With Triathlon Swimming Made Easy, we promise you can make swimming the best part of your race. By adopting the Total Immersion approach to swim training, we guarantee you’ll be more fluid and relaxed in the water, saving precious energy for the bike and run.Chapter 9 - A New Role for Your Hands: Standing Still
Most swimmers believe that stroke technique means "how you push water back with your hands," and give that motion most of their attention. Working on "technique" therefore means tweaking the armstroke, and "power" means putting more force and acceleration into it. Between what instinct suggests, and traditional instruction reinforces, the hands do seem to be 90% of swimming.
Most swimming books also share a keen fascination with hand movements, reporting in staggering detail on angle of attack, sweeps, pitches, vectors, lift forces, etc. The hands of gifted swimmers unquestionably do move in highly nuanced ways. But while that information may have academic interest, its practical value is nil. The movements described happen so quickly that no swimmer can consciously control the adjustments needed to get them just right. And elite swimmers don't get their wonderful technique from reading those books; they just do what feels best. And you can acquire a lot of that advantageous feel by following the advice in this chapter.
But understand this: Even if swimmers did have the concentration and precise muscular control to make the fine adjustments to get the hand pattern just right, at the end of the day it's still just a little hand pushing against water...trying to propel a big body through a resistant medium. Always minimize drag first.
Learn to "Anchor" Your Hands
My mentor, Coach Bill Boomer, once said: "Your hips are the engine for swimming; your hands are just the propellers." And one of the surest ways to disconnect your propeller from its engine is overly aggressive stroking. A "controlled" stroke, one that stays connected to its power source through its full length, is one that begins with an "anchored" hand.
On land, the power-producing kinetic chain starts from a fixed (or "anchored") point – feet planted on the ground. You begin by twisting the body away from the intended direction of the movement – e.g., rearing back to throw a baseball or taking a backswing in golf. With the feet fixed in place, you get an effect known as elastic loading, similar to stretching a rubber band. The cocked hip then acts like a whip handle, throwing energy upward through torso, shoulders, and arms, with increasing speed and power.
With no foot-to-ground anchor, a swimmer’s hips cannot act as a whip handle. But they can deliver power by working as a unit with the torso and arms. Still, the process must start with an anchoring point to create that fingers-to-toes band of engaged muscle we used to such dynamic effect on the playground swing. In fishlike swimming that power-linkage starts with an "anchored hand." While your instincts tell you to grab water and push it back hard, you can actually tap far more effortless power by extending your hand fully, and then just holding on to your place in the water — as if grasping a rung on a ladder —rather than hurriedly pushing back. Try to make your hand stand still, then let the kinetic chain roll you past the spot where your hand is anchored.
This was first observed in 1970, when famed Indiana University coach Doc Counsilman filmed swimming legend Mark Spitz, the world's greatest swimmer at the time, with an underwater camera. Attaching tiny lights to Spitz's hands to highlight their movements, Counsilman shot him from the side, against a gridlike backdrop. When he viewed the film at slow motion, Counsilman was startled to see that Spitz's hands exited the water forward of where they had entered. Spitz could not possibly be pushing his hands back, if they came out ahead of their entry point.
Nor could Jackie Hatherly, a 35-year-old Ironman qualifier from Toronto, who attended a TI workshop in April, 2000 and who quickly developed one of the most fishlike strokes we've ever seen. Watching from the side on underwater video on the second day, it was obvious that her hands entered and exited at the same place, while her body slid sleekly past their anchoring point on each stroke. Small wonder that she swam 25 meters freestyle in 11 strokes, after taking 17 strokes to swim the same distance just a day earlier.
Learn to "Feel the Water"
Training yourself to make your hand stand still rather than pushing it back does seem odd. How can your body go in one direction unless your hand goes the other? Admittedly, the water doesn’t offer a convenient grip. But when you develop an acute "feel of the water," you can use your grip on the water to move yourself forward very nearly as a rock climber uses his hold on the rock to move upward. Coaches often describe "feel of the water" as a prize with a staggering price. They can't define it exactly, but suggest you must have been born with a gift for controlling elusive water molecules…or must spend millions of yards patiently acquiring this special knack.
There is no doubt that most elite swimmers have a variety of gifts that help them perform on a higher plane, and "feel of the water" is among the most important. But it's not difficult to explain. It’s simply a heightened ability to sense minute differences in water pressure, and maximize that pressure with the body's propelling surfaces while minimizing it with the rest of the body. There is also no doubt that feel of the water can be an acquired skill. And it needn't take years to acquire. Here’s how you can get a better grip on the ability to hold the water:
- Get the catch right. Swimmers usually give about 90 percent of their technique focus to the armstroke, and by now you know I think that's a poor use of your brainpower, preferring you pay more attention to drag because that brings faster, better results. But, when you do focus on propelling actions (mainly after you are balanced, tall, slippery, and moving fluently), give 90% of that attention to the "catch." Focus on your hands while they're in front of your head (see below for guidance), and once they've passed your shoulders, just let them fall off your mental radar screen. Once properly initiated, a stroke doesn't benefit from further guidance.
- Start each stroke by making your hands stand still. Your instincts tell you to grab the water and push back. Ignore them. Instead, teach yourself to make your hand stay in front while you bring your body over it. Yes, this is a difficult goal, but work at it patiently and mindfully anyway. Such efforts will help you resist the urge to muscle the water back.
- Drill, drill, drill. Learning a skill as elusive and refined as this takes a lot of concentration, the kind you get in drills, where you repeat simple movements with full attention instead of trying to tweak something that happens in a millisecond in whole-stroke swimming. The "–Switch"– drills in Lessons Three, Four, and Five teach you to connect your hands to your core body, and move them in perfect coordination. They also help you learn to anchor your hands and bring your body over them. To multiply the effect of any drills – but particularly drills used to teach anchoring – do them with the fistglove® stroke trainer (see Scott Lemley below).
- Swim super slowly. Drills teach you how things will feel when they're "right." When you begin to apply what you've learned in drills, you'll retain far more of that feeling if you swim verrry slowly. The more slowly you swim, the more "concentration space" you give yourself to cultivate a finer sense of water pressure on the catch. Just be patient. Leave your hand out in front of you. S-t-r-e-t-c-h that moment, pressing gently on the water until you feel the water return some of that pressure to your hands (another awareness hugely heightened by fistgloves®). And while you're swimming slowly...
- Count your strokes. A reduced stroke count is a simple, reliable indicator that you're not pulling back. If you've whittled your count for a single 25-yard pool length down to, say, 13 or fewer strokes, one of the things you're likely to be doing well is holding on to the water. As you go faster (and your stroke count increases) stay hyper-alert to any sense of water slippage, like a car spinning its wheels.
- Try to have slow hands. Compare the speed at which you sense your hands moving back, with how fast you feel your body moving forward. Try to have "slow hands and a faster body" or, at the very least, match the speed of your hands to the speed of your body. This is a great corrective any time you feel your stroke getting rough and ragged.
- Last but not least... Teaching and my own training experience have convinced me that the most beneficial tool for acquiring feel is the fistglove® stroke trainer. I’ll let Scott Lemley, their inventor, tell you about them.
The fistglove® stroke trainer
How Those Little Black Gloves Can Lead to Huge Improvements in Your Stroke - By Scott Lemley
Scott Lemley has been coaching and teaching swimming for 20-plus years. He is currently head coach of the Midnight Sun Swim Team in Fairbanks, Alaska. As a longtime student and instructor in the martial art of Aikido, Scott observed that the key steps to mastering any martial art – finding your balance, focusing your mind, and relaxing your body – are the key steps to mastering any swimming stroke.
One aspect of martial-arts teaching that particularly intrigued Scott was the practice of blindfolding students to compel them to become receptive to sensory information derived from sources other than the eyes, to develop a whole-body sense of balance. Reasoning that "feel" with the hands was the swimming equivalent of the perspective gained through sight on land, Scott set about developing "a blindfold for the hands." The result was the fistglove® stroke trainer. Below, Scott explains some of the many benefits of training with fistgloves®.
Before becoming a swim coach I taught Aikido, a martial art that emphasizes relaxation. Aikido training taught me that the more I relaxed, the more self-aware I became and the more efficiently and quickly I could move. I adopted these same principles to my swim coaching and have made it a core goal to teach my swimmers to combine the ability to focus mentally while relaxing physically. I used fist swimming a fair amount, but also felt that I could improve that practice by finding a way to swim effortlessly with fists closed for longer periods without having to expend either mental or physical energy. I tested this theory on myself by duct-taping my hands closed and warming up that way for 30 minutes before swimming with "normal" hands.
As an unexpected benefit, for the first time I became acutely aware of my lack of balance, the pressure of the water on my forearms, and the "sharp edges" I exposed to the water's resistance as I pushed off. I also discovered that my hands became very sensitive to pressure after I removed the duct tape, allowing me to "hold on to the water" with far more nuanced technique. After I began taping my swimmers' hands, I observed that every swimmer gained noticeable fluidity in their strokes. Instead of having one or two "gifted" swimmers and a host of dedicated but "less gifted" swimmers, I soon had what I came to think of as a team full of dedicated and gifted swimmers. After experimenting with "taped" fists for 17 years, I finally designed, patented, and began to manufacture a prototype latex glove, which I named the "fistglove® stroke trainer."
Fistgloves®: How They Work
One essential in the acquisition of improved swim technique is our ability to change the way we interact with our environment. Humans seem to be "hardwired" to interact with the water in a particular way, but I believe we can change that in very significant ways. This is a constant theme underlying how I ask my swimmers to train. Using fistgloves® has given them unprecedented choice and control over how they interact with the water
I want my swimmers to be able to choose finesse over brute strength. When they make this choice, they swim best or near-best times with far greater consistency. But finesse in the water must be taught; it rarely comes naturally. Finesse has much to do with how we feel "pressure" on our hands. Reading this pressure is both a source of information and a distraction. Because we’re instinctively "hand-dominant" when swimming, most of us are so fixated on what’s happening with our hands that we tune out other body parts. As long as our hands feel the pressure of the water’s resistive force, we figure we’re "good to go" and proceed to push it toward our feet in a way that satisfies our palms and psyches – but often neglects our body position. Is our entire body balanced and streamlined to avoid drag? It’s hard to tell if we are thinking only about our palms. Add to the hand-dominant theme our human proclivity to solve problems with force, and it’s no wonder that we see a lot of manhandling the water.
Another pitfall of being a swimmer who gets satisfaction from feeling pressure against the hands (and the more the better), is that it’s all too easy to think that being unbalanced and unstreamlined is OK – perhaps even good. After all, an unstreamlined body will encounter massive resistance, and that resistance will feel correct and productive to most swimmers. Pushing against a substance as dense as water gives us a great sense of accomplishment. All too often the only accomplishment is to burn calories. To truly swim well, we must learn how to "feel" the water with our entire body, not just the hands, and learn to find our balance and cease our endless struggling to plow ahead.
All humans have proprioceptors (specialized nerve endings) in our joints, muscles, and skin that give us constantly updated information on how our joints are angled, how fast we’re moving our limbs, how our arms and legs are positioned relative to each other, and the pressure of the water against various body parts. This wealth of feedback can overwhelm us if we don’t know how to process it – or can help us achieve balance and flow if we learn to organize it and use it correctly. Usually our brain is so busy processing the information coming from our eyes and hands that we’re not conscious of being out of alignment or off balance in the water.
Wearing fistgloves® helps you make balance a priority. Attempting to swim for the first time without the use of your hands, you'll probably thrash around for 5 or 10 minutes, completely helpless. But your brain will seek to solve this new puzzle by using other sources of information and other means of locomotion. Almost automatically, you'll start to swim with more finesse and less brute force. With the fistgloves®, you must learn to be balanced and streamlined; otherwise, you'll make no forward progress in the pool.
After wearing the gloves for 30 minutes or so, swim with open hands. You'll immediately experience what we call the fistglove® effect – a rush of information from your previously constrained, but now highly sensitive, hands to your brain. The result is that you'll become very discriminating in terms of how you angle your hands against the water, instinctively choosing the angles that give maximum purchase on what is a pretty slippery medium. You'll also become ultra-sensitive to the importance of "gripping" the water instead of "slipping" through it.
The first 30 minutes spent wearing fistgloves® will make you more aware of how balanced and streamlined you are. The next 30 minutes swimming without the gloves will help you learn to "hold" the water better. fistgloves® help us become more effective on both sides of the equation. Give them a try. I think you’ll enjoy the experience.