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Swimming the Straight and Narrow

(what the average Joe doesn't know)

by Coach Emmett Hines

Stroke . stroke . stroke . stroke . lift head . there's the buoy . stroke . stroke . stroke . stroke . lift head . where's the buoy? . stroke . stroke . lift head higher . look all around . where's that *%^&$#@ing buoy!? . stroke . stroke .

You've been there, done that, still have a half-eaten Powerbar near the bottom of your equipment bag to prove it. And you are not alone. A moment of observation at any open water swim reveals that many swimmers spend a lot of time and effort “navigating.”

Navigating is the polite term for the rather awkward ploy of raising one's head in mid-swim, finding a buoy, seeing how far off course one is, making a correction, putting one's face back in the water, continuing on for a few strokes and then repeating the whole affair, apparently ad infinitum.

And you know, or should know, that every time you raise your head you instantly lose longitudinal balance (i.e. your hips and legs head for the bottom) thus dramatically increasing drag. And once down there, it likely takes a couple stroke cycles for them to come back up.and then its nearly time to look for the stupid buoy again.

An admittedly unscientific poll of our clients in my most recent few Total Immersion workshops leads me to believe a surprising percentage of swimmers play the buoy search game every 6 to 10 strokes of an open water swim. This means spending a majority of their swimming time very unbalanced. And numerous course corrections mean swimming farther than the entry form says. These swimmers are spending a lot of unnecessary energy on the swim.

There is a better way.

Pay attention a while longer and I'll lay out a simple strategy that will allow you to confidently swim, perhaps, 10 times as many strokes between buoy searches as you do now. But bear with me a moment as I digress.

Take your average Joe out of the pool and put him, blindfolded, in the middle of the desert and instruct him to walk in a straight line. Given no navigational information, Joe will walk in roughly a 10 mile circle. Why? Strides he takes with his right leg are just a tad shorter or longer than strides he takes with his left leg - perhaps because one leg is slightly longer than the other, perhaps different muscle strength or joint range of motion etc.

Now put Joe in open water (still blindfolded) and tell him to swim in a straight line. Guess what? He'll swim in a circle - a much smaller circle than he walks in. Like with walking in a circle, this is due to differences on the two stroking sides.

Some swimmers swim in a 1-mile circle, some in a 500-yard circle, some in a 100-yard circle. Some could swim circles inside a Hyundai. The bigger the circle a swimmer naturally swims in, the less navigating he must do. If he swims in a perfectly straight line he would, theoretically, not need to navigate at all were it not for wind, currents, chop, other swimmers etc. Small-circle swimmers need to navigate a lot, regardless of conditions.

Or do they?

Joe, like every swimmer, travels a bit further, or straighter (or both) with one armstroke than with the other. Maybe he has a bit of the dreaded dropped elbow on one side and not on the other. Maybe he reaches a bit further forward on one side than on the other. Maybe he has better body roll on one side than the other. Hey, there are at least 150 things that could make the difference. But the place where the two sides seem to reach maximum divergence is when Joe breathes.

For most people, breathing is where they do something radically different than on the other strokes. Typically they lift their head to some degree. And they use the arm that should be extended weightlessly out front to, instead, push down on the water to help support the lifted head. This makes the stroke on that side much less propulsive. Swimmers often curve their back in craning the neck to breathe. Perhaps they roll more on the breathing side than on the non-breathing side. There's a long list — I won't bore you with all of it. For the average swimmer, breathing is where the biggest stroke differences are and hence where the biggest course errors are made.

Since most people breathe on just one side (every other stroke) they keep making course errors in the same direction. This makes the swimming circle small and the navigational problem big. One possible strategy would be to just alternate breathe (every third stroke) instead of one-side breathing (you can alternate breathe, can't you?). This could go a long way to correcting the problem. Of course this only deals with the breathing related stroke differences and wholly ignores the other stroke differences. And, alternate breathing gives you less oxygen, artificially forcing you to do the entire swim at a higher CO2 concentration (and higher heart rate) than is necessary. You need to breathe more often than every third stroke. While alternate breathing would be a step in the right direction it still has its problems. Let's refine the strategy a bit.

Try the following in your favorite open water hole. Choose a distant object to sight on. Then close your eyes and swim 50 strokes, breathing every other stroke, then stop. See how far off course you are. Repeat several times. You should be off course by roughly the same amount each time.

Now do the same thing, breathing on your other side. You will likely be off course in the opposite direction (if not, my strategy won't work for you and you can go home) but not necessarily to the same extent. Repeat several times to see the pattern.

Then try it breathing every third stroke. After 50 strokes you'll be somewhere between the two extremes - but probably not in a straight line. Repeat several times.

Now try it again, breathing with a pattern of twice on the right side and once on the left, or vice versa (we'll call this modified alternate breathing). Then try breathing patterns of 3-and-1 or 3-and-2 or 4-and-5 etc., checking after each 50 strokes to see how far that particular breathing pattern takes you away from the straight and narrow. The idea is to gradually home in on a pattern which allows you to go 50 strokes and end up right on line. Once you've established this pattern, try going 100 strokes with the same pattern.

You now have a strategy that will allow you to forego most of the navigational interruptions to fluid swimming. Realize that the conditions in any given competition may dictate a slightly different breathing pattern than you established in the quiet solitude of your test site. However, having strategy in mind, you'll quickly be able to find a pattern that matches the prevailing conditions and thereby outsmart your competition.

Ideally, somewhere down the road you'll learn more efficient swimming skills that make both sides very equal and eliminate all breathing related stroke differences — this, of course is the smartest route - but until then, you have a simple strategy for swimming straighter without looking for the stupid buoys so often (and that's smart too).

© 8/1998 H2Ouston Swims

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness 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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