This continues from Part 2 of One Stroke Technique For Everyone?
In the previous part I discussed how we might allow a swimmer to make compromises away from the ideal because she has limitations in her body that are unimproveable or there are other reasons that stack up to make the possibility of change unlikely for her.
Let me describe some some ways I’ve guided swimmers into a different compromises…
Bent Upper Spine
I’ve run across several adults with spine deformities or degeneration in the spine that cause the thoracic to bend forward thus making the head to project over the sternum rather than over the shoulders.
There is no way this swimmer can line up his head with his spine along the frontal plane, especially when laying face-down horizontal, floating in the water. The problem is that the head can’t rest in the truly weightless position, where the back of the head is just breaking the surface, and keep the rest of the body at the surface also. If the swimmer tries to keep his hips and legs near the surface, the lungs keep the upper chest at the surface while the fixed curvature of the upper spine push the head underwater.
In this case, we need to treat the whole upper spine as one unit, letting the head remain fixed in its less-than-ideal position relative to the spine. The dilemma is that either:
- the swimmer positions his head near the surface for easier breathing which then drives the hips and legs lower (a downward angled body line), or
- he keeps the body line close to and parallel to the surface while the head is pushed down below the surface out of streamline and away from easier breathing.
The compromise I would recommend is to keep the body parallel to the surface on the non-breathing strokes and then craft the breathing stroke in such a way (using the catch and extension) to slide the upper spine up to the surface for that particular stroke, then let it slip back down to its previous deep position for the following non-breathing strokes.
Every swimmer is urged to turn towards the air immediately with the start of the catch, but it would be particularly important for this swimmer to slide the head to the surface, turning to breathe as early and as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of the moment of greatest acceleration and lift in the whole stroke cycle. If turning slowly or staying too long at air this swimmer will be fighting against gravity even more to keep the face there at those less-than-ideal moments.
This swimmer needs to have two body positions – one for the non-breathing strokes and one for the breathing stroke – and then learn to transition between the two as quickly and smoothly as possible, in order to minimize the time he unavoidably spends working against gravity on that breathing stroke.
Another scenario I run into is with those who are true ‘sinkers’. I do not refer to those who have sinking legs and hips, which is actually the majority of us, because that problem is solvable with core muscle tone and balance skills which we teach as part of our fundamental skill set. I am talking about those with dense body composition where the entire body finds its neutral point deeper in the water. This person’s upper body would actually rest at the surface if kept perfectly still, but the body is so dense, relative to water, that any downward press of gravity on the body draws it downward and it will take too many seconds for water pressure to counter that momentum and begin to push it upward again. Every time they lift that recovery arm up into the air, gravity pushes down on it and the arm transfers that push into the torso. So, the unskilled swimmer trying to stay near the surface within the relatively quick tempo of the regular stroke cycle will feel like they are always sinking, because the body is truly sinking, never having enough time between strokes to let the water push it back up again.
I’ve had a few females in this situation. This gal above was very fit, and yet her body wanted to slide along an inch or two below the surface, as seen in this photo. It took a few lessons ( a couple workshops actually) but she learned to carefully balance her body over the flow of water and slide near the surface, guarding against motions that might drive her body downward at the slightest provocation. We didn’t have to change her stroke to swinging or spinning arms to pull the body up against gravity continuously, which would require a lot more unnecessary effort. An efficient solution was made with finesse and attention to small but important details.
Density could possibly be something that is improvable… if one wanted to put on some fat or lose some muscle mass. Since there are a lot of reasons why they would not want to do that, we look for a solution that lets us play with hydrophysics through careful technique instead.
I’ve written about my approach to solving the physics puzzle for sinkers in these posts, so I won’t go into it here.
Ideally, we are looking to use a low rotation angle on each freestyle stroke. The body would barely rotate into Skate Position on each stroke, with one scapula on Skate side just below the surface and the other scapula just breaking the surface – the torso at about 30 degrees. And the breathing stroke should be identical to the non-breathing strokes. There are many advantages to this low-angle rotation, but one of them is that more surface area of the torso is presented facing downward, which provides more surface area for water pressure to push up against in support. Swimmers who have any concern about staying near the surface should work on keeping a low rotation angle in order to remain more support by water underneath.
But sometimes I have a swimmer come along who seems, at that low rotation angle, to have a hard time turning the neck far enough to air on one particular side. We will run some tests to see if it is something the swimmer can consciously fix with certain focal points, but sometimes it is apparent there is a structural or soft tissue limitation.
I have one particular swimmer who has been wonderfully dedicated to making his left side breathing as smooth as the right, but was having this problem with his left side. He could turn his neck to the right to breathe while keeping the rotation angle under 45 degrees, and Skate Position lined up on the left. But when turning to the left at the same angle there was always a struggle to get some air, and then there was subsequent anxiety building up about turning to that side, which made respiration feel more stressful along the whole length. His neck just didn’t seem to turn as far on that side.
So, our compromise was to allow him to turn the torso a bit farther, to a steeper angle on that side so he could then get the face out of the water for a decent breath. But the consequence was that a steeper torso angle drives the spine deeper, thus pulling the head away from the surface – just what the swimmer doesn’t need. Because of this he could not afford to turn late or linger at breath longer than just for the quickest sip. And that high rotation angle would then require his other Skate side shoulder to stretch to the side in order to keep that lead arm on its wide track, rather than pulling inward toward the center line of the body – another feature he would have to work on and guard against. The higher rotation angle required more travel time and distance so his body would encounter more deceleration on this left-breathing stroke. The compromise helped him breathe on that side, but it came at a tangible cost.
Fortunately, this swimmer has also been going to a therapist and getting some deep tissue work done. The therapist found stiff, sticky, restrained soft tissue on that left side and has been working on it. He has remained quite persistent at developing that left side breathing and gradually found more freedom of movement in his neck and able to lower the torso angle on this breathing side, smoothing things out, reducing the sense of struggle and deceleration previously encountered.
Something I have observed is that some of those folks who have shorter arms (a smaller ratio of arm length to torso length, especially with the upper arm seeming to be shorter) seem to have a harder time reaching a high-elbow entry position. Just about every under-developed swimmer does this, but there seems to be more resistance in folks with these limb proportions – their elbow wants to drop before it gets to the entry position.
Range of motion in the shoulder will improve with the gentle, gradual focal point work we assign on this part of the stroke. For those swimmers I’ve been able to work with over many months, their shoulder mobility has improved and are able to reach a higher elbow position at entry. But still it is not quite like those with longer arms.
The purpose of the high elbow entry is to direct the momentum of the recovery swing down into the water where it can get to work parting a path ahead through water molecules in front of that shoulder. The high elbow position requires the shoulder to extend forward, open up, and internally rotate so that, at the entry moment, the forearm can be aimed straight ahead, in line with their shoulder, angled steeply downward, rather than aiming inward toward the center line of the body at a shallow angle. As seen in this photo below, this low-elbow position leads to a flat-arm entry, aiming inward, with more splash and turbulence and less transfer of momentum into forward motion.
Whether by unimproveable structural limitation or improveable range of motion, it is difficult for some people to get that elbow high enough, to have that shoulder rotated inward far enough to line things up over the shoulder. So, the compromise is to have the swimmer swing his arm wider, allowing a slightly lower-than-ideal elbow, in order to have that forearm aim forward at entry, but do it slightly wider than the shoulder. The fingers still cut that ‘mailslot’ hole through which the rest of the wrist, elbow and shoulder slide through for a nearly splash-less entry motion. It isn’t ideal, but it’s better than smacking downward on the surface with a flat arm and driving the arm inward toward the center line, away from the direction of travel.
As this particular swimmer worked on it over the last year or more, he has acquired a very straight entry path, coming in slightly wider than the shoulder and then lining up right in front of it underwater. Its worked so well – increasing his conserved forward momentum in the swim, speeding up his 1.9km pace – that he has stood on the 70.3 IM podium for his age-group, not once this year, but twice, to qualify for world championships in South Africa and in France.
I could list more scenarios, but I hope these four provide some understanding of why aiming for the ideal is desirable, what the cost associated with a deviation from that ideal may be, and why a compromise might be permitted in certain circumstances.
The ideal provides us with a baseline – the most efficient human swimming vessel we could imagine – and then we do our best within the limitations of this person’s physiology and personal condition to match that ideal. When we make deviations from that ideal, we don’t deny there are costs to it, we instead acknowledge them and take what steps we can to provide solutions that minimize those costs and compensate for them in other ways. I feel it is a more responsible, more intelligent way of approaching the puzzle of honoring both universal human physiology and each human swimmer’s uniqueness.