A Question of Balance
(or Dire Consequences)
Revised from an article which first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1997.
Watching each of my sons learning to walk, it was quite obvious that their first tentative steps required total focused concentration. Even then, they still fell down a lot. Now, at two and a half and five they both run everywhere and, I'm sure, give no thought to balance as they go about their important business. The issue of balance is now pretty much a no-brainer they no longer spend much or any conscious brain cycles on the subject.
We all learn early in life that staying balanced on our feet allows us to avoid falling down and all that entails getting bruised or bloody, and looking really foolish things I refer to as dire consequences. The prospect of falling down provided the motivation to keep total focused concentration on that balance thing till it worked flawlessly nearly all the time. Later in life we went through roughly the same concentration/consequences feedback cycle in learning to ride a bike. The skills were a bit harder to acquire but, as luck would have it, the consequences were enough more dire to keep our attention fully focused till balance on the bike was a no-brainer as well.
Not Falling Down
Although we all know what it means to be balanced, bear with me as I get a wee bit more technical. Balance, on land, means that your body mass is properly distributed with respect to your support structure in this case, your feet pressing on two small spots on the earth and those two spots pushing back on your feet with and equal amount of force (Remember those physics buzzwords equal and opposite from back in junior high school?). Assuming you can get your center of gravity aligned over a spot between your feet you can stand in one place long enough to buy tickets to a Moody Blues concert (did I just date myself?) without falling over. But, if your body mass becomes improperly distributed with respect to your support structure as when a thoughtlessly placed patch of ice separates you from your balance you fall down (or you quickly engage in an entertaining set of scrambling motions, then you fall down).
Hey Coach, you intone, thanks for the visual image there, but what's all this got to do with swimming? I'm freezing my butt off standin' here on deck while you flap yer gums when I could be crankin' out some yardage!
Bear with me O Ye of Short Attention Span. Presently, these things shall be made clear.
But first, allow me to digress in a seemingly unrelated direction.
Buoyancy and Gravity
Let's say I cut off your legs and toss them in the water. Do they float or do they sink? For the vast majority of people likely to read this, they sink. For triathletes with only two percent body fat, they sink fast. How about if I cut off your arms and toss them in? Your head? Your lower torso? They all sink. In fact, for most swimmers the only part of the body that floats all by itself is the upper torso. Why? Your lungs - two sacs full of air that act as a buoy. If I cut out your upper torso and toss it in the water it'll float around like a cork.
Lemme digress even further. Visualize a water polo ball resting peacefully on the surface of a calm pool. The water pushes back on the bottom of the ball with exactly as much force as the ball exerts on the water roughly one pound. Now, if you put your hand on top of the ball and press down with one additional pound of force two things happen: 1) the ball sinks down in the water a bit, and 2) the water increases its pressure pushing back up on the ball to match the sum of the ball's mass and the extra force you are pressing down with a total of two pounds. Putting even more pressure on the ball causes it to sink further at the same time the water continues to match all downward (gravity and your hand) forces with upward (buoyant) forces. The harder you press the ball toward the bottom the harder the water pushes the ball back up (that equal and opposite thing again).
Patience. I'm about to pull this thing together.
Not Falling Down In The Water
So, if balance on land is a matter of properly distributing your body mass with respect to your support structure then what is balance in swimming? Rephrasing a tag line from an old margarine ad campaign On land, in water, no difference. (Dated again!)
Your upper torsoyour buoyis just like that water polo ball. The harder you press it toward the bottom of the pool the harder the water pushes back on it. This upward force acting on your buoy is your support structure. Pressing your buoy toward the bottom, or leaning on it, raises the hips in much the same way that pressing on one end of a floating kickboard raises the other end. By properly positioning your body and consistently pressing your buoy into the water you can support your entire body, including your hips and legs, right at the surface of the water without needing to use your kick to keep your legs up. You can spot a well-balanced freestyle swimmer because the centerlines of the head, shoulders, spine, hips and legs are all aligned parallel to and close to the water surface with little or no kick in evidence.
Swimmers who are not properly attuned to using buoy pressure to maintain balance typically use their kick to keep their hips and legs from sinking (I liken this to using a cane or a walker on land to make up for poor balance). And even with a strong kick the hips usually sit down in the water well below the shoulders and head. This is what I call swimming uphill. This creates loads of unnecessary frontal resistance. A 4-6 inch drop at the hips (very common) is enough to double frontal resistance from what a well balanced position encounters.
Conversely, learning how to maintain balance using buoy pressure (and proper in-line head position) can raise those hips effortlessly to the surface and cut frontal resistance by half or more. In comparison to an unbalanced, low-hips position, this will feel like swimming downhill in two ways. 1) You'll feel as if you are tilting a bit down rather that a bit up (in fact you won't be tilting at all longitudinally, it'll just feel that way) and 2) Swimming will take less energy. Such a deal!
Don't Try This At Home
Try this experiment to see the effects of buoy pressure for yourself. Push off from the wall on your stomach with both arms at your sides and begin kicking easily. Keep your head in line the crown of your head should be in line with your spine, nose pointed toward the bottom of the pool. Lightly press your buoy toward the bottom, allowing your hips to rise to the surface. The more of an uphill swimmer you are the more pressure you will need on your buoy to bring your hips to the surface. When you need to take a breath, lift your head straight up in front to get a breath of air. Then put your head back down so that the crown is in line with your spine and press your buoy again. Note that when you lift your head, your hips and legs sink rapidly toward the bottom. And note that as soon as you get your head back in line with your spine and press your buoy, you can easily get re-balanced. The back quarter of your head, your shoulder blades and the cheeks of your butt will all be exposed to the air when you are in balance.
Now do the same thing again but after you are aware of being well balanced, start playing with the amount of buoy pressure. Try putting too much pressure on your buoy, enough to submerge your head and shoulders and poke your butt way out of the water, then go back to a balanced position. Next try letting some pressure off the buoy and feel your hips and legs sink. You should feel as though you have complete control of the position of your hips and legs based on what you do with your head and buoy rather than by using your kick for that purpose. Finally, try swimming a length or two using your new-found balancing skills, feeling for your butt and hips to stay right at the water surface.
Ponder the Consequences
Aquatic balance is fundamental to efficient swimming. Without it, all other swimming activities are meaningless. Yet, for most swimmers, a sense of balance is not well developed. On land, there were dire consequences to help you stay focused long enough to turn land-balance into a no-brainer. Are there similar motivators to keep you focused long enough to get your water-balance dialed in? Ponder these consequences of poor water-balance: 1) With poor balance you are likely spending twice as much or more energy than necessary to get from here to there, and 2) Right now, today, enlightened swimmers around you are looking at your unbalanced, low hips position and snickering to themselves about the way you swim and 3) Some of those same swimmers are talking behind your back.
How much more dire do you need?
Stay focused on the fundamentals and you will be a better swimmer! v
© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2002Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole) and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.
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