Archive | September, 2011

The Five Most Common Stroke Flaws – And A Drill To Help Fix Each

27 Sep
shoulder injury

A Swim Coaching Article By Swim Smooth

Reproduced with permission (see here)

As you might already know, swimming is a sport limited by stroke technique not strength or brute force. Great swimmers have fantastic stroke technique which minimises their drag and maximises their propulsion, moving them quickly and efficiently through the water.

If you are a beginner or intermediate level freestyle swimmer you will have some flaws in your stroke technique that are holding you back, making you slower and less efficient than you could be. At Swim Smooth we have individually coached thousands of swimmers and in this time we see five stroke problems come up time and time again, at least one is in place in nearly every swimmer.

We’re going to take a look at each of these “Five Most Common Flaws” in turn and dip into Swim Smooth’s methodology to give you a drill or visualisation to help improve each. You might already have a good idea which of these problems exists in your stroke but if not then ask a friend, coach or lifeguard to watch you swim and feed back to you.

Classic Flaw 1: Holding Your Breath Underwater

If you stood at the side of your pool and watched everyone swim, breath holding is probably the most common flaw you will see. Holding onto your breath underwater increases the buoyancy in your chest and acts to sink your legs. If you suffer from sinky legs in the water then this is the first thing to get right in your stroke to improve your body position. Holding your breath also makes things feel much more tense as the CO2 builds up in your system.

How to fix it: During freestyle you should be exhaling whenever your face is in the water. At first it can feel very unnatural to do this and it can take some getting used to. Go to the deep end of your pool and tread water, take a breath in and then exhale which allows you to sink underwater. If you have trouble sinking, this is a sign you’re used to holding onto your breath! Keep practising exhaling more smoothly until you are able to sink down to the bottom. It can be surprising how much air is in there and how you might have only been breathing with the top of your lungs before:


When you start to swim again afterwards, focus on exhaling smoothly into the water between breaths. You should feel more relaxed straight away and also feel it helps keep your legs higher in the water.

Classic Flaw 2: Crossing Over In Front Of The Head

When you swim freestyle, your hands should never cross the centre line. Crossing over like this might happen only on one side or only when you go to breathe. A crossover causes you to snake down the pool adding drag and it harms your catch on the water, reducing your propulsion:


How to fix it: The temptation here is to simply think about going wider with your arm stroke, the problem with this approach is that you end up being very flat in the water with little body rotation. Instead of taking your arm wider, think about drawing your shoulder blades together and back – this will straighten out your arm stroke. The perfect way to practise this is kicking on the side with some fins (flippers) on:

kick on side

As you do this be aware of the position of your lead hand, you will probably find it wants to cross over in this position too! To straighten it, draw your shoulder blades together and back “shoulders back chest forwards”. You’ll become aware that it’s a slumping of the shoulders forward that is causing the crossover and the fix is to draw your shoulders back as you swim.

As you start swimming the full stroke again simply think about the middle finger on each hand and pointing that gun-barrel straight down the pool as you swim. This is a very simple visualisation which helps transfer better alignment into your full stroke.

Classic Flaw 3: Scissor Kick

A scissor kick is a horizontal parting of the legs in the water which causes a large amount of drag. This normally happens during or immediately after breathing and can be very quick – watch carefully or you might miss it:

scissor kick

In nearly all cases, the cause of a scissor kick relates to a crossover in the stroke (see flaw 1). The cross-over causes a loss of balance which results in a scissor kick shortly after to stabilise yourself. It’s normally an unconscious reaction – you probably don’t even know you’re doing it!

How to fix it: The first thing to do is remove the crossover (see flaw 1), very often this is enough to remove the scissor all by itself. To help re-enforce a better kicking action, as you swim gently brush your big toes together as they pass: tap tap tap. When you go to breathe, instead of thinking about the breath keep your attention on your toes and keeping the tapping constant – a big gap between taps is probably a big parting of the legs!

Classic Flaw 4: Kicking From The Knee

If you have a running or cycling background you’re at high risk from this one! A good freestyle leg kick is performed with a nearly straight leg, with only a slight relaxed flex at the knee in time with the kick. The kicking action should predominantly be from the hip not the knee:

bent knee kickstraight leg kick

As soon as you bend your knee you present your thigh as a blunt object to the water and you push against the flow creating huge amounts of drag.

How to fix it: To reprogram your leg kick, practise some torpedo push-offs from the wall with a very strong kick. Do this for about 10-15 meters using a strong kick and then swim easy pace to the end of the pool, lightly tapping your toes as mentioned in flaw 3. Do several of these in succession:

– First time focusing simply on keeping your legs straight and kicking form the hip.

– Second time imagine you have a coin between your butt cheeks and you’ve got to keep it there as you kick by lightly clenching your glutes.

– Third time stretch through your core as tall and straight as you can in the water.

Kicking hard like this with good technique helps your nervous system learn a better kicking action.

Classic Flaw 5: Over-reaching and putting on the brakes

If you have been working on your stroke length, trying to make you stroke more efficient you might have fallen foul of this. Many swimmers trying to lengthen out as much as possible end up dropping their wrists and showing the palm of their hand forwards. This just applies the brakes to your stroke:

dropped wrist

How to fix it: Practice kicking on the side with fins again and become aware of the position of your lead hand. Is the wrist dropped and pointing forwards? Work on correcting this, actually tipping your wrist slightly the other way so your fingers are angled a few degrees downwards. This slight tipping of the wrist immediately sets you up for a much better catch and pull through.

As you introduce this change into your full stroke you may find your stroke rate (cadence) lifts slightly, that’s a good thing, it shows you’re not artificially slowing your stroke!

Improve your swimming with Swim Smooth!

Swim Smooth is an innovative swimming coaching company famed for its straightforward approach to stroke correction. Visit our website for plenty more fascinating articles to improve your swimming. Don’t miss our amazing new DVD Catch Masterclass featuring incredible underwater video of champion swimmers in action. Also see our other swimming DVDs, training plans and training tools. Last but not least don’t miss our animated swimmer “Mr Smooth” showing you a great freestyle stroke in super-high detail:

mr smooth

Swim Smooth!

Article © Swim Smooth 2011


We’re heading for Venus (Venus)

24 Sep


Banana… Check.  Bodyglide… Check.  Morrison’s carrier bag… Check.  Ok, drag your mind out of the gutter, I’m not preparing for some kinky sexy-time session here. No, it’s my last open water swim event of the season tomorrow!

Hosted by Votwo Events, it’s the final of the RNLI Long Swim Series. The venue is Dorney Lake at Eton College in Buckinghamshire, UK. It’s a manmade lake built specifically for rowing and will be used next year in the Olympics for said event.

It’s another mile event (although there’s also 750m and 3.8km distances), so i’ve got a few others I can compare times with this year.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on increasing my aerobic threshold, but just this week some piece of technique seems to have clicked. I’ve still to define exactly what that is, but I’ve gone from a 3.27 for 200m to a 3.20, then a 3.10 on Thursday. Over a week and a half that seems to me like a huge improvement!

Of course rather than giving me the belief that I can get a PB tomorrow, I’m actually putting pressure on myself because I’ll be disappointed if I don’t. I guess this is where we start to get into the psychological aspects of sport – something I think will definitely be interesting to revisit at a later date.

Whatever happens, I’ve had a great season and have achieved a lot more than I thought I could. Here’s to the end of the season!

Oh, and a big Happy Birthday to my big sis for tomorrow – love ya!

Your starter for 10: Open water swimming tips? Here are mine.

22 Sep

Photo by Stuart Grout

Over the events I’ve done there are little tips that I’ve picked up, some more obvious than others, but I thought it worth mentioning here in case it helps anyone else (it’s certainly not an exhaustive list):

  • The Morrison’s bag trick – to help get your hands/feet into your wetsuit more easily put a carrier bag over them first
  • Don’t tuck your timing chip under your wetsuit – it might stop it working properly
  • Allow plenty of time to put your wetsuit on – better to be ready early than in a panic
  • Use Bodyglide on your neck – it’ll stop your wetsuit giving you an owie (as Ralphie would say)
  • The best way to acclimatise to the water is to splash it on your face (or bob under) for 10 seconds
  • If you’re wearing your goggles over your cap, make sure the edges of the cap aren’t caught under them – it’s easily done
  • Be in the right part of your wave – faster swimmers at the front, slower one’s are best at the back and to the sides – trust me, you don’t want to get swum over!
  • Look at the course beforehand and count the number of buoys – this will help if you’re not as good at sighting (like me!)
  • Take it easy at the start!  There’s plenty of time to speed up
  • When you’re coming to the finish, put a bit more into your kick – it’ll help the blood flow to your legs and prevent you staggering like a complete drunkard at the finish
  • Enjoy it and plan your next one!!

Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

I hope these have been of some use and you have a great swim!

Event: Great North Swim 2009 & 2011

22 Sep

Beware of flags stuck to your swim cap

So this is the one, the Great Grandaddy, where it all started for me back in 2009 at Lake Windermere.  Grab yourself a brew and get comfy folks, cos this post’s gonna be a long’un! (well, for me)

Back in 2009 the Great Swim series was still getting started, with the first event being held just the year before.  By the time my team and I (affectionately called ‘Betty’s Buoys’ by the only lady in the group) had entered there were only a handful of places left, so even back then it was a popular event.  The entry process hasn’t changed much over the years – choose your wave time, t-shirt size, etc.  We received our event packs about a week before the event and were ready to go with our swim hats, timing chip and info booklet.

Since this was my very first open water event (or any event for that matter) I really didn’t know what to expect beyond the info on the website.  I’d managed to swim a mile in my local pool a few times (64 lengths x 25m, thereabouts), but at this stage I hadn’t attempted freestyle so it was the frog-kick all the way for me.  So many questions were running through my head:  what would it be like swimming in a wetsuit? (certainly not as hot as trying it out in the pool!)  How many people would be in my wave?  Can you see the bottom?  How cold will it be?! (in case you’re wondering, the answers were: pretty fun, lots, not really and hmm, a bit chilly)

My wife and I stayed in Bowness-on-Windermere, along with my folks, at the Westbourne hotel (a tip here – make sure you book waaaay ahead, particularly if you only want to stay for one night).  Driving to the event is a no-no as there’s only a couple of ways to the event and they get very busy.  Instead, we caught the ferry (free for me as a competitor) to Ambleside, which was a really pleasant journey.  For the 2011 swim we stayed in Ambleside itself, so were only a half hour walk away from the Low Wood Hotel, which is opposite the swim itself.  There’s absolutely no mistaking the route once you get close – just follow the crowds (but the not the one’s wearing the medals!).

The event village itself is really well set up, with plenty of food stalls, charity marquees, swim related companies and even a climbing wall. Once we’d found the changing tent and got ourselves ready there was a bit of time to hang about and get *really* nervous!  I always find this the hardest part – it gives my brain too much time to think.  Once the wave registration opened we were funneled down to the start area, timing chip and name checked on the way, down to the start.  This was our first opportunity to test the water out – all I can remember was thinking “Ohh, mmmy goddd, it’s cooold!”  This was early September, so I was really just being a bit of a wuss.

Right.  I need to stop myself before I get too much further, as I haven’t mentioned anything about the amazing surroundings!  I mean, wow – there can’t be many more places that are more picturesque than the Lake District.  Of all the events I’ve done so far this has got to be the most stunning.  You’re surrounded by impressive peaks and greenery in all directions – it’s almost a shame to swim freestyle.

Amazing Ambleside

Ok, where was I.  Once we’d had a dip and wondered what we’d let ourselves in for it was nearly time for the start.  (Incidentally, there’s a grandstand right next to the start that’s perfect for family and friends to watch from)  With about 10 minutes to go it was time for the safety briefing and short warm-up routine (I warn you – it’s impossible to look cool doing these).  It’s a rectangular course, with large yellow buoys marking various distances, waaaay off in the distance the pink turn buoys, and finally the very welcoming red buoys, which mean you’re almost home.

10…9…8…7654321  HOOONK!!  They’re off!  Back in 2009 I was quite far back in the pack, so it was a steady walk across the timing mat, with time to make *help*faces at the rest of the team, followed by the wild melee of flailing arms and legs.  This year, however, I was right at the front so I actually managed to run in.  The stretch to the first pink buoy seems a long way off, but it’s actually shorter on the way back in.  There’s not much I remember about the actual swim itself as I tend to ‘zone out’ a bit – it’s one of the reasons I like swimming, I find it quite meditative.  Anyway, once you’re past those red finish buoys it’s a short sprint to the ramp and a welcoming hand out of the water.  Hurrah – the finish!  All that’s left is to get the goodie bag and those classic Great Swim flip-flops!

Amongst the Great Swims I’ve done this is probably my favourite, partly for sentimental reasons, but mainly for the atmosphere and location.  I think it’ll keep me coming back season after season!

[One thing I haven’t mentioned is what happened to the 2010 event – pesky blue/green algae, that’s what!  It’s just one of those unpredictable parts of open water swimming, but of course no one wants to be swimming through that muck.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the 2011 event being moved to June?)]

Feel For The Water!

21 Sep

Feel For the Water!

Feel For The Water! Advice & Tips to Improve Your Swimming..

A few posts ago I mentioned Swim Smooth, the Perth based swim coaching company.  Well, not only do they have an invaluable website, they also have an awesome blog, published every Friday.

Make sure you check it out!

Swim.. like an avocado!?

21 Sep

Pilates Reformer - Photo by FitnessOrlando

Why an avocado?  Well, because they have a hard centre with a smooth exterior.

In freestyle swimming we should be aiming to have a strong core (ie, torso) but relaxed arms and legs. The main reasons are that it helps you be more streamlined in the water, helps with body roll and also better connects your arms to the rest of your body, so you can use your whole body to power you.

Pilates is a great way to strengthen your core, and in fact a lot of other muscles involved in swimming. It’s a body conditioning routine that helps to not only build flexibility, but also strength, endurance, and coordination in the legs, abdominals, arms and back.  My wife and I have recently started lessons under the expert tuition of Claire Wray at Equilibrium Health in Leeds. We’re only a couple of lessons in, but already I can see how it will benefit my swimming, for performance, but also injury prevention (shoulders in particular). There’s a lot more to learn, and I’m looking forward to seeing more improvements!

Tiiiime, is on my side. Yuues it is

20 Sep

Photo by WWarby

I have to admit, I’m a *bit* of a sucker for stats and the like (right, I’m not going to apologise for being a geek any longer).  I’m sure I’m not alone when it comes to the time sheets – after all, timing yourself is the easiest way to measure your progression.  Of course, it means a bit more when you’re pool swimming, since in open water conditions on the day can vary wildly from one season to the next (or even one hour to the next).  Still, timings can still be a useful tool.

As an illustration (and to document where I’ve got to so far), I’m going to list the open water events I’ve done thus far:

  • Great North Swim 2009 (1 mile, lake):  38.40 (breaststroke only)
  • Great London Swim 2010 (1 mile, dock):  36.28
  • Great Salford Swim 2010 (1 mile, dock):  34.28
  • Great Salford Swim 2011 (1 mile, dock):  29.55
  • Great North Swim 2011 (1 mile, lake):  29.49
  • Great London Swim 2011 (1 mile, dock):  29.52
  • International Birdman Swim (2km, sea):  29.17
  • Henley-on-Thames River Swim (1.5km):  27.40
  • WWF Blue Mile swim (1 mile, reservoir):  29.25
  • RNLI Swim Series, Dorney (1 mile, lake):  ?

As you can see, quite a massive difference between seasons, but for those first few Great Swims this year I was only just dipping under 30 mins.   Still, given that the goal I had set myself this year was to swim under 30 mins by the END of the season, I’m pretty pleased with myself.  I can’t really count the Henley swim in this as it was a shorter distance, and the Birdman swim was obviously massively current assisted, but knocking almost 25 secs off my previous best at the WWF swim was good (I think better sighting helped a lot there).

So, the Dorney Lake swim is this Sunday – can I end the season on a PB?!

The best of both worlds

19 Sep

It‘s a good idea to begin at the bottom in everything except in learning to swim”

Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin

Much as I want to get to talking about the present, there’s a few things about the past I need to mention. As you know, back in January 2010 I’d made the decision to teach myself freestyle. Much like when I first picked up a guitar at age 14 there was one source that I started with. Back then it was a Burt Weedon video, but as far as I know he’s not a great swimmer, so instead I turned to a book called Total Immersion by Terry Laughlin. The main principles are based around trying to swim more like a fish, out glide like a boat. As such, there is a heavy focus on streamlining and gliding. Certainly when watching clips of TI swimmers on YouTube they look very very smooth. The book was great for introducing the basics of balance and feeling comfortable in the water, but there’s one aspect that I and others think they take too far – namely ‘glide’.

Swim Smooth

Around the middle of 2010 I happened across a website that has effectively become my ‘swim Bible’: Swim Smooth.  Whilst there is still a strong focus on reducing drag, for them glide is a dirty word. And it makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Every time you pause at the front of your stroke you deccelerate (more than you normally would). To reaccelerate you’re going to have to put more effort in. A good visualisation is to imagine you’re pulling yourself along a rope that’s underneath you’re body – you need to keep a constant momentum to keep going. Swim Smooth also have a strong focus on correcting stroke flaws by identifying the root cause – a scissor kick can be caused by crossing over at the front of the stroke, for example.

So whilst I’m definitely in the Swim Smooth camp when it comes to learning freestyle, there are still a lot of good aspects to Total Immersion. I see no reason not to take the best bits of both – whatever works for you!

It’s all for charidee, mate

17 Sep

WWF Blue Mile Swim - 4th Sept 2011

Back in 2009 when I took part in my first open water event, the Great North Swim, it was a perfect opportunity to raise some money for charity.  In the end our team raised over £1000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care.  This year, since I had entered 7 events I thought it would be another great chance.  I already make donations to the World Wildlife Fund UK so made that my charity of choice for the season.  This is their mission in their own words:

As part of the international WWF network, WWF-UK addresses global threats to people and nature such as climate change, the peril to endangered species and habitats, and the unsustainable consumption of the world’s natural resources. We do this by influencing how governments, businesses and people think, learn and act in relation to the world around us, and by working with local communities to improve their livelihoods and the environment upon which we all depend.
WWF uses its practical experience, knowledge and credibility to create long-term solutions for the planet’s environment.

A very worthy cause I’m sure you’ll agree.  Unless you happen to live on the moon.

My latest swim (review to come) was actually an event organised by WWF-UK themselves – The WWF Blue Mile.  This one was all about raising funds for their work protecting our rivers and seas – if you’re interested in swimming, and since you’re reading this I’m guessing you are, then you’ll know how important this is.

Now that I’ve said my piece, should you wish to support this worthy cause (ie, the planet), just click on the justgiving link next to my picture.  Or click here.

Chug over and out.

Sky News: David Walliams Completes Epic Charity Swim

13 Sep

An incredible achievement!