The secret to swimming

January 19, 2013

I have been a swimmer since the age of three, or four. I don’t remember not knowing how to swim. I don’t remember my first swim. My father always joked that he didn’t teach me, he just threw me in, if I wanted to live, I would figure it out.

I guess I learned early how to survive, fight, and rise above. (he didn’t just throw me in! I hear!)

By a complete stroke of luck I swam for all of the best coaches, on swimmer teams, club teams, high school and college. Even Masters swimming… the best. Every single one of them was stellar.  All of my coaches had something in common… every now and then for whatever reason they would pull a swimmer from practice, sit on the bleachers and talk while the team was swimming 1000 repeats (or something long).

More often than not for me…. those talks revolved around watching strokes. Ever since I was 6 I have been watching swim strokes. Early on I was taught and I realized that you could tell a lot about a swimmer by their stroke. Over the years of watching, watching, watching…. I realized how true that was.

I could tell if someone was very careful. They had a very careful stroke.

I could tell if someone was reckless, they had a very forceful and reckless stroke.

Just by the way their hands entered the water….. it was reflective of their personality. It’s amazing, watch that sometimes. What does my stroke say? You tell me.

Swim meets can be boring, most swimmers will listen to music and lay on a gym floor or the bleachers while waiting for their event. You wait hours to swim for a minute. If you are lucky like me your longest event is 11 minutes! YEAH! I was never one of those kids who did the music thing thought. My father taught me to sit and watch.

Over the years….. I have spent thousands of hours watching swimmers swim. Looking at different strokes. Learning flaws and learning how to correct them. I went through the ages of the s-shaped stroke. Then we got on our sides. Now we focus on the catch. I have gone through many swimming evolutions.

I am at my best when I am on deck.

I do great when my swimmers send me video of them swimming. I do awesome when that video is 30 minutes long or I am on deck with them. More can be gained from watching them swim 30 minutes or being there in person. I can analyze video above or under water…… but again I am best in person.

Jennie Hansen (the professional triathlete I coach) has recently had somewhat of a breakthrough in the pool. Around here it’s difficult to coach on deck if you are a triathlon coach, Local YMCA’s don’t allow you to come as a guest and be on deck. Same with the WAC and some other places. What you do then is pretend to be two friends swimming together in the water and giving stroke tips.

Nazareth college allows this and so does some of the high schools. When Jennie and I figured out there was a way for me to be on deck with her, we jumped. Every Monday morning I coach her on deck. It’s been awesome (for me). I love it. I am in my GLORY on deck.

She’s now averaging 20K per week and handling it with no problem at all. Her 100 repeat times….. are much faster than they were last season.

What has changed? A few things.

1. The work of 2012 is now showing up. This is a big part of it. Fitness gains are not made day-to-day. They are made week to week, month to month, quarter to quarter and if a proper off-season is had…. year to year. She put in some good yardage last season and a lot of that is showing up now.

2. Her stroke: Over the past year we have changed three things. We worked on her catch, we slowed down her kick and made it more useful, and we finished her stroke. Finishing her stroke was a big piece. Many swimmers pull their hand out of the water too early and cheat themselves of some free speed.

Try this…. hold your arm out in front of you and pretend you are pushing something down. Now, bring your hand under your armpit and push towards the floor, imagine you are pushing that same object straight down. You are strongest close to your body. Many swimmers get so wrapped up in the catch that they ignore the place they are strongest.

While there are still a few more stroke corrections to make, we’ve made huge gains. for the record, there are always stroke corrections to make. Even Missy Franklin has corrections to make. Getting to the point of no stroke corrections is impossible. It’s the never-ending journey!

Stroke corrections are made one at a time. You never give a swimmer four things to work on. You give them one. We work on that for a few weeks then we add in another. Because of the dynamics of swimming too many things to focus on at once makes a mess.

I am excellent at video stroke analysis. I can measure angles above and in the water. Where I excel however…. is on the deck. Put Jennie and I together in a video (head out of the gutter guys… SWIMMING). Imagine you recorded our strokes side by side. When you bring that footage back to the screen, let’s look at a few things. The angle of our catch, and our kick.

Water is interesting in that it is always changing. When you run around a track it’s the same. You might have wind but it’s the same. In water there is always some sort of “current” that will be dictated by whether the pool is deep, shallow, crowded, etc. Toss in open water and you have a whole new set of currents.

Back to our (swimming) video….. we begin to measure the angles. I am a collegiate swimmer. Jennie’s background is elite running. I was born in water, she was born on land. We might say we want an angle range of X-Y. That’s effective, that works, that’s a good ballpark. But what if we now had a third swimmer in the mix who had rotator cuff surgery a few years ago? now we have another variable to work with. So that angle might fit Jennie and I, but not rotator cuff girl.

Now we look at the kick. I don’t kick at all (I am a distance swimmer) and Jennie used to get most of her propulsion from her kick. We have worked on that and it’s slown (is that a word?) down and become much more useful. I take all those angles and data points and I use them in conjunction with that athlete’s body history and even their personality. how they deal with the changing water. Swimming is much more art than science.

My point here…. Jennie and I come from very different backgrounds. Our video analysis should not be the same and we should not try to make it the same. Swimming needs to fit the person as a whole.

3. Jennie figured out the water: When we run we run on varying surfaces when possible so that we are used to changing surfaces. In the water it’s always a trail run. The water never is the same.  I can tell you all day long to feel the catch, feel the water, but until you figure it out…. my words mean nothing. There is no magic timeline for when one should feel the water.

Jennie has figured out her place in the water. This is the biggest reason her swimming has improved. She’s spent at least 16-17K in the pool per week and while we have upped the ante for 2013…. she can now feel where she is in the water. This is not something that can be taught in a 3 step process. It’s just something that happens. As that has happened her attitude and feelings towards the water has also changed. She may never jump up and down screaming “I LOVE SWIMMING” but she’s coming around.

As I said before swimming is more art than science. It’s not exact, which frustrates people who want it to be exact. It’s an evolution and a process and … well again…. an art form.

How much improvement should we see in her 70.3 and 140.6 races? I won’t put a number on it. The times in the pool add up to one thing, but this is water. With our luck her first 70.3 swim this season will have a wicked current and measure long. If that happens, and she comes out of the water seemingly slower than ever…… we have to then deal with the mental impact of that. It happens for everyone. Once I swam a 36 min 1.2 mile swim. I am normally 28-30. That stayed in my head the whole race. come to find out…. that was one of the fastest times. The swim had been long.

The mental part is always the most important.

I have spent 30 years watching swimmers swim. I have watched thousands of practices, swim meets, video…. you name it. It’s what I grew up doing. If there was a big fancy certification for that amount of experience… there would be many of us out here wearing a gold crown. But those experiences are the most valuable for me to draw on.

So what has happened for Jennie in the water? There is no magic one thing. It’s the culmination of everything.

And a great big dose of one thing…. patience.



  1. This makes me want to drive to your house, kidnap you, and force you to come to my pool and help me tweak me stroke as ransom!

    • Is there coffee during this kidnapping?

  2. excellent read (as I prepare to go swim)
    Love the part about “too many things to focus on at once makes a mess” SOOO true for me!! Glad to hear you say it.

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