Slip Or Slide

This post is in response to a question (in the comments section) I just received on my blog post Power From The Core. It’s building upon what was discussed in the previous post, Measuring The Catch. There’s much more on this blog, you can just do a little search for it…

What I am lacking is propulsion, especially on the catch. From your great post, am I right in thinking when in catch I hold it there a split second and swim past it ??? I pull, and don’t catch or hold the water, and this is one of the things that my swim is lacking.

Is it a matter of patience in holding the water ?? Then core to move past ??

Thinking about your post makes 100% sense, but not easy to achieve !!

A great question that reveals the challenge of writing about these things versus showing in the pool! But I will do my best…

The short answer:

Yes, your arm will slip back, and you will feel little propulsion in the drill activity, at first. At slow or nearly static drill positions that catch arm will slip back more easily (for reasons of hydrophysics). But by working under this nearly stationary condition, where the water is less dense under your catch, your brain is challenged to refine that catch to a very high degree and will learn it far more effectively than if you try to do catch exercises at normal swim speed (in the beginning). Even when you might consider yourself to have a really nice catch, there is no doubt doing (nearly) static catch drills will refine it even more.

Now the long answer:

One of the primary mental transformations we want to make is to learn to view freestyle stroke as an action that drives the body forward, rather than pushes water back. This is more accurate description in terms of what is happening in the physics behind the stroke.

So just like when hurling a javeline, throwing a baseball, swinging a tennis racket, you need something to anchor upon on while you rotate the torso to transfer power through from anchor to the helical myofascial system of the torso to shoulder to hand to the projectile. In those activities we anchor a back foot against the ground. In swimming, we anchor a catch arm, and in the case of TI swimmers, we anchor a foot as well in the 2-beat kick.

In swimming the projectile is our whole body, and the cutting edge is the hand of the leading arm and the crown of our head (where the spine would come out of our skull if it were to continue up like a shish-kabob).

As you noted, it is a fact that the catch hand will slip back some just like a kayak paddle will- but we want to minimize that slippage. The goal of the forearm and catch hand is to find and hold a high-resistance ‘ball of water molecules’ (as Coach Terry describes it), then hold it with a steady, firm pressure, but not too much. It is not solid, obviously, but you can train your arm to hold it skillfully. If you push too hard or too abruptly, it will ‘burst’ that ball of dense water and the arm will just slip (or scull, like we erronously used to be taught to do!) back in the water, following the path of least resistance. No! We want the catch arm and the synchronized foot flick (on the same side) to find a surface of high resistance to press on, while the cutting edges of the front parts of the body need to find the path of least resistance.

For anyone who wants to swim with higher tempos, learning to control the rate of the catch to keep a steady pressure instead of a jerky one is paramount. (In the first phase of sprint development) speed up the recovery to make faster tempos, not speed up the catch so that we can utilize as much of that ball as possible.

Another concept about water- as force concentrates (increase in velocity in the case of a swimmer) against water, water resistance increases exponentially back against it. In the drill activity we have the fact that the body is barely moving when we apply the pressure of the catch. The water under our catch is less dense than if we were moving forward steadily and placing more force, more frequently, against it. In the drill it feels like there is virtually nothing to hold onto because in terms of the density of water the water molecules have more time to move out of the catch arm’s way (displacement). This is what makes the drill so incredibly powerful for building our muscle (neuro-motor) control- it is challenging our brain exactly how we want it to. We are forced to be intensely careful in how we form the catch and hold it in slow drill state in order to get enough water to hold onto. Over time with careful repetition to imprint this fine skill deeply this drill will help us develop an amazing catch at normal and high tempos. Fine tuning the catch is nearly a continuous part of my training.

If you are not getting good traction in the catch,

First, look for major ways you are creating excessive drag for yourself with. No point in working against yourself:

  1. A head that is looking even slightly forward.
  2. A spine that is bending or contorting as you rotate. (Swim on a shish-kabob)
  3. Impatient front arm (catching and pulling before the recovery arm has touched the water in front of your head).
  4. A wide scissor kick where legs, knees or feet project past the trailing ‘shadow’ of the body.

Then play with new ways to view what your body is trying to accomplish in that moment of the catch. Visualizing your body in imaginary metaphorical situation is an actual effective technique for retraining the motor unit firing patterns.

  1. Hold the ball of water molecules, press firmly, but don’t burst it.
  2. Hold the piling and corkscrew the body past that point.
  3. Swim through a narrow tube, keeping the kick and the catch compact within that tube.
  4. Hold the water as if you are arm-wrestling with it (keep hand in line with shoulder, elbow up and out and angled at roughly 100 degree, then ‘wrestle’ with core power instead of the shoulder.
  5. Explore ways to make your body line more ‘slippery’ (or in other words, how can you slide forward with less effort?). For this I may even suggest that you step out of ‘serious swimmer’ mode and into ‘child at play’ mode – literally, get in the water and swim around underwater practicing how to slide around like an otter with the least amount of effort.

If you’ve acquired the skill for a 2-beat kick, even if it is a bit rough yet, you will have a serious advantage. It is another piece of the puzzle that allows you to the slide past the catch point with more ease. Dial in the timing of that kick to match the moment you initiate the rotation. And then dialing in the gentle pressure of that kick so that it works for you and not against.  If you don’t have a 2-beat kick, I am afraid to say that very likely your legs are actually working against your ability to slide forward easily… unless you’ve first built a 2-beat and then built a 6-beat integrated on top of it. But that’s another topic.

That’s a lot to think about and there is always a ton more to share. I have to stop somewhere. I am guessing that for those who want this answer, the amount of detail is appreciated.

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