A couple weeks ago I participated in a Chi Running workshop led by Master Coach Alice Diffely in Portland, Oregon USA.


To prepare for the workshop I was reviewing some chapters in the Chi Running book to refresh my memory of the principles, drills and focal points.

I ran across this definition of relaxation written by Danny Dryer that was given to him by one of his teachers:

Relaxation is the absence of unnecessary effort. (page 56)

This definition struck me as a more helpful way to think about it, especially in swimming, because when someone tells you or me to, ‘Just relax!’ that is a quite true-but-useless piece of advice, don’t you think? It is too vague.

Relax what, exactly? How much? When?

Both Tension And Relaxation

The fact is, we are aiming for a certain balance between tension and relaxation in different sections of the body and at different moments in the stroke. There is no overall ‘relax’ or we function like a wet noodle. Yet, we can’t be stiff and robotic in our motions either. The water does not work well with either of those extremes. Rather, we need a carefully trained arrangement, where some chains of supporting tissue are holding firm while others are yielding. Mastery of this is greatly complicated by the fact that you must feel this out. You can’t see it directly and no one can make you do it correctly with their own hands upon you.

The novice (at any particular new piece of skill) is virtually always going to use excessive effort and muscle tension to attempt the same task that an experienced practitioner can do with a fraction of effort and tension. Only over time does the brain of that novice learn how to execute the move with fewer and fewer muscle units and less energy expense. There is no shortcut to building this motor control.

Not Immediately Efficient

Efficiency is never immediate – it takes thousands of careful and varied repetitions, even when you are doing the movement correctly.

This is why you can take any elite athlete, tweak their stroke to a superior pattern from the one they are currently wired for, and they will not be able to use that altered stroke efficiently for weeks (or months) until their brain has figured out how to refine the motor control it as nicely as their default one is.  When you are new to a movement pattern you will likely do it with excessive tension, no matter how experienced or talented you are. You fire up too many muscles for the first weeks of the activity, but gradually your brain figures out how to strip away excessive firing, until you get down to just the essential amount.

Get Specific Instruction

If you’ve ever noticed or been told that you need to ‘relax’ more in the water, it is a bit frustrating, isn’t it?

It would be so much more helpful if you can ask someone who apparently understands how this ‘relax!’ actually works to tell you precisely what part needs to loosen up and which part to preserve appropriate tension in. They need to give you extremely specific muscle commands (focal points) in terms of what that specific part of the body should look like, feel like or do. Otherwise the admonishment isn’t very helpful.

Example Of Tension And Relaxation

Mat stroke sideview 800x317

Here is a view of my stroke captured at the moment of coming into Skate Position. My Skate side (the lower side with the extended front arm) is lengthening  from wrist to toes, and because of that, it is becoming firm from tension. It’s not a tension from muscles contracting on that side so much as it is from tissues being stretched (and certainly I am using deep internal muscles to cause that stretching). Rather than crank on my arms, I am going to use the potential energy stored up in the elastic properties of that stretched tissue to initiate the catch on that side in just a moment. Those who do not practice full extension and asymmetric stroke (arm switch) timing do not get to tap into this elastic rebound property of the body.

Meanwhile, the upper side of my body is shutting down muscle units, allowing many parts on that side of the body to rest for a moment before they get to work again. The rubber band on that side of the body is fairly limp, waiting to be stretched again when that arm enters ahead and extends underwater, leading that side of the body in Skate Position on the next stroke.

In a general way, you might say one side is tense while the other is relaxed.

What is never relaxed are the deep abdominal and core muscles from ribs, through pelvis and down into my thighs and all along my spine on the inside. Those stay stretched and long the ENTIRE TIME I am swimming. No pulsing between relaxed and tense. The frame stays unified and firm continuously. However, the muscles in this zone are activated just enough to hold shape – they are not excessively tense. My spine line stays straight and always supported because it is always in the act of transferring force forward from one side of the body or the other in the rhythm of the torso rotation.

Back To Running

I had some relaxation/tension to improve in my own running too. Some years ago I carefully retooled my stride to a barefoot style (I wear minimalist, zero-drop shoes), but I have had to deal with much more muscle knots in the back of my lower legs. I knew some Chi Running influence could help and sure enough, Master Coach Alice identified how my forefoot strike was connected to the excessive muscle tension I was dealing with. It was initially awkward, but by making some adjustment to strike mid-foot (by Chi Running definition of ‘mid-foot’) not only did I balance the loading on my lower legs, reducing the unpleasant tension, it enabled my body line to lean-forward which I should be taking advantage of. This lean causes my body to fall-forward in a controlled way, using gravity to assist, further reducing some of the amount of force I would otherwise need to generate with my own muscles. Suddenly I could really feel gravity’s assistance in ways I was not before!

However, this small but significant adjustment did not immediately feel ‘natural’ because I need to take the time to override my current default pattern. So I will be spending some weeks mindfully training my stride to follow this improved pattern. It is not more efficient yet but it will be soon. It’s obvious I am able to generate the same speed with less muscle activation, but I have to really concentrate on it to keep it consistent. My motor circuits need to be built up to do this in a much more automatic way.

Your Own Experimentation

I certainly can’t speak to all the various points in your body where there should be certain fine arrangements of tension and relaxation. But I hope you will get the idea that it is not total relaxation (wet noodle) nor total tension (metal robot). It’s a careful arrangement of both firmness and softness, tensed and relaxed, activated and resting. Some of it will come from getting better focal points from your instructor, some of it will come from your own discoveries, and some of it will simply come in time when the brain figures out how to strip things down to the essential action.

So, keep up the inquiry and experimentation.

Remember this phrase:

Relaxation is the absence of unnecessary effort.

It reminds you that there should be certain kinds of effort in certain places at certain times. While everything else needs the lights turned off for a quick nap.

In a particular part of your stroke consider:

  • What absolutely must be working here?
  • And what is the minimum necessary amount of tension required for that part to do its thing correctly?
  • What part could afford to relax more?

Each part of the body needs to conform to a certain shape. It needs to follow a certain path. It needs to move with certain timing. It needs a certain amount of force. Those are the main features each body part must be trained for. Everything beyond that is excessive and a waste of your precious time and energy. It not only is a waste, it resists your forward movement.

If you are worried about something falling apart from too much or too little, just experiment with more or less tension, more or less relaxation, and see what happens. By doing such experiments you may learn a lot about your own body and stroke. And, you’ll also be conducting the very kind of experimentation that led to the insights and methodology we enjoy in Total Immersion.

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