Saturday, 13 October 2012

Long Distance Freestyle Technique

I am not a qualified swimming coach and am not necessarily the world's authority on front crawl but I've swum ca. 22 miles & almost 15 hours in cold Scottish water,  I have completed the 24 mile 2Swim4Life, swum the 21 mile 2-way Windermere, swum the English Channel TWICE and was the 1st Brit to swim 70km Lake Geneva in 33 hours wearing only a pair of trunks which is more than any qualified swim coach that I've ever met..... The swimming bit was reasonably was the dealing with the cold that was the harder more character-building bit!! There are therefore some observations I feel like sharing regarding what I've leant on my long distance swimming journey so far...

I hope you find this blog insightful as I try to delve into a bit more detail on what I consider to be an effortless technique used in long distance front crawl.....

When I uncovered this lark of long distance swimming in 2009/2010 (after countless knee surgeries and realising I couldn't run anymore), I naively thought that after 2 lessons in an endless pool learning a bit more about Total Immersion and the like, I thought I had learnt everything there was to know about this front crawl malarky...... I convinced myself I could therefore contemplate taking on 10.5mile Windermere in 2011. No guts, no wasn't pretty, but it happened.....

Is there a long distance swimming technique? Is there some kind of secret here? Well, yes I think there is and I want to help others try and avoid the mistakes, pitfalls & some of the pain I encountered as at times I felt utterly helpless as my new-found sport was going to be pointless if it was going to cause pain.

In 2011, whilst training to swim Windermere, I trained in Dover Harbour under the stewardship of Freda Streeter with the Channel Swimmers every Saturday. This comprised of being 'told' how many hours was going to be expected of YOU (everyone was different). Of course, after an initial 40 mins one Saturday in early June, I went back and got 2 hours the next Saturday but didn't struggle to complete the task UNTIL on the third Saturday when 5 hours was being demanded of me!!! Oh boy. What a ramp up and having never swum more than 2 hours straight in my life !! Agony....After 3hrs 15 mins, my shoulders had frozen stiff and I walked out of the water and up the steep beach to my bag. I was ready to walk away from the sport in a right huff (I'm glad I didn't). Little did I know that this is NOT the 'done thing' and was much to the disgust of Freda & co. I felt half-way like a failure as others (much slighter than my 17 stone) seemed jovial after 5, 6 or even 7 hours......!

To cut a long story short, I kind of ambled on and 'dealt' with the pain in my shoulders my own way and instead of going to see a proper coach, I just read what I could in my long distance swimming book for assistance (Penny Lee Dean's Open Water Swimming). I didn't give up and kept going down to Dover on Saturdays - just cuffed it and extended up to 7 hours with the wonderful assistance of the great Sue Murray who waited patiently for me & helped me through some dark moments....She, with her much slighter figure, made me realise that I COULD swim through the cold for 5 hours+ if I just swum hour to hour (and feed to feed). However, my bad stroke was still causing the shoulder pain (directly in the front of my left shoulder), or 'rotator pain' and it was, of course, getting worse (due to spending longer in the water) and lasting for days. In the end I kinda got through Windermere my own way really not knowing what I was doing stroke-wise - hence finishing a good 3 hours after the winner. I felt slightly clueless but had bags of desire.

Therefore, after I had set myself a goal to swim Loch Lomond (in the summer 2012), it was during the January and February of 2012 that I realised I had much to learn from uncle Ray Gibbs at Swim Canarywharf.

THERE IS A LONG DISTANCE SWIMMING STROKE that does NOT result in shoulder discomfort, leaves you feeling 'in control', not fighting the water, not constantly trying to keep yourself from sinking and being able to leave the water reasonably refreshed & not demoralised. I am living proof. I finished Loch Lomond with NO shoulder pain WHATSOEVER.

What I want to do is in the following break down what I have learnt as the most salient points that beginners to long distance swimming can take on board and learn for themselves if they care to.  This is not the magic pill or cure-all for everyone. Like a golfer, you cannot learn this sport from the comfort of your armchair reading a book but I hope I can convey some aspects that you can work on and take onboard.  I suppose we have to remember that front crawl is an art form that perhaps we never really perfect BUT I really think that there's some significant learnings from my experiences that I want to pass on....(Some of below assumes some basic knowledge of front crawl)

A few areas that has made a difference to my comfort in the murky world of long distance swimming:

1. The Bent Arm Catch (a. Propulsion and b. Streamlining)
2. Breathing
3. Kick
4. Hands
5. Rotation

1. The Bent Arm catch

a. Propulsion
In my experience, most pool swimmers try and blast up and down the pool cracking on with their 20 to 30 lengths complete with a straight arm leading their very carefully crafted S-shape
test-book style straight-arm catch (when I read Penny Lee Dean's Open Water Swimming Book - that's all that was offered up as advice). That might be fine for the sprinters amongst us  but for the long distance swimmer, can this can be the origin of something causing rotator pain?
I've spent more hours than I would care to admit to to studying the strokes of the greatest male and female swimmers of their generation - Sun Yang and Becky Addlington. Look at the front of their stroke - they BOTH DO NOT USE A STRAIGHT ARM!

Sun Yang:
Rebecca Addlington:

When I encountered rotator pain in 2011 after many hours in Dover Harbour I hunted around to find answers and really genuinely couldn't find many. I surprised myself in coming back from that kind of pain to swim pain free. Indeed, when I completed the 24 mile  2swim4life the swimming was the easy bit - I finished with no shoulder pain at all and went swimming the next day. I suppose the reason behind this blog is that I just find it terribly sad when I hear people retiring from the sport in their 20s due to injury - what a shame. I wish more of that retirement (and surgery) were avoidable through coaching technique.

Why do swimmers not automatically swim with a bent arm catch? Well, we aren't taught front crawl that way from nippers and, more importantly, it requires more 'buy in' from the swimmer as it results in a temporary loss of speed as we have to develop new muscle memory. Persevere!! There are many drills that will suit here (but will be subject of another blog).

b. Streamlining
This is super interesting. If fast swimming were merely about propulsion drive then the greatest weight lifters would presumably be champions of the fastest times.....BUT the reality is something different. There are some really informative clips suggesting that terrific front cawl is actually MORE ABOUT MINIMISING DRAG and the bent arm catch really helps to this end. If only some of the swimmers down the public baths at Sevenoaks this morning knew this rather than continuing to thrash around.

There's a whole load of stuff on youtube out there that I've found and especialy from The Race Club who go into quite some detail into reducing your frontal drag. It's fascinating stuff and really thought provoking (there are 4 parts and an introduction).....

2. Breathing - Do not Underestimate - *MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF FREESTYLE*!!

One of my favourite front crawl technique companion books that I go back to time and time again is Paul Newsome and Adam Young's 'Swimsmooth - The Complete Coaching System for Swimmers and Triathletes'. It is really interesting to note that breathing is the first section that addresses the dynamics of the front crawl stroke and the authors note:

'....It would not be an overstatement to say that breathing technique is the singlemost important aspect of freestyle swimming......'

Did you read that sentence? Are you sure? Is it worth reading again? I can't recall seeing many average swimmers working that hard on their breathing down the pool....

Look at the great Sun Yang clip again. Look how he breathes.... There is a reason why the greatest swimmers take what seem to be the most shallowest of breaths. They breathe into the 'well' created by their head. There's no real head out of the water - barely one goggle out of the water. If you want to swim in a much more effortless manner, it's worth working on this....your head is a heavy unit that can really through the whole balance off, contort the spine, spoil inertia  - if you get this right it can really make a serious difference... Takes time and tenacity but stick with it - elite swimmers take on water at times!!

After working hard all winter on this aspect, I am now breathing bilaterally effortlessly which is improving my stroke cadence - something that I've struggled with in the past. If you are serious about swimming the channel, for example, you want to get this right you will need to be able to adapt to which side your pilot is on. If you are only a left-side breather and the boat is on your right then it might well be a show-stopper! That's one hell of a way to waste £2500.....Good breathing technique will only help in getting most of everything else right.....

3. Kick
Let's face it, this is the bit that we are all a bit lazy at? I am the King of the ultra-lazy leg kick with a mega-dodgy left knee and no use of my left quad. I swam Loch Lomond with a (very vague) 2-beat leg kick and that worked just fine. I am a believer in using the kick as you swim and move in rhythm with the movement of the body (from the hip!) - the 2-beat leg kick works . Some keener individuals seem to go 'hell-for-leather' with the legs BUT even the greatest coaches reckon that 85% of front crawl is arms so perhaps we don't need to get too hung up with the leg propulsion AND if you kick like mad you will get knackered very fast and might mean you have to get out early! I have observed many swimmers kicking like mad only to get completely wiped out and not complete swims due to cramp - I was at that stage in the middle of Windermere in 2011 and it is not nice.
I think swimmers should spend their training time working harder on stroke timing, rotation, breathing (not to mention the catch).... Look at Sun Yang again - he kicks WAY less than everyone else in the race and only really kicks in the last 4 lengths where the outboard rocks into action! If a 2-beat leg-kick can work for the best in the world why not for mere mortals?

4. Hands
This is interesting as apparently a small change in the gap between your fingers can have a marked change in your shoulder pain. If you pull your fingers tight together like a clamp or a vice and use a straight arm catch then you can perhaps feel the immense tension directly? There is a school of thought out there that if you open up your fingers ever so slightly the water cannot escape through the gaps and you can still execute a masterful stroke without the resultant tension being created by being more tense than a string on a guitar. This can result in greater stroke rate and less grief....This was what I was doing in my first season and caused me untold grief!
The other important aspect to work on with the hands is where to point your fingers at the front of the stroke - look at the great long distance freestylers such as Hackett and you will observe that the fingers point down slightly at the front of the stroke. This certainly helps with engagement of the catch and improving cadence. Work on this and see if this helps?

5. Rotation
Basics...... Is it worth reminding ourselves the power of swimming on our sides versus square to the water? Perhaps not....but if you've never done it, put on some flippers and swim a length with your arms by your sides rotating from one side to the other. Note how each time you swim with shoulders 'square-on' to the water, it's like putting the brakes on big time..... Keeping to the sides creates quite a level of propulsion. Oh, if only many pool swimmers at my local baths knew this!

I really would urge you to reserve one pool session per week for drills to work on these aspects of your swimming. Perhaps there's a reason why the greatest long distance Olympians of our time have succeeded.... They have spend loads of time slowing down their particular stroke to create the best 'bang-for-their-buck'. Is it ridiculous to look what Matt Biondi did?  Count how many strokes per length Sun Yang takes versus his competition.....

I suppose the ultimate piece of advice is perhaps consider seeing a decent coach (with access to undewater cameras) reasonably regularly - we really just are not aware of the bad habits that we have created for ourselves at times! Golfers that get better at their game have constant update with the slow-motion film - swimming is arguably no different....

My typical 1 hour pool drill/speed session in local 25m pool
If I am on my own and head to the local 25 metre pool for an hour this is the session I have developed that works both technique, form and pace. I really love it! You have to focus on this session hard to get the most out of it to improve. I am living proof that it works as I have PB'd all year in 2018.

Warm up Part 1: 400m/16 lengths easy alternating between swimming with hands and fists. (Breathe every 3 strokes and swim with fists clenched for those 3 strokes then normal freestyle for 3 stokes alternating). Focus on head position, breathing with 1 goggle in the water and trying to put chin to chest. The idea of the clenched fist is to work on the early vertical forearm and creating that early pivot that holds water sending it back from you rather than down. Make sure you tumble turn after each length - this gets the core engaged.
Warm up Part 2: 200m or 8 lengths with pull buoy working on skulling for front end of stroke for 1 length and then working on glide and finish of stroke with return length. When doing this try to think hard about finishing each stroke towards the knees. This is where some of the real propulsion in front crawl is achieved. I rarely see anyone working on the finish but it is so important for picking up the pace and feeling comfortable in the water! Tumble turn after each length.
Warm up Part 3: 200m or 8 lengths doing breaststroke with your hands but kicking hard front crawl with legs. Try and keep butt cheeks firmly together and kick with the hips.
Main set: 15x100m off 1'55 mins: After doing the warm-ups above, you now have the main set. I try and complete each 100m under 1minute 30 seconds which leaves me 25 seconds to compose myself for the next 100m meters. I try and do the first 2 lengths of each breathing 3 strokes and then step it up for the last 2 lengths breathing every 2 strokes. Make sure you tumble turn, think about streamlining and making your rotations on each stroke snappy. Focus on clenching butt to make the most of what your legs are giving you. If you take longer than 1'30 that is fine just pick a time including rest that works for you and then over time try and bring it down. You might feel comfortable starting at 2'15 or longer - it doesn't matter but we all have to start somewhere!
Warm down: 400m backstroke mixed up with old English. Relax and stretch out hamstrings etc properly at the end.

If I go to a 50m pool then I tend to do 50, 60 or sometimes 80 x100 meters off 1'55 mins including rest. Thump out 1 after the other and try and hang on! Great for stamina and maintaining pace. Good to take the feed in this training session that you would use on a longer swim. Try and do with no breakfast to provoke the body!

(Also wanted to point out that I have written a sister-blog to this about the mental side of long distance front crawl: Long Distance Front Crawl - The Mental Side)