We have a student working through our Pool Comfort lesson series. In this series we guide people through a gentle process of removing the anxiety and stress they’ve felt in the water, which has previously hindered them from making progress in swim lessons, or discouraged them taking any lessons at all.
Though not quite working on strokes yet, this male student has sinking legs which concerned him a great deal, adding to his anxiety. He did not realize that this is the situation for the vast majority of swimmers before they learn how to balance their body. Yet, unlike conventional instruction, we work on the balance solution to the sinking leg problem right at the start of the swim lesson series – it’s the first big change we make, which makes acquiring the rest of the stroke skills so much easier.
During his lesson series he shared some of the things he has been studying about sinking legs and a video clip on Youtube of a coach explaining how to use certain muscles to get the body into balanced position. Being an engineering type (which I love to work with!) he was looking for some logical insight or assurance from us that he was heading in the right direction for this problem.
So I offered him some additional explanation and encouragement that I want to share with you also…
I thought the video was helpful and encouraging (though the coach was quite goofy, possibly in an attempt to keep our attention!) We would describe balance and teach in in different ways, but we’d be aiming for the same thing: a body that slides close and parallel to the surface without having to kick to keep it there.
Sinking Legs Are Common
First, it is helpful to realize that the majority of people (mostly men, but some women too) who come, have sinking legs. This is nothing strange or exceptional. It is something most people have to either tolerate or find a way to get them near the surface.
Flow Of Water Required
Next, let’s adjust our expectations for what we will experience in drills. When we do our stationary, or slow-motion drills, like Superman and Skate, to work on the skills for balance, we can noticeably improve balance when measuring with certain markers, but none of us – myself included – can hold the legs at the surface for more than a few seconds, without starting to flutter the feet. The skills we are putting in place will make balance easier in drill position, but alone they do not solve it completely.
Sustained balance without kicking, for nearly all of us, requires the continuous flow of water under the body.
The balance skills that we learn in drills have their positive effect once we get water flowing smoothly under that long, firm, torpedo frame of the body – much in the way an airplane wing gets lift only after there is air flowing fast enough under it. Stationary drills do not provide adequate flow of water to support us. In slow-motion drills, there is only enough flow of water in the first 2 seconds or so. (Obviously, there are some people who do not sink, regardless of whether they are applying skills or not! This is an advantage in one way but a disadvantage in others).
Balance For Just A Moment
The good news is that during the actual freestyle swimming motion, the stroke cycle is only about 1.5 seconds long in a slow tempo stroke, so in the act of swimming along, we slip into our balanced position on one Skate side and hold it for less than 1.5 seconds, while swinging the recovery arm forward, then rotate and balance on the other Skate side, back and forth. We need to immediately slip into balance immediately and then hold it within that 2-second window of opportunity.
The flow of water, the controlled rotation to the other side and the synchronized propulsive actions of the arms and legs all work together to switch and maintain balance from side to side. The 2 Beat Kick with one flick for each rotation, which is an advanced skill, and not necessary for this initial balance, enhances that balance further (when performed in the way I teach it).
In drill mode, stationary or in slow-motion, those with sinking legs need to look for more subtle markers for improving balance that appear within those first 2 seconds. Realize that you are not going to magically be able to balance the body parallel to the surface more than 3 or 4 seconds at most, even with the best skill… not in freshwater at least.
First Two Seconds Are Most Important
When you push off and are too slow coming into your best body position, a couple seconds late, then trying to hold it near the surface for 4 or 5 seconds longer you may miss the window of opportunity altogether, and then wonder why you can’t get it. The most valuable moment of the whole drill is right there in the first 2 seconds, as the body first glides along at the surface. Get into that position immediately, and feel the flow of water supporting you as it should for those first two seconds. Everything past those first 2 seconds is a bonus and of decreasing value as seconds tick by. As you get more skilled you may be able to hold it for 4 or 5 seconds, but that is more than necessary for the act of freestyle swimming.
Balance Requires An Internal Frame
When you work on balance in drills, you are searching for new ways to feel and control your internal muscles to build a frame (imagine the internal network of cables and beams that forms a tension bridge or an airplane wing), which can then more easily respond with lift over the flow of water. Soft and noodle-like bodies cannot slide and channel forces, like long, stretched-and-firm bodies can.
That flow of water will be necessary in order to feel the full effect of balance. So, when doing the balance drills, look for how to ‘shift weight forward’ through the internal tensioning of muscles to make the front seem a little heavier (without pushing down) and the hips/legs feel a little lighter, such that you sense you can hold your hips/legs near the surface 1/2 second longer than you could before. Little tiny improvements in stability, ease and time with legs held parallel to the surface will be the markers for improvement, not sustained floating.
Be Stretched Out More Than You Think
I am cautious about using focal points which could be misunderstood and carried to an extreme which then cause a new problem. However, I don’t think new, and even some of my experienced students appreciate just how much our stretched-and-firm body line should be in freestyle. When you stand on ‘Tippy Toes’ and reach with arms for a high cupboard shelf above, that sensation of a more slender, firm abdominal region level and locked hips, and super-straightened thighs – that whole extremely-stretched feeling is something we sustain the whole time in freestyle. This is the part of the body that should not be relaxed because it is the center-piece of the whole frame.
Just as we would build a long, sleek wooden sea kayak and then stretch skin tightly over that frame to build a sleek, fast hull, so too, we create a sleek, stretched body line and hold it perpetually. The firmness of the core comes from lengthening, not from contracting. This taut body, this internal tension frame allows us to slightly shift our weight forward, improving balance, and then which allows water to flow with less resistance below that body line, thus providing more lift to the rear of the body. There are a few more details that tie into that lift (which you can read about in Remedy For Sinkers), but this is the first and more important part.
Balance Requires More Muscle Tone
This stretched-and-firm body requires muscle tone which you may not have yet, which means you may only be able to hold that stretched body for a minute or two. That muscle tone will develop from hours and hours of swimming mindfully in this way, just as it would from hours and hours of yoga. You’ve got to earn it. Land activities that build the length, strength and stability of your core are excellent complements to what you are doing in the water. They are not necessary, but they could speed up the skill and strength development process in water. The stronger and more coordinated you become in the core on land, the easier it may be to acquire it in the water.
Understanding the purpose and limitations of the stationary and slow-motion drills should help you adjust your expectations for what you will accomplish with those. Look for more subtle markers that the balance skills are coming together. Then pull those skills into a few careful whole strokes, where the flow of water under the body will give you more feedback about where your skills are sticking and where they need more work.
Sinking legs are not an obstacle or abnormal disadvantage that only some people struggle with. They are common, and are anticipated in the Total Immersion method. It is one of the first things you will learn to solve in the sequence of skills you work through in learning freestyle.
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