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T'ai Chi Swimming

(or Super Low & Slow Stealth Swimming)

As I pass a park near my home there is often a group of retirement community residents practicing T'ai Chi. Precise movements, full ranges of motion, impeccable balance - all demonstrated as though someone pushed the slow-mo button on the VCR. As a student of human motion, what strikes me is that such execution of complex actions requires mastery of posture, balance and precise motion as well as complete mindfulness and highly concentrated focus at all points throughout the activity. Since the participant does not move quickly from one position to the next, there is no opportunity to "gloss past" parts of the activity where balance and/or position are "iffy."

We employ a similar concept in swimming. In my program we call it Super Low & Slow Stealth Swimming (SL&SSS). The objectives are to:

  1. minimize the number of strokes used to complete each length,
  2. dramatically decrease the speed of movement through each stroke cycle,
  3. eliminate as much noise as possible by seeing how little one can disturb the surface in passing.

Very skillful swimmers can push each of those objectives to extremes while still appearing to be swimming normally, albeit at a much-reduced tempo.

A less skilled swimmer typically finds that pushing one or more of these objectives tends to cause his stroke to "break down." In reality, the stroke was already "cracked" and slowing things down simply allowed it to fall apart at the cracks. In order to push those three objectives forward the swimmer must make some changes to one or more aspects of his habitual swimming style. SL&SSS can be used to highlight gaps in technique and then help refine (or completely retool) nearly all aspects of stroke technique.

Super Low...

Swimming is not a power-limited sport - power in excess of what is required to achieve effective motion at sustainable tempos is wasted. The swimmer that has a lot of power but no knowledge of how and where to use it is poorly equipped. The key is refining the swimming process until it becomes so efficient that minimum power can produce maximum effect (in the martial arts analogy, this is where an old man could best a young and strong one, not with more power but with the intelligent and efficient application of his body's resources). By using Super Low stroke counts the swimmer has the opportunity to maximize the effect of his available power through full ranges of swimming motion, eeking out as much forward progress as possible from each inch of stroke.

...& Slow

The largest critical success factors in SL&SSS are maintaining longitudinal balance and maintaining effective aquatic posture. Swimmers with poor aquatic posture tend to lack coordination of upper body actions with lower body actions - the central core of the body seems to ride along as cargo instead of being productively involved in making headway. Out-of-balance swimmers tend to rely on kicking to bring their hips and legs close to the surface - a gambit that fails noticeably as they slow the tempo of kicking. As the legs/hips sink, resistance goes up, distance per stroke goes down and turbulence increases. The faint "panic" this loss of control engenders tends to encourage the swimmer to speed up all motions a bit like scrambling for balance after slipping on a patch of ice.

Dramatically slowing the entire swimming process acts a bit like the slow-mo button on your video remote. Just as slow-mo video lets you see details of your swim much more accurately than normal speed video, Super Slow swimming allows you to feel balance, posture and coordination details, and to recognize which areas need attention, more quickly and accurately than is possible with normal speed swimming.

...Stealth Swimming

The benefits of the Stealth Swimming often elude people. I get comments like, "I'm no engineer, but I can't imagine that the noise I make swimming really amounts to a significant loss in efficiency." My typical response is "I'm no engineer either, but, according to my college transcript, that's what I was supposed to be. And you are correct; the sound energy you give up in swimming (even in really bad swimming) doesn't amount to much. But, every bit of noise you make is the result of moving water in turbulent (read: non-propulsive) ways. The kinetic energy you give away in moving that water definitely can amount to significant losses in efficiency."

Falling off a log

Imagine you come to a small stream while hiking and the only way to stay dry in crossing it is to walk across a narrow log that serves as a bridge. Unless you have balance-beam (or similar) experience, you might be tempted to hurry across thinking, rightly so, that if you begin to lose balance you might still make it to the other side before drenching disaster strikes (you can think of this as scrambling for balance before you slip). But if, instead, you decide to slowly and carefully cross the log, you will have to maintain impeccable balance as you execute precise and correct motions. Falling in the stream part way across would be an indicator of some gap in your log-crossing skill base. If you wanted to be able to get across a much wider stream spanned by a much longer log, the "hurry across" tactic loses its appeal entirely. It would be imperative to have excellent log-crossing skills regardless of how fast you decided to move across it. It would make sense to train for the long log by slowly crossing the short log often enough to refine your log-crossing skills such that you never (or hardly ever) fall in.

Similarly, SL&SSS helps to expose the gaps in your visceral "knowledge" of posture, balance and motion skills in swimming. If you are unable to maintain impeccable balance and coordination while moving through full-stroke swimming at very slow tempos, this should be a wake-up call telling you that there is work to be done to bridge those gaps. And the slower the tempo, the easier it will be to determine precisely where those gaps are. Any place in the stroke cycle that you feel a need to "hurry up" is a place where, just as in the "hurry across the log" scenario above, you are either scrambling in anticipation of losing balance or simply glossing past some portion of the stroke cycle that you have little or no confidence in.

How low, slow and quiet can you go?

Once basic longitudinal balance and posture skills are learned (see articles Of Air and Gravity, Critical Mass in the Twilight Zone and A Question of Balance), SL&SSS continues to be a highly effective use of training time. It allows the swimmer to explore his understanding of every part of the stroke cycle and how those parts interact. It also allows the swimmer to experiment with subtle changes and get more accurate visceral feedback as to how those changes affect the overall stroke.

How slow? I try to impress on my swimmers that SL&SSS is not a drill. This is real, full-stroke swimming - but it is done at a tempo one doesn't normally equate with swimming. For normal moderate paced freestyle, swimmers tend to choose stroke tempos somewhere in the 1 second (or less) per stroke range. Most people underestimate how much it is possible to decrease tempo in SL&SSS. It is not uncommon for swimmers trying SL&SSS for the first time to barely slow their tempo at all - perhaps only by 10% or so. But highly skilled swimmers, after some practice, are able to take SL&SSS tempos into the 3-4 seconds per stroke range without doing more kicking and without losing balance.

How low? It is not uncommon for unschooled adult swimmers to routinely use 24 to 30 strokes (each arm counts as a stroke) to go one length of a 25-yard pool when swimming normally. However, a 6-ft tall, highly skilled swimmer should expect, over time, to venture into the 6-8 strokes per length range when doing SL&SSS. I've got a 5 foot tall female swimmer who can swim 9 strokes per length in a 25 yd pool continuously.

How little noise? Imagine it is nighttime and you are a Navy SEAL trying to sneak your way onto the shore of a heavily guarded island where big-eared enemy snipers are tasked with taking out anyone approaching the island - they shoot first and never get around to asking questions. Splashing, kerplunking or bubbling sounds from hands, feet or head will draw withering fire. Any swimming noise you'd be comfortable with in that scenario is probably OK for SL&SSS.

How little disturbance? Typical competition pools have "wave-eating" lane lines separating each lane. In such a pool a highly skilled swimmer should be able to do SL&SSS with little or no wake (maybe not even ripples) getting into adjacent lanes. Get a training buddy to read your wake.

Pool tools

A great tool for progressively adjusting stroke tempo is the Tempo Trainer by Finis (http://www.finisinc.com). You can easily set the precise tempo you are shooting for, slip it under your cap and let the metronome keep you in a consistent rhythm.

It is important to understand that it is not so much the speed you move through the water but, rather, the speed of the motions you make to move you through the water that you want to reduce. As such, another tool that can be useful is training fins. Even at the slowest stroke tempos fins allow the swimmer to maintain faster progress through the water, allowing enhanced feedback about unnecessary drag. Especially in the beginning stages of experimentation with SL&SSS this can be a great help. Care must be taken, however to intermix both fin and non-fin SL&SSS so as not to create fin dependence and to avoid inadvertently using fins to gloss over some of the "cracks" in your technique, particularly balance issues.

Use of a training snorkel (also by Finis http://www.finisinc.com) can help remove the distraction and noise of breathing motions and help you focus on the more fundamental aspects of aquatic motion. It is particularly useful when listening for sounds made by appendages. But, as with fins, it is necessary to intermix snorkel and non-snorkel SL&SSS to keep from becoming dependent.

OK, I'm fantasizing a bit with this one, but I can't wait till we are able to feed real-time video of a swimmer into his virtual-reality goggles (I won't be surprised if the first offerings of such goggles are by Finis) as he swims so we can capitalize on concurrent multi-media feedback of video images while doing SL&SSS. And maybe, replacing the Tempo Trainer, we could include an appropriate selection of music, performed at precisely the correct tempo, allowing the swimmer to swim as if slow-dancing to the music.

What about my conditioning, Coach?

To some, it might seem that slow-motion swimming offers little or no training value. Horse hockey! Long term, improving your technique to avoid unnecessary resistance and eliminate wasted motions in the future has far greater training value than simply conditioning to overcome unnecessary resistance while continuing to make wasted motions today.

In addition, since long strokes are required, the swimmer uses range of motion and engages muscle fibers that tend to go neglected, and thus untrained, during most other workout activities. Long distances of SL&SSS builds aerobic base conditioning of these muscles - conditioning that can built upon for faster swimming at lower stroke counts than previously possible.

...and my speed?

And since swimming speed = distance per stroke X tempo, many swimmers also find that the combination of dramatically slower stroke tempo and dramatically longer strokes results in swimming speeds that are not as dramatically slower than "normal" swimming speeds as they might have expected. And over time, habitually longer strokes translate into faster swimming at all stroke tempos.

Brain in gear

SL&SSSwimming is not just about building physical skills and habits. Perhaps the most important aspect of SL&SSS is, as in T'ai Chi, the complete mindfulness required to do it well. SL&SSS provides a training environment ideal for building and refining mental skills and habits required to achieve total focus of concentration on the sensations and actions of highly effective swimming. These mental skills and habits, once acquired, can be applied to swimming at higher intensities, to other strokes, indeed, to other sports.

Put it in your lane

Creating habits of skills, physical and mental, that avoid unnecessary energy expenditure allows you to conserve energy at any speed - allows you to swim better, faster and for longer durations with less effort and spending fewer heartbeats. Consider slowing down occasionally on your way to swimming faster and more efficiently.

Copyright H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2005-2011

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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, published by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, published by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong) and, soon, in Turkish, Portugese 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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