Understanding Relaxation In Context

Often, I hear a swimmer describe how eager they are to find that wonderful relaxation in the stroke that Coach Terry described. For some, adding more relaxation will bring a great breakthrough. However, for others, it could be a mistake, depending upon their interpretation. 

The instruction to ‘Relax!’ has a context. Taken in context it will make swimming feel and flow better. Taken out of context and the swimmer will be left wondering why their body isn’t going forward very well.  

PS – For some of you this article may seem familiar. It was first published on the Total Immersion blog in April 2018, but was removed upon my departure from the organization in September 2019. No worries. I repost it here for your benefit.

There are three main ways a swimmer may have inappropriate muscle activation and need to apply more relaxation: 

  1. There might be excessive tension – where there are more muscle units being activated than are necessary to get the work done.
  2. There might be misplaced tension –  where muscle units are being activated in the wrong spot.
  3. There might be mistimed tension –  where the muscles are being activated at the wrong moment.

Any and all of these add up to a body with excessive and antagonistic tension, a body that is working against itself, which is exhausting. 

But what is also implied here is that a certain arrangement of beneficial tension is also necessary for swimming to feel and flow well. To experience the kind of smooth, beautiful and powerful swimming that you aspire to, you need to apply both relaxation and tension, in the right places, at the right time, and in the right amount. 

Depending on what part of the body is being worked on, you might actually need to increase tension, rather than reduce it. It’s about arrangement. You are ultimately aiming for a swimming action that is smooth, apparently relaxed, yet amazingly powerful. Appropriate tension combined with appropriate relaxation allows greater power to flow, more safely and more enjoyably through the body.


Relaxed… Compared To What? 

When working toward the ideal arrangement of tension and relaxation your application of each depends on whether you have too much or too little. If you have misunderstood the relationship and arrangement of tension and relaxation then your swimming will not flow like you hope it will. 

In my experience, maybe more than half the swimmers that show up for coaching attention for the first time have too much movement and too much muscle activation going on. So the general benefit of the first lessons are to help them strip away the excess movements, the excess tension, the excess exertion and bring it down to only what is absolutely necessary for moving forward. But certain tension is still required. 

Then there are swimmers that show up too relaxed, too gentle in their touch, and too ‘noodle-like’ in their spine. They do not have enough muscle activation going on. The first lessons also point out how the body needs to be shaped and then held in place by appropriate tension, so that other fluid, relaxed movements can be anchored to that firm tensile frame. 

The command to relax has a specific context. It is not a blind, absolute command for the whole body. It applies to those parts of the body that have inappropriate tension. It does not apply in the same way to those parts that are too loose, too soft, too noodle-like already.  

All instructions and corrections have a particular context. They are meant to take some specific part of the body or movement pattern and move it closer to the ideal from the direction of a particular kind of error, like moving from the side towards the center of a bulls eye. But a misunderstood instruction, or an instruction applied to the wrong context can overshoot the bulls eye to create an error on the opposite extreme. So it is important to understand the specific context of the command, such as “Relax!”.  


Relaxation Is A Result Of Refinement

The better the arrangement of tension in the body – the right place, at the right time, in the right amount – the more relaxation you can experience. Appropriate tension in one part of the body permits relaxation in another. There is a relationship, a dynamic balance between them. You need one to have the other, and as the stroke moves through the cycle, their arrangement changes accordingly. 

There is a general process we follow to create a smooth, powerful stroke, which is summarized in an old martial arts mantra: slow is smooth, smooth is fast. 

In your initial lessons to learn or to correct movement patterns, you slow down, not in order to relax, but in order to etch a more precise movement pattern. As you carefully repeat this precise movement in a variety of drills and modes, it gets integrated more deeply into the neuromuscular system. The more integrated it becomes the more smoothly, the more powerfully your brain can execute that movement, with less effort. Through attentive practice, the brain figures out how to set tension in the right place, at the right time, in just the right amount. As this process unfolds, you experience more relaxation, without necessarily focusing upon it directly. Your sense of ease increases, which means your body is adapting to the work, refining, becoming more efficient at executing the movement. Then you are ready to turn up the intensity – with higher standard of precision, with more tempo, with more power, or with longer duration – and work through the process of refinement further, and so on. In this way you tap into relaxation at higher levels of performance. 

Likewise, using focal points, you more easily learn to send precise signals to parts of the body by working on small pieces of the stroke choreography at a time. You train one part to hold essential tone, while you train another part to stay relaxed in relationship to it. Initially, it is challenging to do both at the same time. The signals to tense or relax need to be sent to the right parts. The signals need to be sent at the right moment – there is a timing for when to turn on or to turn off certain muscles. These signals need to be sent with proper intensity – there is an amount of muscle tone that is just right, not too much and not too little. This arrangement is sensed and controlled entirely through your nervous system (spread throughout the whole body, not just in the brain). Improving your awareness and interpretation of the signals from your own nervous system is absolutely critical to improving this arrangement.  

Note: I have some examples to share from the freestyle stroke of this relationship between tension and relaxation but to save space in this post, you may view the addendum in the following post on this blog.


Power Plus Relaxation Is Wonderful

Relaxed swimming is not necessarily slow swimming, though slowing down, at first, may be what you need to do to tap into relaxation. Relaxation is actually a quality that will be attached to any speed, any intensity you may want to swim, when properly combined with tension. The faster you want to swim, the more critical appropriate relaxation is in order to remove the internal hindrances to speed. But do not mistake relaxation for lack-of-effort. If you turn off the wrong part, turn off at the wrong moment, or turn off too much, then you have relaxation which takes away from your progress rather than enhances it. 

Appropriate placement, timing and amount of muscle tension creates a body that moves smoothly, without internal conflict. Movements can be powerful but they are smooth and thereby it feels good even to swim at high power, high exertion. Your skill for relaxation is genuinely tested when you turn up the power. 

What we ultimately want is a properly toned body and movement pattern – with certain parts being activated with tension at the right moment, in the right amount, while other parts are yielding and moving smoothly, without internal resistance. This artful arrangement of tension and non-tension is the overall ‘relaxation’ we are aiming for, with adjustments in that arrangement at all different levels of speed and intensity. This kind of relaxation feels wonderful and it looks wonderful! 


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