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Whose Side Are You On Anyway?

(or Get Off Yer Stomach!)

Revised from an article that first appeared in Schwimmvergnügen in 1995.

fool - noun - a) person with little or no judgment, common sense, wisdom, etc.; simpleton; b) person who thinks it is possible to dramatically improve freestyle (or backstroke) efficiency yet continue to swim flat.

If I ask you to describe, in general terms, the position you swim freestyle in (or backstroke) does the phrase "On my stomach" (or "On my back") come quickly to mind? If so then come close so I may whisper a secret - "You need to get real intimate with the side-lying, full streamline position." Following are two of many reasons to get off your stomach.

Stepping on the brakes

Wave drag is the kinetic energy that any surface-penetrating moving object gives up to the water by creating waves (wake). When you move through the water on your stomach, the wake you create is bigger than when you move at the same speed on your side. This is largely due to how far (and thus how fast) water must move to get out of your way as you move through it. On your stomach water must move roughly twice as far as when you are on your side (because people are, on average, twice as wide as they are thick). This means that in creating your wake you give up twice as much kinetic energy to the water (i.e. you slow down) - energy you paid for with heart beats, energy the water won't give back (not to you, at least).

Another type of resistance is surface tension. The molecules at the surface of any liquid cohere more strongly to each other than those below surface. This forms a surface “film” which makes it more difficult to move an object through the surface than to move it when it is completely submerged. A swimmer's body on its side cuts through a smaller cross section of surface tension than a body on its back or front and therefore encounters less surface tension drag.

See Resistance and Submission for more detailed stuff on cutting resistance.

Stepping on the gas

Core-driven propulsion is our goal in swimming any stroke. In freestyle this means using core rotation around the long axis of the body as the primary engine. In a well-constructed stroke technique your arms are used primarily to transmit and translate that core rotational energy to the water as forward linear motion of your body.

Think of the side position as the "home" position of freestyle. Each stroke begins and ends in the fully streamlined, side lying position where you should experience relaxed balance as you begin the recovery. During the recovery, remain on your side with the outstretched (underwater) arm still fully extended till the recovering arm gets past your head. Then, and only then, roll briskly from one fully balanced side position to the other fully balanced side position. As the roll takes place, the recovering arm pierces forward through the water surface, continuing to move forward (not across your path) at a slight down-angle to a fully extended position. As the entry and extension take place, the underwater "stroking" arm reaches over an imaginary barrel to "grip" a spot in the water and transfer the rotational action of the roll into linear motion of the body. There is only a fleeting instant in which you could be said to be "on your stomach". On videotape it would be only one frame out of the many that show one full stroke of your swimming.

If you swim flat, you miss out on use of all the big muscles that drive core rotation relying, instead, on your comparatively wimpy little arm and shoulder muscles to do all the work.

See Bottom Up Swimming for more detailed stuff on core-driven rotation.

Passing the hot potato

There are other reasons to get off your stomach, like making it easier to breathe, reducing shoulder injuries and more. For now, though, it is sufficient to say that if you see the wisdom in increasing your swim efficiency, you should learn to get comfortable, relaxed and completely balanced on your side. Accept nothing less than feeling "at home" in this position. Think of your old "flat" position as a hot potato - to be passed rapidly lest you get burned.

Avoiding foolishness

Remember when you first started learning to ride a bike? Just staying balanced on the two-wheeled beast was a feat requiring total concentration. A momentary lapse landed you on the ground. But after enough practice and a few skinned elbows and knees you could stay balanced fairly well. A bunch more practice had you hollering, "Look Ma! No hands." Today it would take a great act of will on your part to get off-balance while riding - or some gravel on a turn, or a brush with a bus or.. Anyway, what I'm getting at is this: If you'll spend plenty of time in that side-lying position you'll develop a keen sense of balance there. If you spend enough time there you'll feel so at home in the position that you'll naturally gravitate to it and, in fact, create a strong habit that'll be nearly unbreakable.

My book, Fitness Swimming, has lots of drills designed to help you learn effortless side-gliding balance and then transition that skill into fluid swimming. The same is true of all the Total Immersion freestyle/long axis content. But even without cash outlays you can do a lot for your freestyle (or backstroke) technique with a simple change to your normal workout routine. Perhaps the best time to work on getting intimate with side-lying balance is during kicking sets. Why not throw away your kickboard today and accept personal responsibility for spending the majority of your kicking yardage on your side and balanced? Why practice kicking on your stomach with your head up in the air when you already know that swimming in that position makes you look.well.foolish? v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2005

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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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