Dr. G offers me some good drills to help correct my flaws, like this one to engage the hips: "Both arms on the sides, kicking with fins and rotating slowly from one side to other, catching breath on every side." (I tried that one yesterday. It’s really good.)

His analysis gives me so much to work on, I wonder where-oh-where should I begin?

I start by forwarding all of Dr. G’s suggestions to my swim coach and two of my teammates who are especially knowledgeable in biomechanics and motor/neural learning principles. Allan Phillips is not only a very good swimmer, scratch golfer, marathon runner and triathlete, he is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCS), a Certified Functional Movement Screen specialist, and an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. His wife Katherine, also a very good swimmer, is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach, USA Track and Field Certified Coach, American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and a certified Functional Movement Screen specialist. Together, they own Pike Athletics.

Katherine and Allan aren’t too surprised by Dr. G’s findings. After all, they, together with my coach, had pinpointed many of the same flaws in an underwater video taping/functional movement clinic they conducted for my team last April. So, it begs the question, if I know what I’m doing wrong, why am I still making the same mistakes?

The first thing Katherine and Allan remind me is that many of the visual stroke flaws related to head, arm, or leg position are caused by something more fundamental than simply "poor technique." Their philosophy in working with athletes (runners, golfers, baseball players, gymnasts, swimmers) is that "addressing the body’s basic movement abilities is necessary before one can successfully apply sport-specific motor learning tools."

Dr. G. has made several references to the relationship between the head, shoulders, and body rotation. Allan and Katherine direct me to Allan’s recent blog post dealing with this very issue, Using Feldenkrais rolling patterns to assess and improve long axis swimming rotational efficiency. It includes a video of a body rolling exercise that Allan makes look very simple. I get down on the floor and try it only to find that it is not simple at all, at least not for me.

By now I’m realizing it’s never going to be enough to work on my stroke flaws in the pool alone. In addition to incorporating Dr. G’s drills into my workouts, I must begin to fix imbalances, correct and build proper biomechanics on land. I mean, when Dr. G. says my fingers are pointing in the wrong direction during my breaststroke pull, and my scapula and thorax are so tight that I can’t physically shift my hands into the correct position, it’s obvious that I need to work first on basic flexibilities on land!

All of this information together suddenly reveals very clearly how breakthroughs in functional mobility would help me--and any swimmer--improve swimming technique as well as posture, balance, and overall well being. On the contrary, to fail to address my issues now means they are likely only going to get worse with time. I feel the urgent need to begin.

Many of you probably already do land-based training, as do I. Sure, we’re stronger for it. More fit, for sure. But is it making us better swimmers? Is it making us worse? The answer is: It depends.

Swimming well is all about moving through the water with utmost efficiency. Dr. G. said as much at SwimFest. Gary Hall Sr. preached it with passion. No swim coach would argue this fact.

Katherine and Allan caution:
"Dryland conditioning should be used to restore the quality of the movement, not to add power to inefficiency."

That statement makes a lot of sense to me. So, how do swimmers, trainers and coaches know what particular land work we, as individuals, need? Many don’t.

There is no one size fits all approach. Every body is different. We’re born with individual bodies and we all develop bad biomechanical habits, whether it’s from slumping over our computers, walking wrong, injuries, or becoming stiff with arthritis. To overcome these realities, Pike Athletics recommends this approach:

1. Screening. (A functional movement screening will help you and your trainer or coach determine your focus points. For example, my screening showed my weaknesses or imbalances are thoracic, scapula and inner core.)
2. Correcting. (Rolling patterns, soft tissue, etc.)
3. Learning. (Cords, land drills, TRX, kettlebells, etc.)
4. Conditioning. (Individual strategies for applying the benefits of the neuromuscular learning that is happening on dryland.)

The bottom line is, even when you have access to the best coaches, the best drills, and the best stroke analyzers in the business, sometimes you still have to get yourself out of the pool and learn how to move well on land before you can expect to move better in the water.

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