This is Part 2, following Core Strength And Control…
Let’s divide the body into these sections of focus as we examine alignment and core strength in the swimmer:
This article will address the head and spine:
The head is the first and most critical piece of the alignment puzzle. Everything follows the positioning of the head. Physics and physiology determine the best head position, not tradition.
Step 1 – put the head in alignment with the spine.
This sets up the body for stability, relaxation, direction and smooth rotational transfer of power.
Step 2 – let the head/spine line rest in equilibrium between gravity pushing down and water pressure pushing up.
All efficiency in the long-axis strokes (freestyle and backstroke) hinges on how well you respect these two steps. The efficiency you strive for will either be enhanced or undermined by it.
Head position is determined by the physiology of the body and by physics – not by tradition nor by what variety of examples are set by famous swimmers. I know others teach that you can use a variety of head positions – you can. But you pay a price for anything that violates physiology and physics. The price is paid in increased drag, in strain within the body structure, in struggle against the forces of nature, and in obstructing the transfer of force through the body for all of those positions that don’t keep the head in alignment with the spine and center of mass.
So then, what is the best position for the head in terms of physiology and hydro-physics?
It’s actually quite simple.
Stand up on the ground. Stand up straight under gravity, eyes looking straight ahead. Let an imaginary string be tied to the top most part of your skull – the crown – where the spine would poke out if it continued upward. (We call this the shish-kabob spine in our classes in Turkey). Let that string pull up on the crown of your head. As it pulls up you will feel your chest tilt up, the soft belly below the ribs pull in and firm up, the hips rotate back slightly, the buttocks firms up slightly, as the lower back flattens and firms up a bit also. You may notice the sensation of becoming a fraction lighter on your feet. That is your aligned head/spine position. That is the most hydrodynamic position you can put your head in while laying horizontal in the water. For humans in water it doesn’t get any better than that.
Stay standing. Tilt your head forward or back even a little off center and you will feel how gravity pulls on it and puts pressure on your neck, in the cervical section of the spine and into the thoracic section (middle back, between the shoulder blades). Leave it like that a bit longer and you will start to feel it ache in the lumbar too (lower back, behind your navel). [I am using the technical names for the spine so it is clear these pieces are one inter-connected whole]. The head makes up approximately 10% of your body mass. When you lay horizontal in the water and tilt your head up a little (to look forward, or just out of habit), your head moves out of alignment with the spine and therefore out of line with the center of mass of your body. Have that body mass start driving ahead with your head tilted a little while swimming and you are putting the same straining forces on the head as you were standing up and tilting it against gravity. That tilt of the head present more frontal surface area to water, which results in an increase in drag. That curve in the neck results in an inevitable chain reaction of abnormal curvature all the way down the spine. That creates strain – which pool swimmers often don’t recognize because the wacky spine gets to stretch out on a turn every 25 meters which masks the strain. But get in open-water and take a few thousand uninterrupted strokes with a head in anything but an aligned position and the strain will be exposed and magnified. (Yes, you can condition yourself for it, as like on an aero-bike, but there is no denying that this is an abnormal and straining head position!) The misaligned spine from a tilted head obstructs the smooth flow of force through your spine to the cutting edges of your stroke.
It doesn’t matter how much misaligned head position is practiced by traditional swimmers nor by how famous the swimmer is who uses misaligned head position – science and medicine show us it is not good however common it is. Everyone pays a price when insisting on defying the laws of nature, even the famous folks. Show me a hundred famous swimmers who are looking forward while swimming and I will point out a hundred famous swimmers with bad head position according to physiology and physics. Human aquatic tradition carries little weight for argument other than anecdote – it is by no means proof of a better way to swim. Science still has a lot to teach humans – especially in sports.
The challenge is to take what is totally sensible, and correct, for our structure as land-mammals – standing up straight under gravity – and translate that same skill into the water, because, conveniently, we are transferring force along the spine in both positions. As Coach Terry describes it, “On land we stand on our spine, in water we hang from it.” In the water we have to re-create that long, aligned spine and then place it right on the neutral line underwater, where the body is at rest in equilibrium between the natural forces.
As swimmers we’ve got two initial means by which we can tell if we have good head position – they work together to tell the whole story of alignment: LOOK from the outside, and FEEL from the inside.
1) Look from the outside.
If you were to take a snapshot of the swimmer at any moment of the stroke would the head be in the same position as if he were standing tall against gravity on the ground?
Are the goggles looking straight down toward the bottom?
Is the crown of the head – that point where the shish-kabob spine would poke out – pointing the way down the lane underwater, like the head of a torpedo? Where that shish-kabob points is where the body is directing its energy.
Can you keep that weightless head and line pointing down the lane while breathing?
That’s me in the picture in Coach Terry’s Fast Lane Pool last summer. That’s how I normally breathe, even in open-water. You too can learn how to do this. It is not so difficult if the stage is set properly with head/spine alignment.
Within the bell curve of human body composition just the back of the head (swim cap) will be poking out of the water, with a bow wave of water rushing up half way over it. For women (or men) with a bulge of hair curled up in the back of the cap, there will obviously a lot more cap out of the water.
But what straight head/spine alignment looks like does not complete the picture – the location of that neutral line for each swimmer in the water can’t be seen directly, it must be felt by the swimmer as well. And there is more that can be felt of the proper spine alignment down through the torso.
2) Feel from the inside.
This is what proprioception is for.
Does the head feel weightless in the water? Is there water pressure pushing up against the face like a soft pillow?
Is the neck relaxed? Could a swim partner place a hand on your head and bob it up/down freely like a floating watermelon? No neck muscles should be firing to push or hold the head up or down. There should be no contortion, no thrusting the head down, nor tilting it up to look forward. Let water buoyancy determine exactly what depth your head will rest at, and thus your spine.
Can you feel the consistent press of the bow wave against the back half of your swim cap? It should be consistent – no bobbing or diving up/down, or side-to-side. A steady, torpedo-like head. It is the anchoring piece for the rest of the body to follow.
Is the spine staying parallel to the surface of the water? Can you feel the back of your cap, the back of your shoulder, and the side of your hip just brushing the surface on each low-angled rotation?
Like an iceberg, you may recall that physics allows a human to keep only about 5% of body mass above the surface – you choose which 5%. A sliver of the cap, a sliver of the shoulder, and a sliver of the hip divides that 5% portion nicely, keeping the body parallel to the surface. Push the head up just a little in order to look forward and you have to sacrifice a straight, parallel body to do it, or be required to divert some of the kick to compensate. Remember, the head makes up about 10% – push the mass of it above the neutral line and gravity will extract a price from you lower down on your body.
The Superman and Skate drills are meant to give you ample time and and freedom of attention to discover, then master this head/spine line in neutral position – both the ability to detect and the skill to hold it. In the water, push gently into Superman Position with no kick or the gentlest of flutter, without propelling forward (don’t cover up balance problems with propulsion, use the drills to fix them). Switch gently into Skate Position. In the first 4 seconds of that position is where you want to find this parallel position on the neutral line. You only need 4 seconds because there is no reasonable stroke cycle that will last longer than 4 seconds (but holding it longer is excellent training for your balance – I do recommend it to expose and enhance your skill).
Ok. I will stop there. This is what we could spend hours examining this in lessons. I could go on and on with endlessly finer points…
Part 3 talks about Hip-Leg Alignment. Check it out.