Category Archives: Swimming

More Notes on Achieving the Early Vertical Forearm

NOTE: Portions of this post were drawn from my posts in the Total Immersion forums.
A while back, I wrote a post about my path to achieving the Early Vertical Forearm or EVF. Over a year now of coaching TI, I thought I’d capture all my EVF thoughts into one place.
Pre-requisites for EVF:
1. First, the high elbow catch requires some mobility. You must have sufficient mobility in the shoulder, arm, and elbow for you to perform this movement at all. So if you have restrictions or are stiff, you need work in this area before any progress can be made. I would search out a good physical therapist/sports medicine person to help with this. If you want to try it yourself, probably the best text I’ve found is Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett. You can also find some free resources at his website Someone trained in the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) will also be a big help (this is why I certified in FMS; to learn how to address mobility and inbalances in the whole body, and as a coach not as a clinician).
2. You must be able to spear higher, about horizontal. The higher your elbow is at the start of the EVF, the easier it will be to let your forearm drop underneath it. But you shouldn’t be spearing horizontal to try for EVF if you haven’t perfected body balance to a point where spearing horizontal means your hips start to drop!
TI teaches a deeper spear in the beginning to help our students learn proper balance in the water. At some point, you should start seeing if you can derive proper balance through the body alone and not rely on your arm’s depth for balance. Once you have great balance no matter how deep you spear, you can then start moving towards imprinting the EVF.
Next comes neuromuscular patterning of the movement. I would break that down into 2 parts, what happens in the extended arm and what happens in the overall stroke/switch in the entire body and arms.
Extended arm:
After you address mobility, then you need to be able to get your elbow on top of your arm, or at least somewhat on top if not a bit to the side. If you cannot, you will not be able to drop your forearm/hand under your elbow – it will fold inward towards your head.
On dryland, try this drill. Extend one of your arms with your palm facing down, as if you just speared. Now, without a ton of movement in the shoulder AND keeping your hand still, rotate just your elbow from its down/side position to the top of the arm. Nice parlor trick right?
Here is a video of me explaining this movement:

That was the advanced and most desirable movement. For some, shoulder and neuromuscular issues may make this movement difficult. An easier path is to just rotate your hand inward, with the thumb starting to point down, about 5-10 degrees. This also gets your elbow nearly on top. You do not want to rotate your hand all the way inward to get your elbow all the way on top; this is bad because now your palm is not facing backward and is not in the optimal position to catch water.
In the water, you must imprint this movement as you spear. So as the spear extends outward, you must either turn your thumb inward/down slightly, or better rotate your elbow on top (without excessive rotation of the shoulder and no movement of hand). Either way puts your elbow in a more optimal position to just let your forearm drop underneath it, or nearly under it – it may bend slightly inward.
But also remember, your entire body is in motion at this point. So even if your elbow is not all the way on top, the moment you bend is when you spear the other hand so that it will end up with the hand pointing down once your body rotates with the other side spearing.
This is a good segway into the patterning of the entire movement:
I highly recommend practicing Coach Dave Cameron’s dryland drill. It is one of the best ways to drill the spearing and EVF movement:

In the water, the EVF has many elements.
First, you must be able to do this movement WITHOUT moving your upper arm during the time to stroke back. Most swimmers have imprinted just moving the entire arm back during the stroke back; this habit must be changed. So at the time when you would normally move the entire arm back, you just drop the forearm under the elbow. This is the essence of Coach Dave’s video.
Second, you must adjust the timing of your stroke back. Here is a textual description of this movement while swimming:
1. You are at the end of recovery. For the sake of clarity, let’s say the right arm is in proper spear-ready position, the left arm is extended in front of you. As we discussed before, you already have your elbow on top or near-top of the arm. Your fingers are relaxed and drooped slightly, such that your palm is facing somewhat back.
2. As the right arm begins its spear, it drops into the water. Your left arm is still extended – remember the patient lead arm!
3. As the right arm spear starts extending forward (and your body is beginning to rotate, probably getting flat at this point), your left arm bends at the elbow WHILE keeping the upper arm still extended forward. Thus the left forearm is dropping below the elbow to catch water with the entire forearm, not just hand.
4. The right arm spear is now extending forward and the left arm has a full vertical forearm now. Your body has rotated almost its finished position on the other side.
5. As the right arm spear is shooting forward, only now do you stroke back with the left hand, keeping its path straight backward which results in the elbow moving “high” in the water back with the hand. The stroke back along with the 2BK and hip drive through the torso and shoulders is what launches the spear forward, and you along with it.
Most of the time, the main issue is that you want to get your whole arm stroking back as soon as possible. You need to change that and delay it until you drop the forearm under the elbow first before stroking back.
You must leave your patient lead arm left extended forward a little longer until the recovering arm has entered the water and begun its path forward. At this point, most swimmers have imprinted a timing which is to pull the lead arm back as the recovering arm has dropped into the water. Now you must delay that by a tiny bit more to let the forearm drop down first and then stroke back.
Note that Coach Shinji has described two phases of tension. The first is when you drop your forearm down and you place pressure on the water you’ve caught with your entire arm, at the beginning of you stroking back. Then as you pass your shoulder, the tension lessens until you get a bit further down your torso and then again you use tension to push water back strongly, as you finish the stroke back to your hip. This is apparently very present for sprinting; for longer distance, they have found that there is more tension at the back of the stroke near the hip, versus in front.
All this takes a ton of practice and work, some out of the pool, but it is definitely achievable by everyone.

Tips on Turning a Masters Workout into a Total Immersion Practice

For those of you swimming in Masters workouts and want to continue to incorporate TI learnings and principles, here are some tips:
General Tips:
1. Practice maintaining mental focus on each lap, to do whatever it is you are practicing for those lengths or laps.
2. Train your brain to keep active for the entire workout. Resist drifting off.
3. Practice counting strokes for each length, and remembering them by the end of the workout.
4. If stroke counting and other data you want to remember is hard, buy a waterproof notebook and waterproof pen from amazon and write things down. I would not recommend regular pen and paper. Paper will disintegrate upon contact with water, and regular pens won’t write on soaked paper.
5. Focus on continual improvement. Know when you are slipping or getting tired. Change your routine if it is getting monotonous.
6. Know when to get out of the pool. Our energy and skill ebb and flow day by day. Sometimes it’s better to just get out of the pool and – most importantly – do not keep imprinting bad swim habits for the sake of lasting through a workout.
7. Swimming has a energy system training component, but until your swimming skill has reached a decent level, it is more important to train the nervous system FIRST so that your body can make the correct swimming movements before you worry about extending perfect swim habits over time. Swimming poorly at higher stroke rates in an attempt to increase speed will result in exponential energy usage but with very little speed increase, or perhaps even decrease. It will also raise the probability of injury.
8. Training for short distance sprints versus for longer distance (ie. triathlon swim leg) versus for marathon swims (ie. swim around Manhattan) all have common elements and different elements. Don’t mistake the training that many coaches might do for pool swimming for optimal swim training for long distance.
9. Get to know your stroke counts at given tempos and lengths (ie. 25y, 50m). Take some time to setup a tempo/SPL matrix.
10. Having a Tempo Trainer (TT) means you can have consistency between workouts and know if your skill has increased or decreased day by day. Without the TT, it can be very hard to know if you’re really swimming better or not. Or if you’re having an off day.
11. Get used to swimming with the TT. It can be annoying/distracting/unfamiliar to be swimming to a task master like the TT whose beep forces you to swim to its tune, not to your own. I swim with the TT all the time now and can’t imagine swimming without it for workouts.
12. Get to know the Masters coach. Does he/she care if you break from doing his workouts exactly or does he come over to yell at you if you don’t swim his instructions? Does he let you not swim with tools if you want? Can you swim a set in freestyle even if he calls out back/breast/fly?
Are you able to ignore his instructions or yelling if he comes over and sees you not following your instructions exactly?
Does he comment on your little TT gadget and then make disparaging remarks about it? Or does he even comment on you “swimming TI” and how TI sucks?
It may be time to switch Masters workouts – your goal is to swim better, not to be berated for attempting to improve your swimming. IMHO a great coach should be open to new ideas and not be dismissive. In any case, unless you are specifically on a swim team driven by this coach, you should have more freedom on how you swim his workouts.
If you don’t have a TT, use these tips:
1. Before you start the workout, have a set of things you want to workout during the Masters workout. Generally, these boil down to focal points which will help you practice great swim form and habits.
2. For each interval, pick a focal point or set of focal points. Maintain the focal point for the entire length or lengths.
3. As you pause at the wall, select the next focal point, or keep you current focal point. You may want to practice the same focal point for many laps/lengths/intervals.
4. As your ability to swim with focal points increases, you can start trying to employ more than one focal point within a given swim set.
a. The first method would be to rotate between focal points, changing after each length. Ex. for a 150m lap, you would do focal point 1 for the 1st 50, focal point 2 for the 2nd 50, then back to focal point 1 for the 3rd 50.
b. A more advanced method would be to try to swim any given length while focusing on 2 more focal points at once.
5. Count strokes for each length. For TI, we like to count when the lead arm spears forward as one stroke.
a. Generally the first length seems to always be one stroke less. It is most likely the result of strong initial pushoff plus the length you are swimming with the most energy.
b. If you have a TT, we usually push off on a beep, let one beep go by while gliding, then pull one arm back on the 2nd beep, and our first official counted stroke is on the 3rd beep. This works for tempos of 1.2s or higher (or slower tempo). For faster tempo, we sometimes let another beep go by.
In general, you want to start stroking at about the same point in a pool length, which is usually around where the flags are. If you start stroking at different points in the lane, you’ll find your stroke count could vary by 1-2 on this fact alone.
If you have a TT, use these tips:
Use the tips for without the TT and combine with the below:
Warm Up Set:
1. Use the warm up set to determine your easy and cruise tempo for the day. It may be your usual easy and cruise tempos, or it may have changed due to other factors like fatigue.
2. Determine how many lengths or laps you can swim for your warmup. Start with your easy tempo. Aim to increase your tempo each length or lap until you hit your cruise tempo. So do some quick math and know the increment you want to increase tempo with, and adjust the TT after every length or lap.
Do not be afraid to not increase the TT if you are not feeling comfortable just yet. Swim another lap and see if adaptation occurs on this or the next length/lap.
If for some reason you’re just not able to increase it, you may have reached your current neural threshold. This is a data point for use later during the set.
3. You can use the warm up set to employ some focal points to fine tune your technique for the main set. This can also be a good time to see which focal points you need more work with, or less.
Main Set:
1. Get to know your tempos for the various effort levels a Masters coach might designate for a set. These might be easy, cruise, tempo, fast, strong, sprint, etc. These will also vary by length. Ex. you might be able to sprint at .7s tempo for 50m but you have a hard time sustaining that for 100m so you set at .8s.
Note this changes day to day based on fitness/fatigue level, and also as your skill grows.
2. Upon hearing the set, think quickly on the tempo(s) you will use, adjust the TT before you swim.
3. Depending on the set, you may or may not need to adjust the TT.
Sometimes you may go out too fast a tempo for a given set or fitness/fatigue level. You may need to pause at the wall to readjust tempo.
4. The easiest sets to swim with the TT are the ones that have a pause at the wall, which is time for you to be able to adjust the TT. So 3×50 descend 1-2-3 on 1:50 interval would have pauses between 50s to speed up tempo to aid in the descend.
The more difficult, if not impossible sets, are the ones that vary speed without you pausing at the wall. For example, a set which is 150s descending 50s would be tough to stop in between the lengths to adjust the TT. In situations like this, I would recommend one of two options:
a. Don’t adjust the TT. Just swim the entire 150 at one tempo. Note that this may cause yelling at you by the coach.
b. Set the TT at the starting tempo which is slower. Then attempt to “beat the beep” on the subsequent lengths. You could set it at the ending tempo but I find that it is more comfortable to start with the slower beep and then beat it on the subsequent lengths.
5. TI discourages the use of tools like fins and paddles. Depending on the situation, they have their uses. However, they do tend to interfere with developing the finer points of swimming that we teach. You should consider not swimming with them even during sets which require them.
6. If you are primarily a freestyle swimmer, consider free for sets that are back/breast/fly. You should essentially practice free as much as possible to get better at it. This may also result in a yelling session from your coach.
7. Over the time of a Masters workout, I like to end up at a faster tempo than when I started. This is because:
a. As my nervous system adapts, I can generally sustain higher tempos.
b. Pushing higher tempos challenges my neural threshold. My goal is to maintain form at higher tempos which in theory means I should be swimming faster.
c. Over the course of a race, you always want to end up either at the same effort level or higher by the end. Most of your competitors won’t have trained that way and will fizzle while you will be experiencing rising energy and, hopefully, speed.
So start with Easy->Cruise during Warm Up. Then start the first sets at cruise tempo and eventually end up faster than that, probably ending up at tempo which may end up being the new cruise tempo by the end of the workout, maybe even sprint tempo if the coach designates some sprints at the end.
8. Don’t increase tempo or back off to previous tempo if your nervous system isn’t adapting to the new tempo. Evidence is speed drop off, form breaks down, extra effort or discomfort experienced, etc. However, be patient. Try again in a set or two. Sometimes a little more time needs to happen before adaptation.
Having said that, if you just increased tempo and finding it tough to adapt AND you feel good still, try swimming a length or 2 or 3 at the new faster tempo. You may adapt after a few more lengths.
8. Be mindful of stroke counts and times to swim a length or lap. Practice using your brain to keep track of both as much as possible to know when your form is slipping. For example, a stroke count increase of 2 or more between lengths probably means your form faltered on that length, if the tempo remained constant. Another example: if you stroked at a faster tempo but your time to swim the length remained the same as with a slower tempo, was that a good set or bad?
Cool Down:
1. Simple method is to set it very slow and swim but with the same mindfulness. The aim is to swim technique-wise the same whether slow tempo or fast. But swimming slowly will cool you down.
2. Turn off the TT and swim slowly.
3. Practice minimizing stroke count with and without the TT.
4. Use focal points but with slower tempo for cool down.

Total Immersion: Where Should the Hand Leave the Water at the End of a Stroke?

In the Total Immersion forums, a user asked about where should hand leave the water for recovery. I thought it would be useful to repost my response here:
Regarding when/where the hand release should happen, I think you should think of it this way:
1. In general, the longer the hand is in the water (and assuming it is moving, hopefully straight back!), then it is still contributing to forward motion. This is good. Therefore, your goal is to have as long a stroke length in the water as possible, as traced by your hand.
2. Having said 1., it is very dependent on tempo and your ability to move your hand underwater faster, which involves strength and endurance.
So in order to move your hand through water which is a much heavier medium than air, it will require more strength – to do that over time requires endurance of your arm muscles.
Faster tempos thus give you less time to travel that distance from catch to where you’d want to exit the hand out of the water (and you still have to move the hand back forward in recovery).
NOTE: It is possible that if you move your hand TOO fast, then it may slip and you are not gaining the most benefit of the stroke back but in actuality wasting energy moving your hand back as fast as possible, but not maximizing your potential forward energy given that your hand is slipping and not gripping water as well as when it is moving slower.
3. Given your fitness and skill level at a moment in time, you may be able to swim at a faster tempo BUT in order to keep up with the tempo you have no choice but to exit the hand sooner, which may mean that you exiting at your waist or even above. Attempting to lengthen your stroke length underwater of your hand may be difficult to impossible to maintain because your strength and endurance may not be high enough. Thus you have no choice but to exit sooner.
4. You can also play with speeding up the arm forward after it exits the water to help you lengthen the stroke portion underwater. But you may reach an upper limit of how fast you can move your arm forward given your current fitness and skill level.
5. During a race, you may find that you want to sprint but simply cannot get a faster tempo without exiting sooner. This will also vary based on your fatigue level which will change during race conditions.
BTW, play with faster tempos and where you exit the hand; you may find that even though you are shortening your underwater stroke length, your overall speed is still going up, when compared to attempting to keep the same stroke length. This is evidence that some other part of your stroke is falling apart a bit as you try to speed up AND also try to maintain stroke length.
For example, a little while ago, I was playing with this and faster tempos and found that when I exited sooner, I had a bit more time to execute a better spear + 2 beat kick and got more speed. When I was rushed due to a longer stroke length, it became messier and I was actually more slower overall! So this is yet another thing to work on….!
Train to lengthen the underwater stroke portion via the same methods prescribed by TI – proceed measurably and slowly, increasing your tempo bit by bit over time. Use the tempo trainer religiously!

Total Immersion: More on Training for the Early Vertical Forearm (EVF)

Mike McCloskey, a Total Immersion swimmer, wrote to me regarding some tips on training for a Early Vertical Forearm or EVF.
Here were my replies:
What drill(s) can you recommend to entrain a high elbow catch, or, which one(s) helped you the most?
In answer to your question, first see my old post:
Total Immersion: Learning the Early Vertical Forearm – Training, Training, Training
You really have spear as horizontal as possible and you may not even know if you’re spearing lower than you should without looking at video of yourself. Spearing horizontal makes the elbow high and allows an easier EVF.
Next, watch Dave Cameron’s video. This is an excellent dryland exercise. I used to do it all the time just standing around until it was burned into my brain. It doesn’t completely make it easy in the water, but it does help a great deal.
Some drills/focal points to try:
1. Leave your patient lead arm out there as long as you can before you stroke. This doesn’t directly train the EVF but it does train critical timing and helps you resist the temptation to just stroke back with the non-spearing arm.
2. Attempt Dave’s dryland drill in the water. Keep your current spearing arm out there as long as you can, and as you spear the other arm, bend the elbow of the previously speared arm before stroking back.
3. Extend the upper arm of the previously speared arm, as you spear the other arm. This helps train you also to not just pull back the arm while you initiate the EVF. You want the EVF to complete before you start stroking back.
4. A variant of 3, open up the axilla/armpit of the previously speared arm, as you spear the other arm. Feel a big circle form from your armpit, arcing to the elbow joint and down the forearm as the forearm drops down, but the upper arm does not because you’re extending the armpit.
5. Swim forward by using the momentum of the spearing arm only, plus the hip drive and the 2BK. Resist the temptation to pull back the stroking arm for as long as possible and try to get as much forward momentum with the spear/hip/2BK. As you spear, just drop the other arm’s forearm down but do not stroke back until the last possible moment.
6. A variant of 4, use the hip drive of the spear to open up the axilla/armpit of the opposite arm. In essence, use your hip to powerfully open up the axilla and dropping the forearm down into EVF. This really helps cement the body’s role in creating the catch and the subsequent stroke.
He then asks:
1) You point out that Shinji hardly uses EVF except for races, because he feels it is too tiring for general use. Do you feel the same way and do you only use EVF for ‘special occasions’? My motivation for entraining a good EVF is in large part to train the lats to take over some of the work my rotator cuff and deltoids have been doing, therefore, HOPEFULLY, to reduce shoulder stress. But if in fact EVF is more rather than less exhausting, in particular for shoulders, maybe I’d better look elsewhere for shoulder relief.
I think you can train your body to do just about anything. I also should ask him exactly why he thinks it’s tiring for him as I’m not really sure. When you watch videos of Shinji, you’ll probably notice that his catch is not as aggressively “forward vertical” as Sun Yang’s. Still, his form is impeccable and his speed shows – he told me he swam a 1:04 100m in a Masters meet! Wow!
After doing EVF training for almost a year now, I finally think I have the hang of it and will be extending it to at least Alcatraz crossing distance (~1.2 miles).
As for reducing stress on your rotator cuff and delts – I’m not sure EVF will in itself make that better. More likely other TI aspects will have a greater effect on your shoulder joint and muscles.
As mentioned in one of my focal points about not resisting the stroke back – you should try some laps where you try to swim *with barely any stroking energy* at all. This forces you to rely solely on spear/arm drop/hip drive/2BK to send you forward, as your other arm just kinda hangs out there. You’ll be amazed at how fast you can go without relying on the stroking arm. It’s a great way to fine tune the non-intuitive parts of swimming propulsion.
Doing this also helps EVF because now your arm is just hanging out there and you have time/space to let your forearm drop down.
And of course your shoulder muscles and joint is saved since you’re swimming faster without using shoulder muscles to force your way through water.
2) In reply to the deep vs. shallow spear, early last year (or so) there was a thread on the TI forum discussing a video of Ian Thorpe, and I pointed out that his hand entry was fairly deep and steep, surprisingly TI-like, but immediately thereafter his hand came back near the surface so his forearm was nearly horizontal. Next, the forearm moved down again into a vertical position for the catch. I wondered if this ‘dolphin-like’ down-up-down motion was intentional, and Terry replied that it merely reflected Thorpe’s great ability to relax his lead arm. I never got that part, for the reason you mention elsewhere, i.e., a deep angle of entry makes it hard to bring the elbow back up, because the forward motion puts pressure on the forearm opposing that motion. In the face of that pressure, how could simply relaxing the arm allow it to ‘float’ back up?
That video is here:

Thorpe’s spear is the shallow I was talking about. I was only talking about the part of the arm when it is underwater and not about the steepness of the entry. you need to end up with a more horizontal extended arm than angled downward, which is where TI beginners may start when they first learn balance in the water.
The angle of entry is defined by the path of a cocked arm as it touches down into the water. You should not be extending the arm before it hits the water. But once it enters the water, you control the depth of where it goes. You want to drop into the water and immediately shoot it horizontally forward. So you are changing the direction spearing arm.
Thorpe is amazing actually – his hand is actually shooting higher than horizontal but he retains enough control to never break the water surface which is bad. This can get a tiny bit more elbow height!
3) In reply to your point #5 (resist the temptation to pull back) … it’s been subconscious and so deeply engrained … but at least these drills have brought it to consciousness. Even when I use what I imagine (no video or other observers yet) is something closer to EVF, and definite catch, than before, I can feel the lats engage and push water back. But that’s a forward step for now, I think, because it’s my bigger less fatigable lats doing the work my shoulders were doing.
There are lats engaging but also connecting your stroking arm to your body’s rotation will also lend authority to the stroke back without wiping out muscles. It’s a hard concept to grasp but once you have the coordination, I think one day you’ll email me back and say “Dave, so THAT’S what you meant by coordinating the stroke back with body rotation!”
Another way to look at all this is, you’re changing the timing of your arms in the stroke cycle. When you first learned TI, and usually Shinji teaches this first, you spear and stroke back at the same time. This timing is easier to master. Once you get this, then it’s onwards to EVF. NOW you’ll have to change your timing. The spear now happens first and is on its way forward, as the other arms drops into EVF and THEN strokes back. The timing is now shifted. So one manifestation is the fact that you need to resist stroking back so soon in order to change that timing….

ART for Swim Performance Enhancement

Way back in 2005, I wrote about how Active Release Technique (ART) could be used for performance enhancement in my post, Where there is Pain, There is Gain… . Using ART, I released decades of adhesions that were restricting my hips from moving properly. After loosening of them up, I was able to improve my speed dramatically in as little as two weeks!
This last week I asked my ART doc to check out my shoulder blades or scapulae due to a new focal point I learned through Total Immersion. This focal point was to move the scapula forward during arm recovery, so as to increase the elbow’s forward position during a proper elbow led recovery. As I practiced this, I became aware that I was performing an unfamiliar movement, and I immediately thought of using ART to make sure that my muscle structure around my shoulder blades remained loose. If they were tight and short, then those muscles would restrict the movement of the shoulder blade forward and either not let it get as far forward as possible, or start using too much energy in the muscles used in moving the shoulder blade forward.
My ART doc did some work on the muscles of the shoulder blades. The muscles that could restrict the movement of the shoulder blade forward are the rhomboids, erector spinae, lower trapezoids, and serratus anterior. Strangely, my left side was worse than my right; certainly there were restrictions there, but the left side was much more restricted. Once he released those muscles, my shoulder blade did feel looser.
However, in thinking further, I think this is correct – my left side does have a better elbow led recovery than my right, and it’s possible that this action did naturally cause more restriction in those muscles. Now I’m trying to even it out and so I anticipate more restrictions to pop up as I perform this unfamiliar movement. Still, with constant ART treatment, I should be able to fully integrate the correct movement for elbow led recovery while managing my muscles’ adaptation process. Without ART, I run the risk of letting the restrictions and adhesions grow, which could cause injury and movement issues later on.
ART is an amazing discipline and I enjoy exploring its performance enhancing capabilities in my training.

Total Immersion: A Session with Dave Cameron 10-24-11

This weekend, I took the last two days of Total Immersion coach certification – I’m almost there, needing only to do one last homework assignment and I’ll be an official TI coach!
At the end of the coach certification classes, I asked Dave Cameron (aka Distance Dave) if he would do a short private coaching session with me. As always, the comments were fascinating. I will talk about them as focal points during the swimming laps he had me swim:
1. Swim with fists, then point the index finger, then point the index finger and pinky (the “longhorn”), and then open up the hands and swim with fully open hands
As I went through this progression of swimming with each hand position for 10 strokes (on a 50m pool), I was told to focus on the hip drive into spear to drive the body forward, and not rely on the hand stroking back because my ability to catch was hampered by the closed hands. As a second observation, I could see the effect of catching on the forearm and not only the hand.
2. Open up the axilla on the recovering arm and use the hip drive to open it up and catch more water. The axilla is a fancy name for the underarm/armpit. We talk about opening up the axilla on the spearing arm, in order to get extra body length on the stretch forward, as well as a longer stroke back since it begins further forward. However, this was the first time someone talked about opening up the axilla on the recovering arm! If I do it right, this makes the EVF even more effective by catching a big volume of water underneath the curve of my arm because I am extending my axilla of the recovering arm as I spear with my forward arm. Definitely an exercise in coordination here! Then, Dave told me to use my hip drive to create the opening in the axilla which was another interesting but effective notion.
3. Keep the hands facing back at all times during stroke and recovery, as it lifts out of the water and comes forward. I was turning my hand at the end of the stroke, which can cause a chicken wing elbow as it lifts out of the water. This inhibits proper elbow led recovery.
4. Move the shoulder blade as far forward to enhance elbow led recovery. I was not moving the shoulder blade forward enough, which sometimes encouraged a hand led recovery which is very bad. Moving the shoulder blade helped keep my elbow leading the recovery and also put my hand in the right place to drop into the water.
5. Practice hip drive on all of the above. We would run through each of the focal points, and then Dave would ask me to insert a stronger hip drive while maintaining the previous focal point. Yes, lots of practice maintaining not only one focal point but two, sometimes three!
It’s always invaluable to continue my private coaching with Shinji and Dave!

Alcatraz Invitational 2011: A New PR and GPS Fun

Yesterday, I swam the Alcatraz Invitational 2011, one of the many Alcatraz swims that are held each year. This one is held by the South End Rowing Club and is a favorite.
Alcatraz swims can generally be held in two conditions, either starting with a flood or ebb. Then there is a slack where it changes direction and the current is zero or very low for some time, and then it fully switches to the other direction. Depending on which current it starts with determines what landmarks you sight on, and therefore, what direction you swim to work with the current and not against it in reaching Aquatic Park.
For this swim, I stuffed my Garmin 305 GPS watch under my swim cap to track the results. I am always curious on my actual track – did I go off course? How far did the current take me? Was I fast enough to get across or was I too conservative? Here is the track:

Disregard the track around Alcatraz Island; I turned on the tracking before I hopped off the boat as I wanted to make sure the timer was on before I stuffed it under my swim cap. The swim started at that little jog in the track, to the right and slightly lower than Alcatraz Island in the image.
In this case, it started with a flood, and a very mild one at that. Faster swimmers always can go directly for the opening at Aquatic Park; I thought it best that I should point slightly off from the opening in case I could not get across before the flood would start coming in and sweep me past the opening (this happened to me once; it was a tiring trick to achieve the opening when the current is going against you). So I sighted on Fort Mason and you can see the my initial track was slightly left of the opening.
As I swam across and got closer and closer to Aquatic Park, I began to steer towards the opening. But given that my track was pretty straight to Fort Mason, the current was nearly nil and I probably could have gone directly for the opening and gotten to the finish line faster.
I steered to the opening of Aquatic Park, and then made a beeline for the beach where the finish line was. By my personal watch, I made it from leap off the ship to beach timing mat in 33:43, a new personal record! (NOTE: the results say 35:09 which is probably total clock time).
I was very ecstatic – If I did not count incorrectly, this was my 15th crossing and I have been frustrated to not be able to lower my time from the usual 42-45 minutes that it takes me. Finally, I was able to come in below 42 minutes.
In future swims, I think I will be confident and go directly for the opening. I think that rebuilding my stroke via Total Immersion has helped a lot, and I shouldn’t be fearful that I will mistime the currents, although given the varying conditions of the San Francisco Bay, I am sure it will happen more than once still in the future!

The Waikiki Rough Water Swim 9-5-11 with Garmin 305 GPS

Today, I got up early and swam the Waikiki Rough Water Swim. It’s my third time swimming it and hoped for a faster time today but it was not to be – I did it in 1:22:46 which is about 2+ minutes slower than my previous time of 1:20. Rebuilding my stroke via Total Immersion has slowed me down but I know it’s for the better as I relearn how to swim with better form and build my speed from there.
This time out, I tried mapping my swim with my Garmin 305 GPS Watch. I’ve heard from numerous people on how they have done it by stuffing under their swim caps. Some put on a swim cap and then they put the watch into a ziploc bag, put it on their head, and then put another swim cap on top. Others put a swim cap on, then duct tape the watch to this swim cap without ziploc bag (it is supposedly water resistant), and then put another cap on top.
Two days ago, I had to make sure that one method would work so that on race day I would not be fiddling with the GPS watch right before race start. I didn’t have duct tape but I did put the watch into a ziploc bag to help reduce its water exposure. I put on a swim cap but I could not put on another swim cap over my watch and my head no matter what I did! I was definitely feeling like I would rip my second swim cap for sure. So I just stuffed the bagged watch under the back of my swim cap, right above my neck. That worked fine – it was a bit bulky but it didn’t bother me.
I then tried to hit the start button but no dice. I could not tell if it was started or not! When I thought I had hit the button and took it out to check, it was not started. So I just decided that I would hit start and then stuff the bagged watch under my swim cap and hope that the swim cap’s tightness wouldn’t re-hit the start button, which stops the timing. After stuffing the bagged watch under the cap, I put on my goggles and adjusted the double strap so that it would loop around the watch face and not put pressure on the start/stop or lap buttons.
Hitting the start button before the actual race start meant I would not get actual race timing this way, but I could GPS location data for the swim course. I had another Timex watch anyways so I would time the race with that.
This morning, I did all this and jumped into the water when the start horn went off. Here are the mapped results, downloaded into the Garmin Training Center and then uploaded to Google Earth application for Mac OS.

According to the GPS track, at least I did not go wandering around the course much; I was pretty much following the buoys closely. I just was slower than the last time I did it and to pour salt on the wound there was a current going in our favor too! Oh well, I got some cool GPS data to show for it and will dig later into the data to see if the speed data is worth looking at. I also look forward to jumping back into the pool to keep fine tuning my technique and hopefully improve my open water speed. Next up: Alcatraz crossing in two weeks.

Total Immersion: Training for Higher Tempos and Higher Speeds

In this thread of the Total Immersion forums, I replied to Terry Laughlin’s post of:

Sun Yang is the new TI poster boy. (No we are not claiming him as a TI swimmer, only as a demonstration that longer strokes ARE the way to superior swimming.

with this comment and query:

I have been working towards a race and using the TT to prepare. My goal has been to gradually raise the tempo and practice relaxing and maintaining proper form. So far, I’ve made it to 1.08s where I find my 50s are still getting faster. However, once I move past 1.08s I find that my 50s are slowing down quite a bit, and even slower than 1.08s. So faster SR doesn’t necessarily mean faster times!
But your statement intrigues me above, that longer strokes are the way to superior swimming. It would seem that when my TT goes faster, a few things happen:
1. My ability to recover between left and right arm strokes reduces exponentially. It’s amazing how sensitive that is to minute drops in tempo.
However, training with the TT means I can change that week over week which is pretty amazing.
2. In order to achieve speed, I find the limiting factors are:
a. My hip connection to the spear is diminished, as I’m trying to keep up with the TT but I can’t seem to generate the same authority in the spear with the hip.
b. My hip rotation is diminished in order to keep up with the TT. I find that a tiny bit more hip rotation means I can get a little more oomph in a spear. But hip rotation is lowered as the TT interval is diminished.
c. In reference to 1. above, each stroke has less force pulling since I’m tiring faster. With less pulling force, I diminish my speed when compared to pulling with more force.
d. My pull also shortens in an attempt to keep up with the TT, while I get tired and can’t pull back fast enough to maintain a SL from earlier when I am less tired.
e. The recovering arm must also move very quickly forward. Getting tired can make this slow down.
Is the goal to then train such that at higher tempos:
1. maintain SL, which means a faster pull to make the tempo interval.
2. As I maintain SL, I must also train to maintain the force of the pull. Simply swishing my arm fast through the water doesn’t have enough effect.
3. I also have to work on maintaining the authority of the hip’s contribution to the spear/pull.
Thoughts? Any other insight you could share about training at higher tempos and actually getting faster versus just getting tired faster?
Also, my goal to reach higher tempos is driven by the fact that my next race is in OW and in choppy waters, I am challenged to swim at lower tempos as the waves batter my body…
Thanks in advance!

To which Terry replied:

As a tech guy, you’ll appreciate the following:
1) Your Tempo is a Data Point
2) Your SPL at any given Tempo is a Data Point.
2) Every sensation you experience when you approach or cross your current threshold of 1.08 is also a Data Point.
The more data points you have the better your information and the more targeted your efforts can be.
Key tenets of Mastery, Deliberate Practice and Flow are
i) Be error-focused. Constantly practice in ways calculated to expose weak points.
ii) When you find an error or weak point, develop strategies to strengthen them.
All those sensations you experience at or below 1.08 are things to focus on improving as you patiently work your Tempo Threshold to 1.07, 1.06, . . .
As you improve them, you’ll reduce then eliminate the extra strokes, and your times will continue improving as you continue increasing Tempo.
Just a month ago I was hitting a point of diminishing returns above 1.00. Since then I’ve improved my tempo threshold down to .95. I feel as if .90 by Labor Day is not out of the question.
PS: The process you are describing will produce intuition that will be invaluable to your clients when you earn your Coach Certification.

and also, member dobarton replied:

I could not agree more with all your observations. The trick seems to be to use the TT to do exactly the same thing at 1.07 as you do at 1.08 secs. Synchronizing hip drive and spear, setting the catch perfectly, timing the re-entry of the spearing arm, shaping the recovering arm perfectly, kicking at the perfect time to assist the spearing arm to move forward… The faster your stroke, the more perfectly timed all these components must be while still doing so with grace, balance and streamline!!
Your observations are spot on!!

The trick with increasing tempos and increasing speed is to figure out how to maintain your stroke length while your tempo is getting faster. At my current breakpoint of 1.08s tempo, I find that it is impossible right now for me to stroke faster and increase speed; in fact, my efficiency drops so much that I actually slow down!
As I approach the Waikiki Rough Water Swim on Labor Day, I am using the tempo trainer to keep practicing maintaining similar, long stroke length while my tempo increases. My goal is to get as close to 1.0s (or faster) as possible since I find in open water, I need a higher tempo to combat waves and choppy conditions that force me to stroke faster in order to maintain control in the ocean.
FOOTNOTE: In reference to that guy, Sun Yang, mentioned in Terry’s initial post, check out this 400m race. Sun is the guy in lane 4. Check out his stroke rate relative to his opponents especially on the last lengths of the race. Notice how much slower his stroke rate is but yet he is pulling away from the pack!

Total Immersion: Spearing Width and Depth

Throughout the TI forums, we find references to how the elites swim and whether or not Total Immersion needs to change its teachings so that we all drive towards swimming like Michael Phelps and like company.
One of those contentious topics is the spearing angle. I replied on one of the forum posts with this:
Like all things taught in TI, spearing angle, depth and width, is dependent on so many factors:
1. Skill level of the swimmer
2. Natural body buoyancy of the swimmer
3. Fatigue level
4. Water conditions
5. Drilling vs. Training vs. Racing
It isn’t entirely accurate to say that one way is the best way. After all, we humans are of different body sizes and shapes, our fitness levels differ, our brains are wired differently as are our nervous systems by the time we attempt our swimming.
Throwing out some observations on spearing:
1. Drag in part is caused by the amount of frontal area you present to the direction of travel. That means that when you spear deep, you are presenting more of the area of top of your arm to the direction of travel and thereby produces more drag than if you are spearing horizontally.
2. Spearing deeper can improve your body’s balance in the water. For drilling, it can be a much easier experience if you spear deeper as you are generally moving slower and lower speeds will cause your butt to drag a lot more readily than at higher speeds.
For example, I used to struggle with kicking across a pool in skate position. It wasn’t until I speared deeper than I normally do while swimming, that I realized that my body was higher in the water and kicking actually propelled me more.
So spearing deeper (in conjunction with other things like weight shift forward and reducing the time that your arms are lower than your head) will help improve body balance.
3. At higher speeds, you can spear more horizontally since your momentum helps you stay higher in the water.
4. Spearing higher also means you can execute an early vertical forearm easier since your elbow is already high.
5. I would definitely say the drag produced by a lower spear is pretty inconsequential compared to the drag produced by your lower half of your body dragging through the water. So if you spear more horizontally before you have mastered good body balance in the water, you may find you’re struggling a lot to gain speed but this speed could be regained by spearing deeper because you’re counterbalancing your butt dragging.
6. Your fatigue level will drive how deep you will want to spear. Swimming with EVF can be very tiring over long distances. You may want to rest and spearing deeper will allow you to minimize drag, maintain good body balance, and decent speed while you rest.
7. Pool water conditions are very sedate and consistent. Once you jump into the open water, all bets are off. You will find that waves (and other swimmers running into you) will constantly be challenging your balance. You may find that in order to maintain balance and some control in certain water conditions, you’ll have to spear deeper (and potentially wider too).
8. Your skill level in learning TI swimming can dictate how deep you’d want to spear. Generally, beginners in TI (or in overall swimming) will want to experiment with the depth (and width) of the spear to figure out what works best for them. This is like learning to walk before you run; you start with basics and then move up in skill from there, as you master elements before them.
Spearing deeper for beginners will help improve their experience of swimming because their body balance is improved; with better body balance, there is less struggle in the water. Once basic body balance is mastered, then they can learn more advanced TI concepts which generally mean advancement to body coordination in kick/hip/spear and then on to EVF.
But if you are of a body type/shape which has less natural body balance and you try to advance too far by spearing too horizontal, most will find that there is a lot of struggle and they may not know why or how to improve, except to back off and start from the beginning. How impatient we humans are to improve!
9. Spear depth/width will also vary if you are drilling, or training, or racing. When you drill, you practice focal points and some of those will mean deeper spears. When you train, you will want to swim laps with different spear angles to get used to swimming with that style over time. When you race, you’ll want to go for speed and hopefully you’ll have prepared properly for a spear that will minimize drag and maximize your ability to generate speed.
Flexibility in spearing is just one of those elements of swimming that should be mastered as a goal.
10. Ultimately, practicing all depths (and widths) of spearing will prepare you for the varying conditions of open water racing, and you can remain relaxed in the ocean even while 3-6′ waves are battering you. If you start getting distressed or panicking in the ocean because of rough conditions, you will waste energy doing something unfamiliar which is bad. Practice in the pool with different spear angles will help prepare you for the unexpected in open water.
11. People who swim don’t all have the same goals. Some want to just enjoy being in the water and swim without feeling like they’re going to sink and drown. Others want to experience the joy of swimming from Alcatraz to SF and say they did it. Still many others want to have the race of their life at the next Master’s competition or Ironman. Dependent on your goals, you will find that your spear may also reflect what your ultimate swim goals are.
A deeper spear involves swimming in a more relaxed fashion while still retaining a lot of propulsion. If you want to enjoy swimming in a pool or lake for fitness or fun, then you may be just fine mastering TI with a deeper spear. And being like Michael Phelps isn’t your goal so why bother trying to practice mimicking his form?
But if you want to have the race of your life, maximizing speed on the swim leg of your next Ironman, then maybe you’d want to try to master the minutiae that generate that last microsecond of speed, including those elements of spearing which accomplish that.
All in all, spearing is a much more complex topic than anyone can realize. I have found it worthwhile to explore the limits of that topic and think that TI provides the best place for that discovery and learning to be accomplished.
I forgot about injury reduction/prevention. Whenever we raise our arms out of the range of straight down to some angle up but forward of the head, it puts stress on the shoulder joint. It’s in a disadvantaged position relative to the muscles and tendons and if you try to flex there, the likelihood of injury is much higher.
So if you spear horizontally, the arms are in the “over the head” position and thus in an unfortunately disadvantaged position relative to our normal ranges of motion. Spearing deeper means your arms/shoulders are in more advantaged positions and our muscles and joints can flex with greater utility.
Overextending your arm out of the shoulder socket can also put stress on the shoulder while stroking. So spear, but if your shoulders are beginning to hurt, you may want to practice not extending so far. It reduces the total length of a stroke’s pull but better that than wrecking your shoulder joint. However, not extending so far means you can focus on other aspects of your stroke to increase speed, like coordination of your body/hip rotation/2BK to add authority to each spear, versus extending your arm so far and injuring it.