Here is an essay my wife, Gail, elected to write for this blog. She is a licensed occupational therapist (OT) who has helped me develop an appreciation for the therapeutic advantages of TI (therapeutic as in both ‘rehabilitation’ and in ‘performance enhancement’) and helped me improve my coaching eye. [What is an OT? In my own words, a therapist who trains or retrains a (often neurologically injured or disabled) person to be able to perform physical daily life activities. ]
Here is Gail’s experience in learning how to use the core and abdominal muscles in the TI freestyle drills and her perspective on their importance in swimming well (along with a few clarifying notes I added)…
Abs— How critical for our swimming are they, really??
As a middle-aged mom of two teenage girls and two boys under 7, my TI stroke development has been slow and tedious between raising children. Regular, focused practice is the key to developing motor memory. However, attaining that kind of practice has been near to impossible for me. Slow and determined, when I do have opportunity I press on to attain a more pleasing swimming experience.
However, at home I regularly practice yoga. After two c-sections and subsequent years of sporadic exercise, I realized that my core needed a tune-up. What I was shocked to realize is that my core didn’t just need a tune-up, it needed an overhaul. This overhaul continues.
During a recent practice and video session at one of our swim camps (an advantage of being married to the head coach), I recognized and was disappointed that my abdominal muscles (abs) were not adequately supporting my stroke. Of course, there is more to core than abs—we also have muscles supporting and stabilizing our pelvis, spine and shoulder girdle. Importantly, there is a balance we need to achieve between each of these areas, to get them to work together. When we fail to achieve this harmony and balance, we find ourselves accessing compensatory techniques (which can lead to injury) to accomplish the task at hand.
Coordination, balance, and timing of the core muscles is critical in TI stroke development. In fact, the precise use of the core is what sets TI apart from other stroke development programs. And this is also what I love about TI. By breaking our stroke down into component parts, we can discover the root weak spots.
One of my weak spots is my abs. Although I have been developing my core through yoga, I still find myself compensating for weaker abs by using my pelvic and back muscles. What are the signs or compensatory patterns of weak abs during our swimming stroke? For me, I notice that I am still struggling with dynamic balance (holding lateral balance while swinging the recovery arm forward) which directly relates to challenges in my breath cycle. By watching my own underwater video I noticed that my lumbar spine (lower back) was slightly arched. This in turn caused my hips to sink slightly below my torso. Naturally, any compensatory pattern at the level of balance directly affects other areas of my stroke.
When problems are noted in any area of the stroke, it is key to find out what foundational or supporting skills are lacking. Why was I struggling with the breathing drills? I worked on the timing of my breaths but even then it realized it wasn’t just a problem in the timing of my breaths but in the core muscle not properly supporting my body during the breath cycle. I could practice timing all I wanted, but it would not improve so much until I addressed the core muscles.
I have seen other swimmers whose legs seem to slowly sink after a few strokes. This as well is a problem with the core musculature, (not merely with having dense legs). The core muscles most likely are weak and out of balance and/or the swimmer has poor awareness of their core and how to control it. They may be so used to swimming using their extremities (arms and legs churning) to power them along that they don’t know how to rely on their core.
How in the world does a one get their core musculature to kick in? Core and/or ab strengthening begins with internal awareness of those muscles. I favor core-focused exercise routines because they awaken you to the presence of your core musculature and their function and then teach you to control and strengthen them. Yoga and Pilates, I believe, are both excellent for developing your core/abs strength and skill. Yoga is additionally helpful for relaxation and flexibility training.
For your convenience here is the abdominal workout I do in addition to my regular yoga routine. I have this whole DVD at home, but this section on Youtube is particular applicable to our swimming needs.
And this link shows a series of Pilates ball exercise for the core.
One wonderful TI Coach (Georgie Thomas from South Africa) suggested that I focus more on downhill swimming. This is where I gently press the upper chest and head my body down slightly, over the pivot point of my buoyant lungs, which lifts the hips and creates a sensation of swimming ‘downhill’. This caused my abs to kick in and my lower back to flatten considerably (in order to transfer the load forward).
It wasn’t long before I found myself going back to the very first balance drill—Superman, where I could more carefully tune in to these specific muscles and learn to control them better. In Superman I find that I prefer to close my eyes to “feel” the position of my pelvis.
Through these TI freestyle drills I can correct the compensation pattern for periods of time. However, I realize that my abs could use more focused strengthening. So, ‘Yoga Abs’ workout, here I come!