Stalling in the water

[This article was first published in 2008. It has been reprised here because of the just-commenced Guppy Challenge.]

Triathletes who come to competitive swimming late in life can, in time, execute all the basic mechanics—they can do everything acceptably. Even a mediocre swimmer may successfully engineer putting the crawl stroke’s components together; he may also know how to execute the other strokes; he may learn how to flip turn; he can make his way across the pool during kick sets.

For all that, however, there may still be something missing; something that keeps swimmers like this from improving; some nebulous lack of finesse that keeps them slow. Often this nebulous “thing”—for those swimming 1.5km in 35min or 2.4mi in 1:20—is the tendency to stall in the water.

During the bicycle leg of a triathlon, a very good rider might fail to exert power during certain points in the pedal stroke and still go very fast. He can have a “torque profile” that is not at all “flat” but in fact exhibits large-amplitude waves of torque applied to the pedals. The bicycle does not tend to lose a lot of velocity during these spates of coasting. The rider’s power might stall, but his bicycle does not stall.

Not so in swimming. Swimmers cannot afford to coast. The medium through which they’re traveling is less forgiving, and a swimmer who loses velocity following or during each stroke is destined to remain slow.

There are tests you can perform that will serve as alerts. If you fail these tests, you’re stalling in the water. These tests then become the drills you do, and they’ll help you get over this problem. Once you fix these hitches in your stroke, eight and ten and fifteen thousand-yard weeks will pay big dividends and your speed will increase quickly.

First test: One-arm pulls

Push off the wall and pull with only your left arm across the length of the pool. Your right arm should be stretched out in front of you like Superman in flight. Your body will be rolled to the left, since you’ll be left-side breathing, so your right ribcage will be facing the bottom of the pool as you swim. On the return trip, pull with your right arm, right-side breathing, with your left arm straight in front of you.

When you do these one-arm pulls, your legs must kick in a rhythm appropriate to your pull rate. For example, if you’re a six-beat kicker, make sure you’re pulling once every six kicks, and that your kick is in sync with your pull. It may take a week or two (or more) of doing these one-arm drills in order for kick to sync with the pulls, but you’ll get it.

“One-arm pulls, we’re stopping the presses for this?” you might ask. Yes, you’re right, it’s just your basic one-arm pull drill, kicking in sync. The key here is what happens to the off arm—the one that’s straight in front of you. If it doesn’t stay straight, you’re stalling. When a mediocre swimmer executes a one-arm pull drill like this, you’ll see him scull (a little or a lot) with the off arm to keep his body in motion between pulls. That off-arm sculling is evidence of a stall.

Does this describe you during a one-arm pull drill? If so, then the test now becomes the fix. One-arm drills ought to become a part of every workout, until that off arm remains straight out in front during the drill, with no change in the plane of the hand. When it does, that’s evidence you’ve gotten rid of a hitch in your stroke. That paves the way for you to make big improvements in speed.

Second test: Pull buoy and innertube

I’ve made reference to a hitch in your stroke. What I mean by a “hitch” is any extraneous motion that interrupts the fluidity and economy of a perfect technical execution. It’s not limited to swimming. You might have a hitch in your cycling pedal stroke. Or in your golf swing. You may survive such a hitch in your bat swing, and like Dave Winfield make your way into baseball’s Hall of Fame. But you can’t survive a hitch in your swim stroke, because the water is just too unforgiving a medium.

One such hitch causing a swimmer to stall in the water is a bend at the waist during breathing. Let’s say you’re a left-side breather. Often, the mediocre swimmer makes the taking of a breath a much bigger event than it deserves, complete with a bend at the waist like homage paid to the god of oxygen. No need for that. Imagine your body is a log, rolling to one side and then the other during each stroke. A log roll to take a breath, rather than a twist at the waist, is what’s needed here.

Are you a waist-bender instead of a log roller? You’ll know if you are because, in response to taking your body off its straight-ahead line, you’ll splay your legs wide during the kick. As you might guess, the test for this sort of behavior is to bind your feet together, and see what your body does. Small-diameter, fat-tire innertubes—like those found inside a wheelbarrow tire—partially inflated and placed around your ankles, should do the trick nicely. If you swim across the pool thusly immobilized from the waist down, you’ll slither serpentine like a water snake if you suffer from this annoying habit.

Lest you think this is torture, it could be worse. Some coaches simply have you tie you ankles together with an uninflated bicycle innertube. You’re supposed to make your way back and forth with no pull buoy, nothing to keep your legs afloat. I’ve heard that Brett Sutton employs this method with his athletes, and that former World Champion triathlete Siri Lindley got her way up to the first pack of women training in this fashion.

So, I’m actually giving you a bit of a free ride by allowing you to inflate a fat, small-diameter, innertube. Likewise, I could’ve given you a much harder one-arm pull drill above. But the idea here, for the sake of these exercise, is not to make you suffer through drills for which you’re not yet ready; it’s to unearth and then correct a problem. Nastier versions come later, when you’ve got the technique to support the more advanced versions of these drills.

As in the case with one-arm pulls, the bound-ankles test becomes the bound-ankles drill should your stroke go to hell once your ankles are bound. And, as with one-arm pulls, every swim session should include a bit—even if it’s just 200 yards—of swimming with your legs bound and unable to splay.

The more you hate one-arm pulls and swimming with your feet bound the more you probably need to do these drills. These are not problems that are difficult to overcome. In fact, having unearthed and isolated these problems you’ll solve them quickly if you force yourself to magnify the bad effects through these drills. Your body will make the necessary changes, and the hitch in your stroke—whether caused by twisting at the waist during breathing, or crossing the centerline of your body with your hand during the catch phase—will be a thing of the past. The hitch now resolved, you’ll no longer stall in the water. Your kick will be even, your feet will not splay during the kick, you’ll be much more streamlined in the water, and everything you do will contribute to forward propulsion.

[Fast forward to 2016: I wrote about Brett Sutton's coaching techniques above in 2008 and frankly forgot what I wrote back then. Reading it afresh it dovetails with what I recently cited from about Brett, about his liberal use of pull buoys. I have accordingly asked you to consider investing in and using a pull buoy during much of your swimming because the pull buoy accomplishes - in a less draconian fashion - what the innertube does in the article above: Each keeps the legs and feet together, forcing you to roll rather than bend at the waist. ]