Sunday, I flew to Los Angeles to attend the bi-annual meeting of the International Color Consortium. On the way out, I did a bunch of reading and note-taking on stuff from the office. The ride was kind of choppy for an cross-continental flight, so I didn’t get a chance to stand up and walk around much. On the occasions when I did stretch out in my chair, I realized I was doing the extension drill that we’ve been practicing on Saturday mornings at the pool: arms straight up and pressed close to the ears, one hand over the other with the top hand’s thumb curled under the bottom hand.
During last Saturday’s class we worked on extension a little more and put on fins to work on our kick. I’m learning how to rotate my shoulder forward and inward so that my arm reaches as far out in front of me as possible. Not only does this prepare me for a good catch and a long pull, it tightens up my core and lengthens my body, making me more slippery in the water. I’ve been told to pay special attention to my hand placement so that my hips stay high in the water. There’s a lot to think about, which is why we do a bunch of drills so that it becomes second nature.
After about 45 minutes of drills, Patty (the coach) said, “Okay, let’s do a set. We’ll do 5×100 yards. Pause after the first one to get your pace.” Off I went. The pool was fast Saturday morning, and I was keeping up with the other four lanes as we led out the swim. Imagine my surprise when she called out a 1:30 at the end of the first 100. Either the YWCA pool is smaller than the high school’s or . . . I’m getting faster. Yay!
Of course, she also said during the third 100 that, as I tired, I wasn’t getting nearly as much extension as before. So I worked on that for the remainder of the set. That’s typical for me; my times at the beginning of a set tend to be faster than the later ones.
Yesterday, I flew home. Since there was no WiFi on this flight, I decided to read Swim Speed Secrets, written by American Olympic gold medalist Sheila Taormina. I had been holding onto the book for a few months, waiting until I could devote lots of thought to it. The time had finally come to learn the secret. It’s quite good—well written and perfectly illustrated for clarity—and I recommend every swimmer go through it.
What’s the secret? It’s super simple, really: Keep a high elbow during the pull and feel the water with the whole forearm and hand. By keeping the elbow high and the hand straight with the forearm, you create two levers with each arm and recruit a whole bunch of shoulder and core muscles to push yourself through the water. She provides the analogy of pulling yourself over a wall below you in the pool. (Here’s a PDF excerpt of what her form looks like.)
I probably amused the flight attendants yesterday on a couple of occasions by making small swimming poses with my arm to see what this felt like. (Fortunately for me, there was no one in the middle seat on my row.) This morning I went to the pool and paid attention to my elbow placement. I have two thoughts: (1) Even if Scott Johnson gushes over my V-shaped swimmer’s back, pulling with your elbows high uses the shoulders in a very new and intense way, and I need extra strength there to make this work. And (2) OMFG, the far wall approached really, really fast! I could feel the water better with my forearms and hands, and it really did feel like I pushing myself past something in the water. Not only that, but I could actually feel my stroke starting in my core more than before, and my body rolled the way it’s supposed to as the lever of my arm created a torque. My time for the first 500 yards was just under 9:15, which is fast enough that I almost worried I had missed counting a lap!
I still have quite a way to go before this is second nature, and it’s pretty clear that I have an imbalance between my left- and right-hand strokes. I also noticed that I was paying a lot less attention to my extension and kick (the things we worked on the last couple of Saturday mornings). Plus, as my arms grew tired, it was harder to keep my elbows up and have as strong of a pull, and my times suffered a lot at the end of my 2,000 yards. Friday, I’ll do more drills so that I can be mindful to each item in isolation.
The drop off in my speed at the end of the sets notwithstanding, I’m so excited about these two developments. Now I just need to practice, practice, practice. Fortunately (?) the winter is long.