Learnings from my Swim Clinic

Sunday concluded my swim stroke clinic with QT2 Systems! I learned so much and I wanted to share some of the things I learned, in hopes that it might help you too.

Let it be known, I am not a swimmer. Well technically, I am since I am a triathlete, but I am not a SWIMMER, i.e. college swimmer. I only started swimming laps in college (little factoid: I was actually on the swim team in high school, but as a springboard diver!). Swimming always intimated me, until I had a college friend show me how to do a swim workout. Before I knew it, I started to love swimming and found it to be a great cross training workout and a way to rehab from running injuries.

Post college, I joined a local Masters Team at my local YMCA. I’m still on that same team 5 years later! Swimming Masters gave me confidence in the water and improved my endurance ten fold. However, five years after joining Masters, I was beginning to notice that my speed was not improving much at all. I was pretty fast and a decent swimmer, but I had plateaued. Fellow swimmers in my lane were getting faster and I was staying the same. It always felt like a struggle to keep up and workouts got frustrating. My swim times at Triathlons were getting a little bit faster, but pretty much staying the same. Here I was putting ALL of these hours into the pool (and 9,000 + yards a week) and I wasn’t seeing any changes with speed. I couldn’t help but think, something must be wrong with my stroke…

As you probably know, swimming involves A LOT of technique. There are so many little things that can make a BIG difference in the water, it’s seriously mind boggling. Since I was never really taught how to swim efficiently and properly, I didn’t really know about these tricks. When I saw an announcement from my QT2 team about a local swim stroke clinic, I couldn’t help but sign up.  Not only could a stroke clinic help with my swimming, but in turn, it would help with my bike and run during a race (since hopefully, I would be swimming better).

In addition to the actual class, I also had a stroke analysis done with a fancy camera. Coach Jesse filmed me as swam 50 yards freestyle and then sent a video analyzing my stroke.  This helped us understand what I needed to work on during the clinic and going forward. The clinic was small, with only 5 other athletes, so I felt I still got a lot of personal attention.

Here were the findings: 

Poor balance. My balance in the water is way off. In my case, my balance issue has to do with head position, which is way up, instead of down.  When you have your head too high when swimming, it can throw your balance off in the water. See comment below about moving through water like a banana:)

Swimming with the head tilted forward is probably the most common technique problem in swimming, and it complicates every other aspect of the freestyle stroke:

  • Breathing – you need to lift your head too high (which will sink your back end), or lower your head first and then roll your face to the air (which takes too long)
  • Posture – it breaks the connection between your head and chest (your head becomes the loose cannon on deck) – and it arches your back (so you move through the water like a banana instead of like a torpedo)
  • Rotation – with an arched back, rotation of your core is slower and more restricted
  • Arm stroke – because the shoulder girdle tilts forward, it is more difficult to get your arms out of the water, which creates a host of problems: it is more stressful on your shoulders, you will recover your hands closer to the surface (a problem in open water); you will tend to drive your hands across your head on entry (rather than straight ahead, in the direction of travel), and you will be more likely to pull under your body and cross your centerline during the pull (which is like putting your paddle under your kayak – you can get some power that way, but then you have the problem of how to get it out)
  • Kicking – it puts downward pressure on your hips, forcing you to kick harder to keep your hips afloat
  • source 

Head position problems. I rotate my head too much when I breathe, sometimes with both goggles out of the water.  You should only have one goggle out at at time. This leads to increased drag and throws my body mechanics off.

example of too much head rotation:

Think neck tall, chin back. This flattens your upper spine and keeps your head firmly connected to your core. Except when breathing, keep your head facing straight down at the bottom. To breathe, continue to drive your head forward and rotate just your face to the air. (source)

‘Stop sign’ entry. My arm enters the water TOO high, i.e. my hand does a ‘stop sign’ when entering the water, palm up, instead of palm down.

This photo shows exactly what I’m doing wrong (see his hand turning up?) This provides a TON of resistance to the water i.e. putting on the breaks!

dropped wrist

Crossover. Boy, do I have an issue with Crossover. During the pull phase of the stroke, my hand tends to cross the center line under my body. Not good!

an example of mid stroke crossover

pull crossover

I am crossing over with my arms, across my body, instead of keeping my arms close to my body and aligned with my armpit. Everything should always be aligned with the armpit/shoulder!

This is what it should look like:

When your hand enters the water at the beginning of each stroke, you must ensure it doesn’t cross your body’s imaginary midline running from head to toe. Crossing over puts a tremendous amount of strain on the shoulder joint and makes your body fishtail or swing from side to side, increasing drag. (source)

Given the findings above, I was given the task of balance drills!  Specifically, the Total Immersion balance drills. Unfortunately, I can’t post videos here since they are copyrighted, but you can check out their website here. It’s really hard to describe the drills without you seeing them in person… I recommend going to a coach or the Total Immersion website (or class) if you want to learn!

The Total Immersion drills I’m working on are below… one drill progresses into the other.

Sweet spot Kicking on my back VERY RELAXED, leaning to one side with one shoulder partially out of the water, kicking, with my head wayyy back, arms by my side

Long Vessel Sweet Spot doing the above, but with one arm extended

Zipper skate  Doing the above, but bringing one hand up like a zipper towards my chin and then back down by my side

Zipper Single Switch Progression from zipper skate, after the zipper, doing a single free style stroke, focusing on hand dipping low into the water ‘steep and deep’ with the arm and elbow!

At first I didn’t understand how floating on my back would help my swimming, but then Coach Jesse explained it to me. You start basic on your back, working on balance and once you excel at this, you can flip over and incorporate into your freestyle swimming. At first it seemed so silly, the whole floating on my back thing, but it works!  It was very frustrating in the beginning because I had this fear of leaning my head way back, but then I got over it. I had to learn how to relax, and once I did, it stuck. In the three weeks working on these drills, I have already noticed a huge difference.

My advice to you is, think of a FEW things to work on with your swim stroke, not a lot of things… otherwise you will get confused!  For example, when I swim at practice, focus is on head position being DOWN and my hands/arms entering down steep and deep into the water (i.e. no stop sign).  When I’m not at practice, I’m focusing on my drills.

This morning I realized that these things are really working. I was in the front of the pack in my lane, instead of the back.  I was actually leading sets of 200’s and that seriously never happens. All of a sudden, it felt ‘easy.’ At first I was annoyed with practice feeling easy, but then I reazlied, it wasn’t the workout… it was ME. I was getting better at swimming and FASTER! Success!  Yay to making progress!

If you are interested in improving on your swimming… I also love this website: Swim Smooth. Tons of good tips and tricks.

p.s. Swimming a lot leads to toned arms… Bonus!

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  • Reply Kristen @ Glitter and Dust December 3, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    This information was very useful for me. First off, I really need to attend a swim stroke clinic and have one of these fancy stroke analyses done. I know for sure that I crossover and have poor balance. I feel like my upper body tries to stay afloat while my legs anchor me down. Great tips and links here, Kristin! I am saving this one. P.S. Those arms look good!!

    • Reply Kristin December 4, 2014 at 1:56 am

      Awesome, so glad I could give you some good tips! Definitely worth checking out a local swim clinic or at least getting a video analysis. It’s fascinating what you can learn about your swim stroke. It turns out I had a lot going wrong, ha! I know what you mean about the legs being an anchor… but what I learned is, this can be fixed with proper head position:) Thank you, you are so sweet!

  • Reply Courtney@The TriGirl Chronicles December 3, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    So much awesome advice! I will say, as soon as I learned to put my face all the way down, my swimming improved beyond all that I could have ever imagined. My swim coach will yell at you until you’re deaf if he sees any forehead out of the water. It such an easy fix that fixes everything!

    • Reply Kristin December 4, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks Courtney!! Putting your face down is HUGE! I never would have thought… no wonder my neck was always hurting me, ha!

  • Reply Kecia December 4, 2014 at 1:38 am

    AWESOME post!! One thing I learned when rotating the head is think of trying to keep a grapefruit under your chin….even when you turn to breathe, you don’t want to let the grapefruit fall, so you can’t twist your head so far that both eyes are out of the water. I really like drills as they definitely help perfect form 😉

    • Reply Kristin December 4, 2014 at 2:33 pm

      Thanks Kecia! Love the grapefruit idea… that’s really good to visualize. I’m seriously going to think of that from now on:) Thanks for the tip!

      • Reply Kecia December 23, 2014 at 2:26 am

        Glad I could help 😉

  • Reply Abby December 4, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Love the arms- I think girl’s toned arms are so beautiful 🙂
    It sounds like the stroke clinic was super beneficial.
    I remember teaching swimming and kids HATING the zipper drills, but they really do help! (with that being said, I am not a swimmer and don’t really enjoy it either…other than playing in the ocean 🙂 )

  • Reply Megan @ Meg Go Run December 6, 2014 at 12:03 am

    That’s not tone, that’s straight up MUSCLE girl! I was on the swim team as a child but I am NOT a “swimmer”. Whenever I swim, I just do what feels good- not paying attention to technique or anything of the sort. It is so fascinating, I feel like swimming, more so than biking and running hinges so much on technique! I enjoyed reading your little tips, even though I don’t swim often.

  • Reply Leslie @ Triathlete Treats December 8, 2014 at 4:43 am

    Great tips! Technique is so huge in swimming! That is so exciting that you are already able to incorporate what you have learned! I wish I had “learned” how to swim a long time ago! I feel like it would be way easier!! 🙂

  • Reply Kelsey @ Happy Triathlete December 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    These are awesome tips and so common for most swimmers. It’s great that you’ve already started to notice a difference! It can be amazing what tiny tweaks can do for overall efficiency in the water. Excited to hear how things progress as we get closer to tri season 🙂

  • Reply erin December 17, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    These tips are excellent… thank you! I read them when you first published this post and since then have been practicing breathing and my balance… it’s helping a ton! Also, army envy 🙂

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