been receiving many requests to e-mail them. To save everyone trouble, I'm
reposting the last 4 installments as a group (originally posted
Installments 5 thru 8 in a series of "***-coaching" articles by
Terry Laughlin, director of Total Immersion *** Swim Camps,
columnist for Inside Triathlon and Fitness Editor for SWIM
magazine. Terry is also the technique coach for United States
Swimming's Olympic Development Camps. We welcome your questions or
comments on-line at
stroke tips and/or information on Total Immersion swim camps.HEAD:
HEADS UP! THE ULTIMATE RECOVERY WORKOUT
The backstroke's power works on more than swimmers.
An obvious question that never seems to get asked: If hard-training
athletes are forever being urged to use swimming as a recovery
workout, what do hard-training swimmers use? Auburn University head
swim coach Dave Marsh knows. And if his simple answer pinpoints one
of the best recovery workouts you can do in the pool, perhaps it
pinpoints one of the best recovery workouts for anyone.
Marsh tells his top freestylers to turn over on their backs,
following a hard training set in their main stroke. His reason
sounds simple enough. "Swimming backstroke gives them a chance to
work the kinks out of their tired freestyle muscles with some
active rest swimming." But there are several big ideas embedded in
that little prescription, all of which can work just as well for
cross-trainers who want a quicker recovery from land-based workouts
as they do for people who spend almost all their athletic time in
the water anyway.
Understandable that Marsh has given the subject some thought.
Auburn's swimmers, currently ranked second in the NCAA, cover six
to ten miles a day in training--a healthy load even for a runner,
never mind the swimmer, whose body interprets it as the equivalent
of a marathon or more six days a week. Add two to three weekly
sessions in the weight room for good measure and it's obvious the
team's recovery training had better be good. That's what the
backstroke is, and not just for swimmers.
The reason is that while freestyle and backstroke are both
"long axis" strokes, meaning they share the same pattern of body
rotation--and use many of the same muscles, they use them in
slightly different ways. In both you lie prone in the water and
rotate the hips around the spinal or long axis while stroking with
an alternating arm pattern.
And though you swim backstroke with many of the same muscles
as freestyle, the movement is reversed, so easy backstroke swimming
can "massage" tired freestyle muscles. The ones that were
contracting are now lengthening and vice versa. Besides, in
freestyle, the simple act of breathing correctly is a technique and
many people tense up if they don't have it just right. Backstroke
is more relaxing for them because they can breathe any time they
want. On top of that, you get to loosen up and take the session
with something less than deadly seriousness. A slightly sloppy
stroke technique can be harmlessly brushed off a lot more easily
than it could in what most triathletes, swimmers and cross-trainers
consider their primary stroke. The idea is to use "non-prime"
strokes for warming and loosening, as in a recovery workout, and
save your prime stroke for fast swimming with good form.
And even if swimming is just a sport for your "off" days, you
can get a lot out of facing the ceiling instead of the pool bottom.
If you're swimming to recover, you should know that backstroke,
thanks to its natural loosening properties, may work even better as
a general recovery stroke than freestyle. And if you're into more
serious water work, say training for a triathlon, open water or
Masters swimming event, you undoubtedly swim mostly freestyle and
can use backstroke as a restorative just as Marsh's troops do.
So why don't more people swim inverted if it's so great? 1.
the disconcerting sense of being upside-down and going backwards,
and, 2. difficulty in staying afloat.
Both are easy to fix.
1. Get your bearings. Use a line of tiles or lights or other
markings on the ceiling to help you set a straight course. Failing
that, just hug the lane line. Most pools have a set of colorful
pennants*** across the pool near each end wall. Swimmers call
them "backstroke flags" because they warn you that the wall is 5
yards (three to four strokes) away.
2. Balance your body on your back. On your back, you keep your ***
from sinking by leaning on your shoulder blades and the back of
your head. (This is "T-pressing" inverted.) Don't put your head
back; keep your chin slightly tucked, as if you were holding a golf
ball between your chin and throat. That will keep your hips near
the surface and you'll ride the waves like a pro, relaxing as you
go. Happy laps!
It's a sure-fire applause winner in every *** swim camp I hold.
We're talking about training aids--fins, paddles, buoys and the
like--and I've just declared that most people would be better off
if they never picked up a kickboard. Next thing I know, I'm looking
into the kind of happy faces that must have greeted the Allies at
Dunkirk. The liberation of the weak kickers, many of them
triathletes and fitness swimmers.
Kickboards, those tombstone-shaped foam slabs, are a common
torture device self-inflicted by people willing to endure kicking
laps like medicine in the mistaken belief that it will help them
swim better. Their poor kick is holding them back, they reason, and
they suppose that they need to strengthen their legs with those
mind-numbing laps on the board. No matter that when they grip the
board and churn away they go nowhere--except for a few who travel
backwards. They keep plugging grimly along, clinging to the hope
that clinging to the board will eventually do them some good.
It probably won't, for two reasons. First, whether you swim every
day or just when the weather's too lousy for running or cycling,
chances are your kick isn't what's holding you back. Your hips and
legs are dragging, and that's no good, but it's not your kick
that's letting them sag. That's from poor balance, probably the
most common and most easily corrected stroke error of them all.
Instead of hours on the board, it's effectively fixed by
redistributing your weight, making the front end of the body
"heavier" by leaning on your chest ("pressing the T") while
swimming. Like a seesaw, your rear end will ride up where it
belongs. Even a weak kick, my students are delighted to discover,
can't hold back a balanced body.
Where a stronger kick does come in handy is in gaining speed
after you've improved your balance. This means not just muscle
strength, but flexibility, something we all can use, whatever our
sport. Many elite swimmers can sit on the deck, legs out in front
and knees straight, and touch their toes to the floor in front of
them. Most novice swimmers are lucky if they go half that far.
Hyper-mobility (unusual ranges of flexibility) in any joint comes
at the cost of diminished joint stability, and a highly flexible
ankle on a runner is a sprain waiting to happen. So even though
step one to kicking better is ankle stretching, don't overdo it if
you run or play squash or tennis or basketball.
But what if you're concerned with leg strength in or out of
the pool? That's step two, but again kick sets gripping the board
aren't the answer even if swimming is your prime sport. For one
thing, they throw your balance off. How can you lean on your chest
and kick correctly while your arms are propped up on a board?
Second, gripping the board freezes your hips. You can't rotate them
and rhythmic hip and trunk rotation integrated with your arm stroke
are where the power comes from in each stroke cycle. The kick is an
integral part of that rolling action since it both provides the
external torque for hip roll and acts to counter-balance trunk
rotation. Kick on a board with hips locked in place and you lose
the whole dynamic. The interaction of hip and leg muscles is
changed enough that whatever leg strength you do gain is different
from that which helps you swim faster.
The best way to put muscle in a weak kick? Fins, for two
reasons. First, ankle flexibility. The extra pressure created by
the blade as you kick down on each beat stretches the foot more
than a "***" kick. Second, improved leg strength. Again the blade
gets the credit. The increased surface area of the blade puts a
greater load on your leg muscles like a wet weight workout.
Drilling with fins can work even better, since ddrills force you to
use your legs than you do when swimming. They'll not only get
stronger but it will be strength you can use when swimming because
the drill closely mimics the way the body moves in swimming. And
you'll kill two birds with one stone because you'll be improving
your stroke efficiency while strengthening your legs.
Try kicking on your side with one arm extended out front. Roll
and change arms several times each length. When kicking on your
side, neither fin blade will break the surface, giving your legs a
higher quality workout. You can get a similar effect by kicking
underwater. The increased water pressure adds load to your leg
Finally, wear fins on some of your swimming sets. Most of us
don't kick very much when we swim, and the farther we swim the less
we kick. But when you wear fins, your kick improves enough to make
kicking worth the effort and you end up using use your legs more.
Naturally this gives the highest transfer of strength because
you're strengthening your legs exactly as you use them.
And what kind of fins should you use? Many new swimmers and cross-
trainers have been attracted to the new cut-off, so called "speed"
fins or Zoomers. This fin works best for those who already have
good ankle flexibility and a strong kick. Less skilled and less
experienced swimmers and those who need to develop ankle
flexibility and a stronger kick will do so much faster using a
bladed fin. The extra surface area of a full blade is valuable. Of
the bladed fins, my favorite is the Slim Fin. It gives your legs
more of a boost, while reducing leg fatigue. They're hard to find,
but if you want info on them, e-mail me your postal address and
I'll send mail order info.
So, if all you want for your time today is a good leg workout,
you'd be better off on an exercise bike. But if you're looking for
strength that could help move you down the lane smoothly, where do
kickboards fit in? In the pile on the deck.
DISREGARD THE FOLLOWING...
Swimming is simple--swimming advice gets complicated. Here's how to
ignore the right stuff.
Of course you're not happy with your swimming. You didn't know that
"The most effective applications of propulsive force occur when the
insweep and upsweep are made on a diagonal of 50 to 70
degrees...the patterns range in depth from 61 to 74 cm and in
length from 29 to 45 cm." Well there you are. Now go try it.
That's a quote from a discussion of the freestyle armstroke
which plunges on that way for 18 (yes!) pages. It's in a volume
entitled, with inadvertent humor, Swimming Even Faster by Ernie
Maglischo, considered the premier sourcebook on technique. Some of
you have probably even tried to read it. The volume is loaded with,
among other things, minutely detailed descriptions covering every
angle, degree and inch of movement as the hand travels through
water. Then Maglischo continues over the next 30 pages to discuss
kicking, timing of arms to legs, breathing and 20 different
possible stroke faults, before dispensing with body position--much
simpler to teach and with far more improvement potential--in a
cursory paragraph or two.
No wonder so many *** athletes are put off at the thought of
regular swim workouts. The advice they get makes efficient swimming
sound like rocket science. Swim coaches for ***s are in short
supply, leaving many would-be swimmers struggling to extract their
technique tips from books like this. But even athletes with coaches
can be swamped. As one complained recently to me, "I've been told
a thousand different things about how to improve my stroke. How can
you ever hope to do them all well?"
You can't of course, unless you do some weeding. Most books
and articles, treat swimming as simply a matter of getting in
shape, telling you how to swim laps rather than how to swim them
better. Even Masters coaches are known more for giving workouts
than for instruction. But when they finally do turn to technique,
wow! An admittedly demanding motor skill becomes a complex sounding
as nuclear physics. You can see the athletes' minds working. "If
it's technique I need to get better, not lots of laps, and if
technique is that, well, technical, I'm outta here."
Wait! Come back. I teach technique to hundreds of ***s each
year, and I usually have just Saturday and Sunday to get them
swimming smoothly and ready to coach themselves. We have time for
what really matters, nothing else. And each year I've been
coaching, a funny thing has happened: I've I taught less than I did
the year before, and my hundreds of newly hatched swimmers have
improved more after the streamlining. Here's some common stroke
trivia you're better off without:
Is your arm is at a 30 degree angle as it enters the water? How do
you pitch your hand as you make the catch? How high is your elbow
as you begin your outsweep? Are you making a good sculling motion
on the insweep? Do you have the coveted "S-stroke" yet? If so, does
your pull cross the body's centerline? Is your hand at least 61 but
no more than 74 cm deep as you pull, using your triceps to extend
all the way with your hand to finish the stroke? Are you
accelerating your hand through the stroke? Where is your palm
facing as you take your hand from the water? Where is your elbow
relative to your hand as you recover? Where should you look while
breathing? Are you kicking with a 2- or 4- or 6-beat kick and how
is the timing of your arms to your legs? Hey, where are you going;
we're not finished yet!
Come back and try this. Focus on the simpler and far more
critical job of adjusting your body position to minimize drag. In
the scheme of speed things, it's at least twice as important as how
your hand pulls you through the water.
If you get your body balanced (see my earlier posting on
"pressing the T"), then rotate your trunk and hips as you stroke,
you'll move through the water pretty well, flawed stroke or no.
Students at my camps have improved their speed and efficiency as
much as 30% in two days, making scarcely any changes in their arm
Here's the stroke-made-simple lesson: Slice your hand in as
soon as it passes your shoulder, extend it to the front as far as
you can, take your time about beginning your pull, and pull
straight back under your body, neither too deep nor too close to
your trunk. Then take your hand out of the water and do it again.
You're swimming fine. Put away your metric tape measure.
Are there useful refinements beyond those mentioned? Of
course. But they pay off far more if you're eyeing a berth on the
Olympic team. Consider this: the typical novice is maybe 10 to 20
percent as efficient as a world-class swimmer, but can close most
of the gap--to maybe a 20% spread--by simply improving body
position, rotation and alignment. Working on just that can easily
deliver a year's worth of progress. Then you can begin to think
about your hand pitch and path, which may grudgingly yield another
5 or 10 percent gain after just as much work.
Basic, sound swimming comes down to this: Lean into the water
with your upper trunk (to balance) so your suit is just breaking
the surface; rotate your hips around your spinal axis (to propel),
getting them completely out of the way as each hand passes through;
and think of your arms more as extenders for increasing the length
of your body line--which automatically makes you faster--than as
pulling tools. Any questions, e-mail me.
NOBODY'S ***IS BUOYANT
But getting the lead out is as simple as "pressing the T."
If your hips are just along for the ride, it's hard to enjoy a pool
workout. And they probably are. But even experienced swimmers,
never mind triathletes, don't know what to blame for that
exhausting suspicion that the torso is working overtime just to
keep the rest of the body from heading straight to the bottom.
Take two triathletes who both felt like sending up an SOS from the
middle of the lake during a recent triathlon. Regular training with
a Masters swim team or no, the pair still felt as if they were
swimming in mud. Soon after the race, they asked me to help with
As they swam a few lengths I saw all the telltale signs:
churning up a useless froth with their legs, wiggling as they
stroked, the big kick burning lots of energy but producing no
propulsion, the wiggle adding drag. Another case of lead hips.
Fixing their strokes would have been like removing an appendix to
cure a gall bladder infection.
They needed instead to "press the T." The easiest way to swim
faster, especially in the beginning, is by improving your body
position. And nothing else you can do in the pool will make as much
of a difference as this drill.
It's a way of overcoming a physical fact of life: The human
body is adapted for balance on land--most of our length and mass
below the waist, mostly volume above it (the lungs, after all, are
air pumps). So in the water, we're pretty buoyant between the
armpits, rock-like below the waist. Naturally everyone's longer,
heavier end wants to fall, not just yours.
Most novices, and even some experienced swimmers try to
compensate by kicking harder. Wasteful. But what if you could
lengthen and add weight to the front end and automatically lift the
back end? That's "Pressing the T." Follow instructions and your
***will soon be gliding along the surface, not dragging you down.
1. Use your head. Connecting your head to your spine and hips adds
about 12 inches and 14-16 lbs. to your front end. So first, imagine
that a straight iron bar joins the top of your skull, spine, and
hips. Lift your head even a little bit off that line (often happens
as you breathe), and your hips will sink. Don't do it.
2. Press the T. If you draw a vertical line from your chin to your
sternum and a horizontal line from one shoulder to the other, they
intersect at your "T." Add valuable weight to your front end while
swimming by leaning on it (like someone's pressing on your shoulder
blades as you swim). Keep the T-pressure steady even as you roll
That's usually all it takes to get the body in balance, using
no extra energy and eliminating annoying lead-butt. Use the
following partner drills for learning how to press the T before
getting into the water.
Stand facing each other on deck, arms at your sides, your
partner's inside wrist against your chin and the inside of your
partner's elbow against your sternum. Lean forward trying to
distribute pressure equally between chin and sternum, your partner
telling you how well you're doing. Keep straightening up and
rebalancing until you get it right.
Remember how it feels on deck because you want the same
feeling in the water. Leaning on your chin while you swim sounds
like a demonstrably silly thing to do, but steady pressure there,
just as you practiced it on land, is the key to in-water balance.
Now, use it to release your hips and legs to the surface where
they belong, with just the tops of your ***surfacing. Partner
watching to help you adjust position, kick lightly on your stomach,
arms at sides, head in line with spine and hips, leaning on chin
and sternum. It's an alien feeling at first, so you'll probably
need to press harder than you think you should. Just don't bury
Now you're ready for balanced kicking for short distances
(12-25 yds.) on your stomach, holding steady T-pressure. Every time
you lift your chin to breathe you'll lose T-pressure and balance,
and get the chance to practice re-balancing. Practice this for at
least 10 minutes before experimenting with it in your stroke.
Finally, once you're a T-pressing ace, alternate kick and swim
lengths with it, thinking of nothing else but getting the force
right. Short distances (25-50 yds.) only. Your hips should now feel
light and your legs relaxed. It's not a big project. My two
students mastered T-pressure in about an hour, and finally left the