This is an addendum to the post The Tension Behind Relaxation…
Some Examples Of Tension And Relaxation In Freestyle
There could be hundreds of focal points for building appropriate tension and relaxation throughout the stroke – far too many to discuss in a blog post. But here are some areas in the freestyle stroke you may observe this relationship…
The ‘weightless head’ we work on first and foremost in the freestyle stroke is an obvious point of energy savings. Since the head naturally floats – with a small part of the back of the head above the surface – in perfect position to stay aligned with the spine, the swimmer does not need to use any muscle activation to hold the head up or push it down into position. The pressure of water pushing up does all the work. The swimmer only activates the slightest amount of muscle to keep the head centered in front of the spine, as the tip of the torpedo, driving straight ahead down the lane.
The spine is the axis of the whole freestyle stroke and is holding tension-in-alignment the entire time. “Use the core’ or ‘engage the core’ may be too vague of a command for the spine. Rather, I prefer to use the instruction ‘be long and firm as if standing on your tippy toes’ (or shortened to the focal point ‘Tippy Toes’). The tension in the core of the body that we want comes from the lengthening of the torso, not from contraction. There is nothing rigid to push against externally, so it is a lengthening that happens inside, with the body pushing and pulling against itself (a concept called tensegrity, coined by Buckminster Fuller), to make it longer and thus firmer. The internal stabilizing tissues around the spine and through the pelvis and down into the thighs become long and firm like cables on a suspension bridge, locking the body into that long, firm position. This tension might be perceived at about 20% of maximum and is held continuously the entire time, never turning off the whole time we are stroking.
The under-trained swimmer tends to have rigid, tense appendages and a noodle-like spine that bends in all directions to accommodate those flailing arms and legs. We want to reverse this completely. The spine becomes long, straight, firm, and the appendages learn to be accommodating to the spine, learning to move parallel to it, never pushing or pulling laterally against it.
Streamline With Recovery
The streamline side of the body is long, stretched (not twisted or strained), and firm like a ‘skate blade’ or a ‘cross country ski’ while the recovery side is fluid and relaxed, allowing a frictionless swing of the arm. It is the quality of firmness on the streamline side which permits the fluid swing of the other arm. When the swimmer is not fully extended in streamline position, the rotated torso is less stable, and the recovery swing feels more rushed, more disruptive to balance.
The Arm Stroke Cycle
When examining just one arm moving through the entire stroke cycle, we see muscle ‘pulsing’, where much of the muscle units are relaxed during the recovery swing (especially the forearm and hand and fingers) and then activated as the catch is set and continues during the pull phase, then they turn off again as the forearm reaches the waist. These muscles are turning on-then-off-then-on-then-off, and so on cycle after cycle. This relaxation during part of the stroke cycle reduces the overall average number of muscle units that are cranking out waist products making it easier on the circulatory system to remove them. And it conserves energy, keeping muscles at rest when there is no need for them to be working. The visibly-relaxed wrist, hand and fingers during the recovery swing reveal something about how well the swimmer is pulsing this part of the body.
The Catch And Hold
During the so-called ‘pull phase’ of the underwater stroke, what we prefer to call the Catch and Hold, the arm and shoulder muscles lock the arm into ideal catch shape and then the torso takes most of the load for applying pressure against the the water, to urge the body to slide forward past that point. Instead of softening up the catch arm in a misunderstood application of relaxation, there is appropriately applied tension, where some parts of the arm hold position with just enough muscle tone, while the back and trunk muscles move more powerfully. This more ideal muscle choreography permits a more powerful stroke that lasts longer because the muscles work better in proportion to their size and endurance. This is experienced as a contextual form of relaxation – muscles working hard but harmoniously.
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How relaxed should we be during warming down swim?
There are two different kinds of tension – a kind that is a permanent fixture in support of your stroke, no matter the intensity and mode of swimming, and a kind of tension that is directly related to the intensity of the swimming. The permanent kind is just like the tension you keep constant in your body to maintain posture while standing, walking, running. This essential tension never (or should never) turn off because it holds up the structure. That straight, stretched, firm body line in freestyle is a permanent posture, a permanent tension in the body no matter whether you are swimming in walk-mode (warm down) or run-mode.
An example of the other kind of tension: the tension you feel in the catch arm (from hand to arm to shoulder), and in the side of the torso while holding water, rotating and sliding the body forward is variable, depending on the intensity of the swimming. It can be quite light when in walk-mode, and quite high in fast or sprint-mode.
In summary, the independently moving parts of the body may vary tension during the stroke cycle, and in different modes of swimming. The fixed parts of the body – particularly the head and along the spine line – have a moderate but permanent form of tension. One may find that he loses control over this when swimming lightly because he automatically lets too many things go soft, or he may fatigue too soon in this spine-line tension when swimming intensely, because his neural fitness or his muscular fitness needs development.