Friday, September 07, 2007

videos: swimming technique (part 1)

swimming always seems to pose the biggest issue with many newbies. i know it did for me. and i see it every year when our school team (USC Triathlon...holla!) takes in a new crop of members.

a lot of the anxiety, i think, can be attributed to a number of factors:
  • swimming, particularly competitive swimming, isn't something most people do as ordinary daily activity. when most people think of exercise or fitness, the first things that come to mind are usually running, basketball, football, etc. (basically, activities on dry ground). even for those who spend time in the water, many don't do much more than splash around in a backyard pool, a community park, or a local diving hole. as a result, the idea of swimming continuously any more than 400 meters is a completely alien concept.
  • water is an alien environment. it may be refreshing, it may be invigorating, it may be a shock to the system, but it is not natural host environment for the human body. we breathe air, not water. we stand on earth, not water. we sit on the ground not water. we live our lives on the surface, not water. which means that for most of us, our minds and our perspectives revolve around life on land. this makes the thought of sustained immersion in water an disquieting, sometimes intensely uncomfortable thought.
  • swimming, much more so than cycling or running, is technique-intensive. because water is a denser medium than air, it poses greater resistance and is much less forgiving to obstructions relative to air. this means that factors which would be minor drag sources in cycling or running become major drag sources in swimming--enough so that even seemingly minutes changes can make a significant difference in performance. as a result, for those learning the 3 sports within triathlon, swimming demands a much greater demand on attention and time for improvement.
the net effect of these factors is that newbies invariably find themselves struggling the most with swimming.

it doesn't help that swimming is rife with arcane terms and concepts like quadrants, rotation, catch, recovery, extension, sculling, centerline, hydrodynamic stability, form drag, bernoulli's principle, hypoxic breathing, sighting, drilling, drafting, surging, and chasing. add to this the onslaught of open water, pollution, waves, sharks, surfers, boaters, anglers, other swimmers, poor weather, deep deep penetrating cold, and incredibly revealing clothing that just pretty much reveals every weakness and flaw in your body to the ogling enjoyment of the greater public. given this menagerie of elements, it's no wonder that swimming is seen as a massive enormity of fear-invoking mystery to many newbies.

the kicker, though, is that learning to swim (at least, competitively) can be an incredibly frustrating experience. because it is so heavily technique-dependent, it requires refinement of swimming technique. but for newbies who aren't familiar with swimming, it is difficult to refine the technique when 1) you're just trying to learn how to move, 2) your attention is focused on just trying to keep from drowning, and 3) you are in an environment where you can't even see what you are doing.

coaches will tell you what you are doing wrong. other swimmers will offer you advice. you make a conscious effort to do what they are telling you. but invariably, it seems you. just. can't. do. it. at least not right. at least not the way people want you to.

and there is sooooooooo much stuff to keep track of:
  • finger positioning (close together, but not clenched; loose, but not too all the time)
  • hand positioning (11 and 1 o'clock on entry, but following S-curves down the side, and slapping the hip flexors on exit)
  • elbow positioning (elbows high above the water, elbows bent under the water, but straight in front and back along the water)
  • arm positioning (reaching waaaaaaaay forward, then bending over a barrel, then extending waaaaaaaaay back, then bending elbows high, and starting all over again)
  • body positioning (rolling along the centerline with each stroke, turning at the waist and hips, aligned parallel to the surface of the water)
  • leg positioning (following the torso, kicks tight and along the surface).
it's just a lot to deal with for someone just starting out.

and when you try to watch what other people are doing, you suddenly discover that there's this issue of the most crucial part of the stroke (i.e., the part under the water) being hidden (because it's under the water) in a way you can't easily see (since it's under the water) without looking like a pervert or voyeur (by looking at people while being under the water).

which is why i thought it helpful to compile a series of swim videos on YouTube dealing with swimming technique relevant to triathlon (namely, proper form for freestyle). these videos, if nothing else, should help provide a visual reference to show people what your coach and other swimmers are telling you, with a breakdown of all the things to keep track of for proper technique and showing all the elements of form that occur under the water (i.e., the important part).

i found 2 coach-oriented videos:
i also found videos that follow the freestyle technique for several world-class swimmers (if you don't know these names, you will):
in addition, i found an excellent series of videos by Halo Swimming, featuring their star athlete (and world-class triathlete) Sheila Taormina:
i should note the last set of videos from Halo are clearly promotional videos (presumably marketing tools for the company), and so you'll get a sense of the sales pitch from the videos. despite this, they are still insightful and offer a lot of material for people looking to better understand freestyle form.

obviously, your swim technique isn't going to become world-recording-breaking overnight. like i said, swimming is very technique-intensive, and people who haven't grown up with competitive swimming will not have had the technique ingrained into their muscle memory, meaning it just won't be second nature. for the uninitiated, it's going to take time to learn the technique to the extent necessary to swim without conscious focus.

of course, having the aid of coaches, fellow swimmers, and YouTube videos will help--but make no mistake: they won't replace hours and hours (days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months, years and years) of constant practice and repetition. that's where the personality of the athlete comes in, and that's something nobody can help you with...that's where it's all on you.


Evan said...

You might also check out this website where they 3-d modeled high-caliber swimmers.

Its a google translation of a japanese website but I found the models very interesting... and hypnotizing.

Anonymous said... could be quite interesting for you...

jonathan starlight said...

awesome! thanks guys, i'll add it to the next post.