Watching a nicely shaped boat cut across a smooth body of water is a wonderful thing to watch.
Watching a nicely shaped swimmer cut across a smooth body of water is too!
In moving forward most easily in the water, although power is important, it is not hard to understand that shape is more important than power. The most massive engine won’t help a terribly shaped boat – it will just sink it. This is something an ordinary person can understand intuitively with his mind.
However, when you throw that ordinary human land mammal in the water, regardless of what the mind thinks, the instinct of that body for overcoming sinking or swimming slowly is to apply lots of power with rapidly moving appendages (imagine lots of waves, splashing and noise) thus wrecking any hope of streamline shape while doing it. Being streamlined is a nice idea, but the body is not naturally programmed to move this way in water.
This is one of the primary reasons why, at the start of lessons with a new swimmer or a swimmer in need of overhaul, we put all the emphasis on building a balanced, streamlined body. The land mammal brain needs a bit of reformatting to adopt aquatic instincts. If the swimmer puts in the time and effort to acquire these fundamental skills that reduce drag, then he finds he can propel forward so much more easily, even with just a little fitness on board.
But look again at the photos above. We most readily notice the shape of the vessel and the way it minimally disrupts the water. But for each vessel to move forward like that some power is required. And even with the most consistent, amazing streamline in place, the faster that paddler or swimmer wants to go, the more power he has to apply. There is no getting around the physics of this.
The Mechanics Of Freestyle Power
In the freestyle stroke, we can look at the mechanics this way:
The streamline side of the body receives the flow of force, and transmits it into forward motion. The better the streamline, the more easily that body can slide forward.
The catch/hold side of the body seeks resistance. It presses against that resistance and leverages the body forward past it. The better the catch/hold, the more resistance can be created, the more force there is potentially available for thrust.
The torso rotation transfers the power from the catch/hold side into the streamline side of the body. The better the timing and rate of the rotation, the more that force can be smoothly (effectively) transferred from the collecting side of the body to the transmitting side of the body.
In order to handle a bigger amount of resistance behind the catch and convert that into speed, the swimmer has to have more power – the ability to press against that resistance and move the body past it in more brief amount of time. If streamline is in place, the more power that is available, the faster she can move her body forward past that hand that is holding a point in the water.
When It’s Time To Discuss Power
Streamline + Power = Speed
When people come to us for advanced training – as they did this last week for our long-distance open water swim camp in Kaş, Turkey – some are surprised that I bring up this topic of developing better power, because that is not what has been emphasized (or even mentioned in some cases) in their first level of training, and there can be good reasons for this. But when I see that one or more of these camp swimmers has very nice stroke fundamentals and streamline in place, yet complains of moving so slow – then I have to consider if she has a power problem instead of a streamline one. If the streamlined features of her stroke are looking pretty good, we need to look at the other two parts of the mechanics – the production of power and the transfer of power – to see where her more urgent improvement opportunities may actually be.
When looking at the transfer of power through the rotation of the torso, the most important detail is that the two arms need to be in position to do their respective work right as the torso is ready to rotate to the other side. The upper side arm needs to be poised to enter the water, and receive the wave of force coming from the rotating torso and deliver it into that streamline position.
Meanwhile, just as the torso begins to turn, the lower side arm needs to begin setting the catch, which means it is creating and capturing a zone of pressured water. In other words, that arm is forming its grip on the water by building up resistance against the hand and forearm. The shape of that catch determines how much peak resistance can be created. The rate of building resistance determines a lot about which muscles will engage and when, and it affects the timing and speed of that wave flowing into the torso. The path of the catch (the direction in which the arm presses against the resistance) determines how much of that wave can be transferred into forward motion as opposed to moving the body in some other direction than straight forward.
It’s Not Enough To Be More Powerful
Errors in any part of that catch shape and choreography means less power production or it means wasted power. We could have a swimmer with high power and high waste of power, as likely as we could have a swimmer with low power. We don’t merely want to see a swimmer have more power, she needs to be very careful about how she uses it. Lots of power – lots of waste = slow swimming.
At this camp (as we do in our freestyle technique lesson series), we studied the catch formation and the transfer through the torso rotation. In just a week, it was enough to get various swimmers in touch with how to create more resistance, and how to transfer that force more smoothly into their streamline side. At the end of the week, when all six of our swimmers amazed us by completing the 12 km challenge swim (and did it in 5 hours or less!), they did some of that swim with new powerful stroke features in place.
Yet, there was no doubt their neural and muscular strength was not built up enough in such a short time for that new choreography to hold up for the entire 5 hours, or even most of it. In fact, I recommended that they visit this part of their technique from time to time during the big swim, spending a few minutes of attention on it until the mind wanted to go elsewhere, but not to worry about making it happen all the time. That would still be good neural programming, even in bits and pieces over the hours.
Now, over the next weeks and months ahead, by disciplining themselves to maintain these changes in their power technique, and stress them under longer and faster bouts of training, the neural and muscular strength around those changes will increase so that this greater power will be accessible for more and more of their long distance swims, not just small parts of it.