fitness · swimming · training

Thanks, Coach! Thoughts on Drills, Good Form and the Importance of Mixing it Up (Guest Post)

Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.
Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, medium length blond hair, blue eyes, smiling at the poolside, outdoor pool with lines on the bottom, deck with deck chairs, and trees in the background on an overcast day.

I had an epiphany in the pool last week. I finally figured out what was wrong with my kick! And as anyone who has struggled with mastering an athletic or other skill knows, nothing beats the sweet satisfaction that comes when you suddenly get it and never look back.

This underscored for me why regular technique check-ups are an essential part of a good training regimen and highlighted the critical role that coaches can play in that process.

Spring is a time of renewal for me. After the relentless pace of the academic year, I need time to recover, to recharge and then to reflect on the big picture and set goals for the coming year. Part of this process is to take a look at those things that tend to turn over year on year unless we think consciously about them, such as course content, teaching methods, service activities, volunteering, kids’ activities, finances and … fitness and health!

Over the years, I have found the refreshing change of format from indoor to outdoor swimming is a great time to check in with where I am at with my training.

First, in addition to being outside, I also go from swimming at night to swimming at sunrise. There is something about the early light of a summer morning (I swim at 6 am), with its promise of day ahead that fills me with inspiration.

Next, unlike the rest of the year where, aside from open Sunday practices, we swim twice a week at a set time with the same swimmers, we can swim as often as we like in the summer and choose from 15 different practice times. Since lane composition on any given day or time is rarely the same, this adds an element of spontaneity and fun to practice. Training with different swimmers gives us a chance to break out of old patterns and habits (like who leads the lane, who is “best” at this or that stroke etc). I also love being able to reconnect with friends who swim at other times during the year and to meet new people.

Finally, our canny coaches take advantage of the more relaxed summer mood and the different swimmer combinations to mix it up in our workouts too.

The switch in training focus was obvious last week when the theme was “Skills and Drills”. Not everyone was thrilled, however. Many Masters swimmers swim to stay fit and it is natural to focus on speed and endurance. But as we grind through thousands of meters a year, even the best technique degrades. These slippages are subtle but over time they have an effect. For older swimmers particularly, bad habits can increase the risk of injury, but attention to technique is also an important element of performance improvement. Getting faster or stronger is not just about pushing the heart and lungs, it is about moving as efficiently as possible in the water.

Since swimming movements are complex, it is impossible to think of everything at once. Working on technique usually requires breaking a stroke down into its components (kick, pull, catch, breathing, rotation, turns and so on) and focusing on one element at a time, often in a progression of connected steps that are brought together at the end.

For my part, I love doing drills because I always learn (or re-learn) something and I enjoy sensing the subtle variations in movement that typically ensue. Most of the time drills are useful to reign in sloppy form or to undo entrenched habits. But every now and then, a drill brings about a shift that transforms your technique. And that is what happened to me last week as we worked on flutter kick, the weakest component of my freestyle and backstroke.

Though I am very good swimmer, the relative ineffectiveness of my kick has been an endless source of frustration. As a runner, I have a lot of leg muscle and power on the pavement but in the water my torso, shoulders and arms do most of the work. Kick sets are my nightmare – moving my legs faster and harder never seems to make a difference to my speed while exhausting the muscles after a very short time. Given this, I was not relishing last Tuesday’s workout focused on kick and flip turns. My lack of enthusiasm however, was no match for my amazing coach.

Our primary coach this summer is one of the founders of our club who was, until a few years ago, the head coach of our youth competitive teams. This shows in her style of coaching, which is very relaxed and understated. Rather than emphasizing straight up effort (something kids hate, but which many Masters swimmers delight in), she keeps you busy with sets that integrate unusual drills (with names like alligator breath), designed to work on correct form in the water.

Do not get me wrong, many of these drills are in fact very hard work, but not in the usual “grind it out” way that we typically associate with effort. Rather, this kind of focus on form is taxing because isolating weak or difficult parts of the stroke takes us out of our comfort zone and requires concentration, something that is hard to sustain as physical exertion increases.

Great coaches know that to get swimmers to make changes to their strokes, they have to be creative – and sly. Under the guise of working one item, say, kick, they will design a drill that passively works on another skill, like body position in the water. Done well, leaving some of the drill work to occur naturally, without drawing attention to it directly, allows swimmers to approach the drill without preconceived ideas about what should happen. This creates the mental space for them to just experience the water, something that provides invaluable physical feedback on what the body is – or is not – doing.

So what happened last Tuesday? We did a lot of kick, but the focus was on tightening the glutes, not on leg movement. Using the large muscles of the glutes is essential for a strong kick, but it is easier said than done. Part of the problem is getting the amount of muscle engagement right. At first, I tightened the muscles as hard as I could, with little noticeable effect. When I mentioned this to my coach, she said: “Relax. You’re trying too hard. Let up a bit. Experiment with it.” I persevered, but the sweet spot remained elusive.

Then we worked on flip turns and my mind focused on hitting the wall correctly with my toes. What my coach did not mention is that turns help your kick because you must release the glutes to initiate the turn. It provides a break in the muscle effort that also allows for subtle recalibration before reengaging the muscle after the turn. Midway through the set I came off the wall and – bingo! – felt a surge of power as my glutes engaged at the just the right level.

All of a sudden the kicking felt, well, not pleasant, but like it was making a difference, not just to the forward motion of my stroke but also to keeping my body horizontal at the surface of the water. I was astounded at the change – I have been swimming since I was a toddler, and noticeable improvements are pretty rare.

It goes without saying that I will need to continue to focus on my glutes for a while until it becomes an unconscious part of my stroke – practice makes permanent, as they say. I am also curious to see whether the perception of fluidity I have now will translate into faster times.

Even if it does not, however, with each practice my kick feels easier and more natural, which is reward enough.

Thanks, Coach!

Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.

One thought on “Thanks, Coach! Thoughts on Drills, Good Form and the Importance of Mixing it Up (Guest Post)

  1. I guess I’ll be adding flip turns to my drills for fall (I’m doing all my swimming at Meech Lake while the weather is warm). I suffer from a terrible kick too, and so far none of the drills has made a significant improvement. OTOH, my breast stroke is just flying now, thanks to a relatively minor correction in how I use my arms.

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