I’m a man of many flaws. Just ask my wife. Or my pastor.
But this post is not about my supremely human qualities…it’s about my God-awful, jacked up swim stroke. Chances are that you may have a flawed swim stroke too.
Before we get started here, let me tell you that I’m an adult-onset swimmer. Of course I knew how to swim before I became an adult, but I never really swam. I wasn’t a swim-team kid during the summers. I didn’t swim in high school or college. I was a lifeguard, though, so clearly I knew how to swim. Fast forward to 2006 when I signed up to do my first triathlon. I did what all (or maybe most) newbie triathletes do. I just jumped in and started.
And of course, I did everything WRONG. Frankly, it was a miracle that I didn’t drown.
Over the last several years, I’ve become a student of swimming. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that my son swims competitively, hence I’m forced to endure multi-hour swim meets at least once a month. The collateral benefit of this is that I’ve become friends with his coaches (adding a new twist to the phrase “friends with benefits”) and have leached swim stroke suggestions from them. Last year I also spent some dedicated time getting “coached up” on how to swim.
Here’s the deal. I have flaws. Sometimes I glide too much. Sometimes I don’t glide enough. I can’t breathe bilaterally. I can’t do a flip turn (not that doing flip turns is all that important to a triathlete). I can’t do butterfly or backstroke. And when I start to get fatigued, I always fall into the bad habit of catching incorrectly.
Huh? You play catch when swimming?
Well – yeah. The catch is the part of your stroke where your hand and arm re-enter the water, and just before you start your “pull” – or moving your arm back to propel you forward. When I’m tired, I get really lazy and don’t have a clean catch. By that, I mean, I lead with my thumbs versus my fingertips.
Why is this bad, you might ask? Ever heard of “swimmer’s shoulder”? Leading with your thumb is one sure-fire way to over exert your shoulder, potentially leading to injury. How can you correct this? The simple answer is just lead with your fingertips. Well, that’s easier said than done. There’s a good drill that can help you break the habit of being a thumb-leader: drill with pinky-catches. When you’re doing your drill work (I do this using a pool buoy) practice your catch by making sure your pinky enters the water first. You’ll really feel the difference quickly. I often mix this drill in when I’m doing catch-up drill.
The other thing I do is a lot of cross-over. No…I didn’t say cross-dressing. Crossing OVER. As in my stroke crosses over my midline. Cross dressing – OK for some folks. Cross-over – bad for all swimmers.
OK, Mr. TriMadness. What is Crossing-over and why is it bad?
In the picture above, you can see a super clear view of how the swimmer has crossed his midline with his catch. Why is this bad? Well – quite simply, it’s bad because it can jack your shoulder up! Think torn labrum. Painful rotator cup. Surgery. Months of not being able to wipe your own hiney. Addiction to pain killers. Oh wait….perhaps that’s too far. Suffice it to say that this type of stroke puts a significant amount of stress on your shoulder joint, and can lead to significant pain. How can we, as lazy swimmers, correct this? My approach is pretty simple – especially when there’s no one else swimming in my lane. I make a point to swim directly over the lane line. As I am swimming, I’m constantly watching my stroke to make sure that my catch starts on the outside of the black line. Of course, I don’t just windmill straight down – my underwater pull actually is a modified “S”, bringing my hand in close to my torso right before I start my recovery. A few laps of really focusing on making the catch outside the lane line does wonders for you – and gives you a good “feel” for what an appropriate catch feels like.
Ever since I’ve been really focusing on these two drills, my swimming has improved. Of course, these aren’t the only two things that have joined forces to make me a better swimmer…but they certainly helped. And if I’m paying attention to what I’m doing, I very rarely have any shoulder pain during or after swimming.
So should you take my word as the Gospel of all things swimming? Heck no! My advice to learning how to be a better swimmer is this: do some research and (more importantly) get a coach. As I stated, I did a ton of research on the web. The website where I borrowed the pictures from (Feelforthewater.com) is the blog for Swim Smooth, and offers a lot of good pointers. You can even download a graphical depiction called Mr. Smooth that shows you what a good stroke looks like. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. Some were good. Others were not so good. US Masters Swimming (www.usms.org) and USA Swimming (www.usaswimming.org) also offer great resources. My biggest growth as a swimmer, though, came from having a trained swim coach watch me swim and give me tips and pointers. Surely there is a local swim club in your town. Check out the YMCA or local university. Even some high schools have swim teams. Ask for references from your Triathlon club. Find a coach, spend a little money, and get good tips.
And maybe, just maybe, your flawed swimming will become less so! I know mine has – even though I also know I have a long way to go!