Little details can make a big difference.

I am back in the pool for a couple weeks while waiting for the sea to calm down.

However, this particular pool is rarely consistent in temperature. So arriving yesterday I found it 30 C (87 F) – uncomfortably (and perhaps dangerously) hot. I had a plan in mind coming, but decided to modify it to suit the hot water. Going from 17 C to 30 C water is fairly hard on the body.

In hot water my objective is to reduce heart rate because HR equals heat and the danger of hot water is that there is no way to cool down. [In cool water at least you can work harder to generate more heat]. But I still want to get somewhere in a certain time – so the puzzle to solve is to move as fast but work less, stay cooler. The faster my heart pumps the more energy I am burning and the hotter my body gets and the more drained I feel. So instead of whining about the hot water I decided to let it compel me to find an easier way to slip across the pool.

I took about 10 minutes to tune-up the body and mind and take some readings on my stroke. I was cycling through some stroke thoughts trying to relieve some chronic muscle knots under my left scapula bone, and work my SPL down from 17-18 range. Suddenly, my SPL dropped to 15 from one particular set of focus points. When I switched to another, it went back to 17. Well, how did that happen?

At first I would focus just on how I was forming the catch and following through with the pull and body rotation knit together. I was cleaning that up and reducing effort but not making a big improvement on SPL. Then I would focus on how I was driving the spearing arm into the water quietly and straight forward, and that too was helping reduce effort, but not making a big improvement on SPL. But when I put the focus points of the two arms together… that is when it happened.

  1. I focused on timing the catch to the moment the fingers of my recovery arm pierced the surface of the water just in front of my head.
  2. I concentrated on driving the spearing arm forward at EXACTLY the same smooth steady rate as the body was rotating.
  3. The Catch arm was holding and pressing the body forward, not shoving.
  4. The two arms were directing force in exactly the opposite direction of each other, but the front arm was slicing while the back arm was holding.
  5. The front arm driving forward on it straight track, and the catch arm pressing directly back (not up/down, sideways or sculling).
  6. I would feel force travelings steadily down my RELAXED front arm and coming out my wrist (not into my fingers).

My observations:

Relaxation is key so that energy could flow through the elastic tissues of the body with least interference.

It was a perfectly timed, steady transfer of energy, from start to finish – not a jerky or sudden or punching motion.

The purpose of the catch arm is to transfer energy into the front arm driving forward underwater, cutting a low-pressure path for the body to slide through. It is not focused on pushing water back or pushing back. The critical idea is holding a place in the water in order to drive the body forward, and in particular, to drive force through that spearing front arm.

That spearing front arm must be in the water while the catch takes place. If it is extending over the surface of the water most of that transfer is wasted on slicing the air. We are moving the body through water after all, not air and the reduction in drag caused by a lengthening body line only applies to the parts of the body underwater.

Each hand must stay on its track as force is being transferred through the body or it dissipates the forces into turbulance.

The rate of the catch and pull empowered by the core rotation is what determined the rate at which my front arm extended forward underwater. If one rate differs from the other it breaks the flow. Imagine the two hands traveling in opposite directions at exactly the same steady speed.

I had (what felt like) 2 or 3 more centimeters of extension to finish in the front arm – which is actually the final part of the extension happening between the rib cage and the hip – as the catch arm pulled out and swung back on the recovery. Energy was still finishing coming through the elastic body tissues as the Catch finished and began to swing on the recovery. A mechanically formed stroke cannot achieve this and a more sudden deceleration occurs.

And, this was I was experiencing in just the tune-up of my practice!

So I modified my original main set into this:

I set a target pace of 25 seconds per 25 meters. Allowing 6 meters glide off the wall with 3 seconds given for turn and glide to my first underwater stroke. I did open-turns instead of flip-turns. I did nasal breathing recovery at the wall until my heart rate calmed ‘just enough’.

Using the these following SPL x Tempo combinations to construct 25 second pace I was going to search for a way to make each feel easier and easier, then afterward judge which combination felt like it required the least amount of muscular effort.

  • 17 SPL x 1.29 Tempo
  • 18 SPL x 1.22 Tempo
  • 19 SPL x 1.16 Tempo

I began only intending to do 4 x 50 meter repeats, then move on to a 23 second Pace set. But as I started the first combo I found I was easily taking just 15.5 strokes at 1.29. I adjusted my Pace goal to 24 seconds, then SPL to:

  • 16 SPL x 1.29
  • 17 SPL x 1.22
  • 18 SPL x 1.16

I decided to do 10x 50m at each combination to give my brain more time to find the easiest way to accomplish the task. On the first length I was taking at least 1 stroke less than my target SPL while holding the assigned Tempo.

Mind you, this was in a hot pool, so it wasn’t simply ‘easy’ swimming at these tempos (I am conditioned for up to .95 tempo).  That kind of hot water even at a moderate pace is tiring. So I had to really concentrate to keep my form good and my heart rate low.

My weak spots:

  • I was not exhaling consistently and smoothly. This caused me a lot of unnecessary tension and CO2 buildup stress. I didn’t want to breath. I just wanted to concentrate! But I need to work on this in the pool but for whatever reason this is not a problem in OW.
  • On the push off the wall I would often tilted my head every so slightly up to look slightly ahead and that was enough to add at least half a stroke to each length. I put markers on the floor of the pool at 6m to make sure I hit my breakout point each time so I know exactly whether I make the best push-off or not.

And lastly, I was curious why my second length was more struggle than the first length of each 50. I was intentionally giving good HR recovery at the wall so that I would push neurological thresholds rather than metabolic. It is too easily assumed that ‘I am tired’ and therefore swim slower on the second length. But is that really true after looking at all the possibilities?

If form drops even a little, water resistance goes up, and therefore the amount of effort required increases. I was constrained by Stroke Counting and a Tempo Trainer so I could not fall off pace without noticing it immediately.  If I fall off pace the only thing left for me to adjust was effort level. Either my body was reacting to energy depletion or I was compromising form and therefore requiring my body to work harder than I had to on the first lap.

This is the thing I continuously observe in my aquatic laboratory. Concentration gives out way before energy does.

Sure enough, I was coming up 1/2 meter shorter on the second push-off. I was either not pushing off as hard or I was not as streamlined in my head position or trajectory. And by the various vents and my markers on the pool floor I knew exactly what my stroke count should be at those various points on each length. So if I allowed my stroke quality to drop a little I would see how it shortened my stroke and knew the consequence on my SPL if I did not find a way to make up for it.

And the only way to make up for it was to use more effort! And to do that would be a failure of my objective.

So, every detail on each length counts. I must execute a perfect 25 every time.

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