In traditional swimming lingo the underwater part of the freestyle stroke is called the pull, as in pulling back on the water, as in pulling the body forward, and this is regarded as the most important part of the whole stroke.
In Total Immersion we call this the catch-and-hold, because we understand the main purpose of this part of the stroke is to get a grip on the water at a certain point, hold that point, transfer that resistant force to the other side of the body and slide forward in streamline Skate Position.
In the traditional style stroke, the swimmer is urged to fling the arm forward in the recovery, splash a flat arm down into the water and immediately start pulling back. This usually results in the swimmer not reaching as far in front of the body as he might be able to. Because the pull, and especially the last half of the pull is believed to be the most valuable part – after all, one can feel the arm and shoulder muscles working hard to make that final push, with the hand traveling down the thigh.
In contrast, in the Total Immersion view, the entry and extension is the most important part of the whole stroke, where the body is channeling all the gathered force into that streamlined body and most easily sliding forward. Then the swimmer reaches and gets a grip on the water as far in front of the body as he comfortably can. The first half of the stroke is viewed as the most important part, starting as far in front as possible. The swimmer is urged to shape the forearm at the set of the catch in such a way to get that grip on the water as smoothly, as quickly as possible far in front, then hold that grip as the body rotates forward, around that grip point.
In the traditional style stroke, since the swimmer wants to push back as far as possible, he must pause his elbow at his waist while the forearm-hand continue to push back (using the tricep muscle), pivoting on that elbow. By pausing the elbow (not allowing it to exit and begin the recovery) the hand can keep pushing and feel resistance of the water. Observers can often see a big splash or ‘rooster tail’ of water shooting out behind the swimmer as his hand flings that final bit of water behind.
In the Total Immersion style stroke, the elbow never pauses, as it gets to its farthest point, but immediately ‘boomerangs’ out of the water and forward on an elliptical path. The hand continues to drift back behind the elbow, like a tail whipping behind. The elbow moving forward while the hand moving backward neutralizes the water pressure against the hand. The grip on the water fades away as the hand reaches the waist. There is not final push of the forearm and hand. Instead, as the elbow swings forward and the hand extends behind to its farthest point, the elbow pulls the hand forward, slipping it out of the water without splash or sound, like slipping an arm out of the sleeve of a jacket.
Can you see the difference?
In traditional swimming, the front end is not important, the back end is. So one must pause the elbow in order to keep pushing water past the waist and down the leg. The overlap of the arms before switch, the patient full extension into Skate, the reach to start the catch farther in front – these are less valuable and therefore quickly sacrificed in the eagerness to get back to the pull and push at the end.
In Total Immersion, the front end is most important. No pause at the back is allowed because the arm is eager to get back in front, to get back into streamline, to get to the next gripping point farther in front of the body. The absence of the elbow pause means the hand has nothing to lever against at the very end of the stroke and so pressure dissolves from the waist line back.
Especially in a fast tempo stroke, every swimmer has to cut down travel distance and time somewhere – there are options on where to cut the stroke down, and those options are not equal.
The default human solution is to sacrifice the front and keep the back end, because this is easiest on the muscles to do, especially when they are getting fatigued, but less effective for actually maintaining forward momentum. This results in a shorter and shorter stroke, with an increasing tempo as fatigue sets in.
But the superior solution, the one that does not come easy, but when trained is more effective and maintaining forward momentum, is to sacrifice the back end and keep priority on the front end. This results in a stroke that resists shortening at fatigue sets in, allowing the swimmer to protect pace better.
By the end of a series of live lessons in Level 1 I hope to have a chance to introduce you to the synchronization of the propulsive pieces of your stroke. Up to that point you have worked on shaping the individual sections of body position and movement patterns, and this is where you connect a few of them together to feel their combined effect. It is usually a surprising and thrilling experience because you can feel how force flows through your body more smoothly and with much better effect on how fast and far you travel on each stroke.
Here are the four main points of the body we look at for synchronization:
A is at that moment right when the finger tips pierce the water to begin the entry.
B is at that moment that your hand and forearm curve to ‘touch the ball’, and set the catch, just before you actually start to put pressure on the catch.
C is at that moment the torso starts to turn.
D is at that moment the upper (Skate side) foot begins to press down.
Synchronization practice involves a combination of any two of these points, to examine how they work together and then to fine tune their synchronized timing. You can work at combining AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, and CD.
All four points are doing something at about the same moment, but it is nearly impossible to concentrate on all four of them at once. So it is better to work on just two of them at a time, and circulate through the combinations.
AB is usually the first combination I teach you because these two are what you’ve already been focused upon in the lesson series.
Combining C with A or B is the next step because you’ve been working on hip rotation the whole time without necessarily focusing upon it in terms of propulsion – yet that rotating torso is what will make your swimming feel the most effortless – it is the key to everything! Thinking about the hip is the same thing as thinking about the torso – the hips and shoulders should be one solid torso unit, but it is easier to think of one specific point on the torso when examining the connection to the arms or legs, so we just use the hip as that point.
Using D will not really make sense until you have had some instruction on how to form a 2 Beat Kick. And trying to time the press of your foot does not work until you have first have the timing of AB worked out. So until you’ve got the timing of the arm-switch worked out and you’ve had some instruction on 2BK don’t worry about D.
Synchronization is what makes the ‘magic’ happen – the torso rotation produces the best force, and your appendages need to work in careful timing with that rotation in order to tap into and enhance that force.
Tempo Affects Fine Timing
There is not one precise timing that works best at all tempos. At different tempos, there will be slightly different timing between each part. In one tempo range two of these points might create the best effect when they happen simultaneously, while in a different tempo range one should happen a micro-second before the other in order to get the best effect.
For example, let’s look at AB.
When moving at slow and moderate tempos the fingers and wrist of your entry arm (A) may pierce the water before you set the catch (B). B happens just a micro-second after A. When moving at fast and sprint tempos, the fingertips of your entry arm may just cut into the surface as you set the catch. A and B will feel like they happen simultaneously.
Why did I put ‘slow’ in quotes? Because you currently have a range of comfortable tempo and what feels slow and fast to you may not be the same for someone else. If you have been using a Tempo Trainer and have some idea where your current comfortable range is, you may look at this scale to get an idea where your tempo range fits within the way tempo is used by a consensus of swimmers.
You Should Experiment
I could give you some idea of what the fine timing should be between two points at various tempos, but I would need to ask a dozen questions to get the context of your stroke. You will do well to experiment and discover for yourself what timing works better.
Using the AB combination, start with exaggerated mis-timing on a series of 2x 25. For the first 2x 25 have A clearly happen before B. Then on the next 2x 25 reverse that, have B clearly happen before A. Then do 2x 25 where you try to make A and B happen at the exact same moment – right between those two extremes you just experienced.
Take measurements inside and outside your body to evaluate the effect of each timing arrangement. Ask yourself:
- How did it feel? Did I feel like force was stronger? Smoother?
- What did it produce? Did it make my stroke count go up or down or no change? Did it push me to use a faster tempo or slower tempo, or no change?
From your current comfortable tempo range you may pick three tempos – one on the fast end of comfortable, one on the slow end, and one right in the middle. And run this experiment at each of those tempos, in order to see how you might fine tune the timing of those two points differently at different tempos.
Swim 3 Rounds of:
- 2x 25 with A before B
- 2x 25 with B before A
- 2x 25 with AB at same moment
For each round:
- Round #1: Slow Tempo
- Round #2: Comfortable (center) Tempo
- Round #3: Fast Tempo
Run this experiment with different combinations:
Want More Practice?
I like to train for part of the year on each extreme – a few months working on 100y sprint distance and the other months on longer distance 5km+. These two extremes involve the use of a totally different range of tempos: 0.75 to 0.85 for sprints and 0.90 to 1.00 for distance. And I modify the tempo range a bit more if the water will be cooler or warmer. Each tempo range requires me to calibrate the synchronization of the stroke to what feels the best and produces the best results. Probably 90% of more of my training involves synchronization focal points, and I find it to be the most thrilling because better synchronization produces better ‘magic’.
If you would like more practice at this you may check out this practice in the library for some ideas.
I should address this concern I have heard from several lately when working on breathing skills…
You start investing your practice time on breathing skills and you notice other skills (like kick, recovery, and catch) that still require your focus seem to degrade. You know you can’t focus on everything at once, but it is frustrating to watch those other things fall apart while you turn your attention this way. So how do you work on breathing but not lose ground in those other areas?
First, fixing breathing is priority because poor breathing causes so many problems with energy waste, stress, and takes up mental/emotional space. If you have problematic breathing, it is lowering your ability to work on any other area. Get this breathing puzzle solved (or at least greatly improved) and you free up so many more resources to use when you go back to work on the other skills.
Second, easier breathing is totally dependent on your most fundamental freestyle skills – you must pay attention and work on the most important features of your body position and movement patterns in order to make breathing better – all those fundamental skills we work on in Superman, Skate and Recovery drills. So, the most essential pieces of your body control are going to be protected and improved when you do thorough work on breathing.
This then puts those ‘other’ skills that you are worried about into a different category – other skills like kick, recovery, and catch are advanced skills that are also dependent on that same foundation. You may not be able to focus on the kick or the catch while working on breathing, and you may feel that those suffer because of it. But you are keeping the foundation for everything tuned, and likely any improvements on the foundation which benefit breathing will also directly benefit the other advanced skills as well. It’s a win-win.
Bottom line – you’ve felt motivated to work on breathing right now by some high price you’ve paid for having inferior breathing. There is a good reason you are focusing on this right now and not something else. You’ve just got to focus on this at this moment and set aside concern for any other advanced skills – you can work on those next, once you acquire improvement in this breathing section first. And that work on other advanced skills will be easier because you can breathe easier.
First things first.
One thing at a time, in sequence of priority.
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