Every endurance sport has its specific “dilemma” – or challenge – to solve if you want to maximize your efficiency. And in each sport that dilemma involves your relationship with gravity. In this discussion, I will address the specific gravitational challenge of swimming.
To preface this discussion, I begin with a brief overall review of efficiency in endurance sports. This review is almost identical – verbatim – to the review I included in “The Cyclist's Dilemma”.
Efficiency is the “Holy Grail” in every endurance sport: The quest is to use less energy to go faster and farther with less injury and faster recovery. At the heart of athletic efficiency in every sport is the athlete’s alliance with gravity – the ability to use body weight to move forward.
Consider this: 90% of your brain’s neural activity is committed to maintaining your balance. You have no control to divert that mental energy to anything else. (Not even texting and driving!) And yet, you probably are not thinking about your gravitational relationship with Earth – that is, your balance – at all in your daily activities. Even when you swim/bike/run – earnestly striving to go faster and farther – your alliance with gravity doesn’t engage 90% of your conscious awareness.
Ignore it or Honor it?
You can choose the popular “mind over matter” approach to athletic performance: Grit your teeth, tense every muscle in your face into your fiercest grimace. Use sheer mental will, and desire for gold to “force” your body to higher levels of exertion. Ignore all the feedback from your body. At best, you have only 10% of the brain’s neural energy to work with in this mode of “mind over matter”, as you desperately coax your body: “Go harder!”
However, if you choose the “mind in matter” approach, you can tap into that other 90% of your brain’s neural activity - skillfully channeling and directing your body’s intelligence: the proprioceptive, visual and vestibular systems that govern your alliance with gravity. Since you are already “hardwired” to maintain your balance, why ignore it or fight it? Why not develop this foundation of “kinetic” intelligence?
Your alliance with gravity takes precedence in every moment of your embodied life. And, if you are an avid endurance athlete, you strive to develop the most efficient movement patterns for your body. Each of our bodies is unique: in size, weight, flexibility, proportion, and every physical factor that affects our alliance with gravity.
(My unique challenge? Working with these Euro size 50 feet!!)
That uniqueness extends to how our individual bodies and minds are wired together. We all use some combination of the three “balance systems” – proprioceptive, visual and vestibular – but the “mix” is unique to each of us.
Given our unique individual nature, the pursuit of “effortless power” for each of us is a personal one. There is no absolute “one-size-fits-all” technique in any sport that will work for every body.
And it is Collective
However, the universal laws of physics apply to every one of us in our personal alliance with gravity. The pursuit is personal, but the challenge is collective. When we can identify and define the specific universal laws at play in that collective challenge that is unique to a specific sport, we have a compass to guide our individual pursuit. And this brings us to...
The Swimmer’s Dilemma
Our goal is to move “forward” – that is, horizontal to Earth’s surface (be it land or water) – and to do this sustainably. To do this, we must transform the vertical pull of gravity into horizontal motion.
This transformation – known as “precession” in physics – is an amazing process when we really pause to contemplate it: Orbiting is a form of precession. In every instance – whether it is the moon orbiting Earth, or a runner leaning forward to run – precession requires dynamic balance.
In swimming the dilemma can be summed up with this question: “How can I lay face-down in the water and use my body’s weight to move forward?” Laying face down in the water is not something most of us do as frequently as, say, standing on dry land. So let’s begin by looking at that simple land-based activity: running.
To run efficiently, you transform the vertical pull of gravity into forward movement by leaning forward at your ankles. As you begin to fall forward, you simply move one foot forward and then the other – to avoid falling on your face. When I use this illustration in Total Immersion Swim Workshops, I often joke: “Want to run a marathon? It’s simple! Just keep falling forward for 42 kilometers, without tipping over!”
Obviously, there is far more to running than just falling forward. The biomechanics of specific muscle engagement (emphasizing the use of the pelvic core), the precise placement of each foot, and minimizing vertical amplitude as you run are just three of the many aspects of efficient running.
But it’s not hard to get a feel for running like this: Simply stand erect and lean forward far enough... You will move one of your feet forward to prevent a “face-plant” on the pavement. It’s a natural instinct.
Back to Swimming
So, is it really possible to “fall” forward while laying face-down in the water? And if so, how do you initiate that fall?
Some experts advise you to “press the buoy” – to press your head and chest down into the water to feel as if you are “swimming down hill”. However, this is not efficient. It requires that you constantly engage muscles in your neck and upper torso. If you do this vigilantly for, say, 3.8 kilometers, you may end up with sore, stiff muscles.
And, the muscles that you are constantly engaging in your thoracic to swim down that imaginary hill are the same muscles necessary for respiration. If you commit them to pressing the Almighty Buoy, you compromise your respiration. There’s gotta be a better way!
A Little Physics Lesson
When you swim, you swim in water. That’s obvious, but... you also swim in air! Your ability to lay face-down in the water and effectively translate the pull of gravity into forward movement is contingent on your ability to swim simultaneously in both of these mediums.
Specifically, you are striving to orchestrate the difference in density between water and air and how that affects your dynamic balance. Water is far denser than air. As swimmers, we are quite familiar with the challenge of trying to move through that dense medium. (Have you ever tried to run in water? The best you can do is a slow-motion slog.)
And then there is air. You do swim through the air as well: Every time you advance your recovery arm and prepare to extend it back into the water, you are swimming in air. This recovery phase is a very powerful component of your swim technique. It is the secret to solving the Swimmer’s Dilemma.
You float in the water, yes? And more so in salt water than fresh water, because salt water is denser. (Notice that I said you float in the water, not on the water. If you want to float on the surface, try swimming in honey. Good luck!) You can float because your body is less dense than the water. However, you don’t float in the air because your body is more dense than the air.
Your body is less dense than water, but more dense than air. So, when you swim, there is a significant density differential between your body in the water and your recovering arm in the air: Given the density differential, you must imagine that your recovering arm is the weight of both of your legs!
The Secret is in Your Recovery
Now, I can’t say for sure that your airborne arm is exactly the weight of both submerged legs, but there is a significant difference in density. That recovery arm is heavy compared to the rest of your body. Consequently, the movement and positioning of your recovering arm is a key element to solving the dilemma - your ability to lay face down in the water and translate the pull of gravity into forward motion.
Recovery Arm Mechanics
Let’s look first at the recovery movement: When you lead with your elbow during the recovery phase of your stroke, you are advancing that heavy arm forward of your lungs quickly. Keep in mind that your air-filled lungs are your balance fulcrum: Front quadrant swimming keeps more of your weight in front of that balance fulcrum – optimizing fore-aft balance. And it takes a lot less effort than swimming down that imaginary hill.
When your recovery is relaxed, your forearm is almost hanging from your elbow. (In TI, we call this the “marionette arm”.) Lead with your elbow, as well as your shoulder (by releasing the muscles under your scapula). Now you are moving this densest part of your body with minimal energy – and minimal disturbance to your body’s balance.
At the moment of re-entry into the water, your elbow is even with – or even slightly forward of – your ear. This is only possible if you keep your elbow in front of your scapular plane as you swing it forward. You must avoid pulling your elbow behind your torso during every phase of the recovery.
This forward position of the elbow at the moment of re-entry poises a significant amount of weight forward and above the body to optimize weight shift and extension as the primary means of propulsion. It also allows for a clean entry into the water so that only the tips of the fingers create turbulence on entry and extension. (In TI, this clean entry and extension – using the fingertips to “separate water molecules” – are components of active streamlining.)
An effective way to fine-tune the recovery arm “poise of entry” is to practice Pause Drill: This is whole stroke swimming with a pause just before you shift your weight through the “flick kick”, torso rotation and arm extension.
Some tips for Pause Drill:
- Use a very distinct pause
- Allow your entire body to be still – including your legs
- Feel your balance in the stillness of your pause
- Your submerged/extended lead arm must remain in place
- Focus on the “poise position” of your recovering arm at that moment
- Feel the weight of that arm “cantilevered” out past your lungs and shoulder
- Elbow of recovering arm is flexed at 90° to 110° at the pause moment
- Fingertips of the recovery arm are just above the water surface
- Visualize the exact path and “target” for your fingertips
- Initiate the core rotation and weight shift with a “flick kick”
- Use that rotation to “spear your target”
- As you spear, tone the muscles of your forearm, wrist and hand, instead of tensing them
In my experience as an endurance athlete, swimming is the only sport that will allow me to pause at the moment before weight shift. (If you try that in running, you will end up on your face.) Pause Drill allows your neural system to refine that moment of poise.
The effectiveness of propulsion in freestyle swimming is not determined by the strength of your pull, kick, or hip-driven spear. It is in the synchronicity of these elements with your lateral (rotational) weight shift. Pause Drill enables you to perfect that synchronicity.
This is Only a Drill
Just one caveat: Remember that this is only a drill. Whole stroke swimming does not include a pause. Keep a clear distinction between drilling and swimming!