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Bottom Up Swimming — Part 3

(or The Spin-Doctor's Perscription)

A follow-up to Bottom Up Swimming -Parts 1 & 2, posted in the Articles section.

'Nuther Warning

This assemblage of verbiage, ramblings and cerebral spewage will make little sense to you if you have not yet read my articles Bottom Up Swimming - Parts 1 & 2, and will be useless to you in the pool if you haven't mastered the drills detailed in the Part 1 article.

You've been practicing 6BRRKick in both its vertical and horizontal orientations. And you've been adding occasional occurrences of 1, 2 and 3 strokes to this exercise whilst maintaining consistent rotation rhythms and impeccable balance. And you've also mastered these activities in 2BRRhythms as well. And you've done all this enough that you can execute any of those activities with little or no mental effort. (If not, stop right here, go to the pool and correct the situation — go ahead, I'll wait. dum de dum dum do dah.whistle.tap, tap, tap.OK! There you are — Welcome back.

Now you're ready to take the next step. Going faster.

Revving Up the Engine

Up till now you've practiced your VxBRRKick and HxBRRKick drills only at moderate speeds. Now is the time to increase the intensity.

In VK drills you can quickly increase intensity by going to a vertical full streamline position (see Assume the Position) and kick fast enough to keep your blowhole above the surface without tilting your head back. By putting the mass of your arms in the air you increase the speed of kicking required to keep you at the surface. Your job is to continue your 6BRRhythm throughout. You can also do the same thing by leaving your hands on your chest and simply kicking faster to raise you shoulders out of the water. And the real animals in the group will derive masochistic pleasure from doing V6BRRKick while holding a brick or two over their head. And once you've mastered these activities using 6BRRhythms you should do them using 2BRRhythms (you'll feel a bit like a washing machine at first). You can organize your VK work into timed sets and reps in a progressive manner like we can with any of our other swimming activities. Spend some time getting good at seamlessly switching between V6BRRKick and V2BRRKick at high intensities. And, of course, starting these activities with fins, then moving to Zoomers and finally to naked feet, is a useful and instructive progression. All these VK activities will improve your ability to coordinate your rotation efforts with faster kicking — you'll get a feeling for snappier rotations that happen more often. All this amounts to revving your core body rotation engine up to higher speeds — at least as measured at the crankshaft.

In HK drills we can take a similar approach but use faster elapsed times of repeats as an indicator of higher kicking intensity. Start by simply doing a sprint flutter kick in a streamlined position from a pushoff, then after a dozen kicks or so go into your 6BRRhythm while trying not to decrease the speed of the kick. At first you may have trouble keeping fast rhythms but keep after it. Start with short repeats - maybe go widths or half-lengths rather than full lengths. As you get better at maintaining your kick speed, lengthen the distance that you go the 6BRRhythm part - till you're able to go whole lengths at sprint kick intensities. You'll want to take lots of rest or do some easy swimming or drilling between each of these repeats. After you've gotten proficient doing these with 6BRRhythms, move to 2BRRhythms. You'll likely find that you won't be able to manage a 2BRRhythm at as high a kick tempo as you can while maintaining 6BRRhythm, but that you are able to achieve a faster core rotation rhythm than you were getting with 6BRRhythm. You can do all this on your back (nose-up) at first, then on your stomach (Nose-down). You can employ the fins, Zoomers, naked feet progression as well.

Shifting into High Gear

Of course, just having your crankshaft spinning fast won't get you very far along toward your destination without the transmission engaged. In Bottom Up Swimming - Part 1 I encouraged you to add an occasional stroke cycle after you'd mastered basic, moderate-paced HxBRRK. So, once you've done due diligence in increasing your proficiency and range of high-intensity HxBRRK, I encourage you to again add an occasional single stroke and its recovery/entry.

Push off in a streamlined position then:

  1. Start your sprint kick,
  2. Transition into 6BRRKick for several rotations,
  3. Add one stroke, connected to one rotation - we'll call this rotation R1
  4. Recover the arm that just took a stroke to a point near your forehead - this happens while you're gliding on your side and taking the two flutter kicks that happen between R1 and R2
  5. Use the next rotation (R2) to place the arm back into the water and extend it all the way forward.

Now you're back to where you started, having completed one full stroke cycle for one arm and returned to a fully streamlined position, and simply doing H6BRRKick. After several more rotations repeat from #3 to do a single stroke cycle with the other arm. The goal here is to maintain the rotation rhythm established with your high-intensity kicking while keeping your stroke and entry properly connected to R1 and R2 respectively. As you first try this you might need to "let go" of the water and possibly shorten up the stroke at the back end a bit - simply going through approximate motions with no aim toward trying to be very propulsive - yet.

Once you've mastered single arm cycles without slowing your rotation rhythm its time to go for 2 strokes at a time in a swimming rhythm. This will start similar to the single arm cycles above - your first arm takes a stroke on rotation R1 and does its entry on R2 just as above. As the first arm does its entry during R2 your other arm will take a stroke. Then it will do its entry on R3 to catch up to the first arm way out in front, finishing in a fully streamlined position. This completes a 2-stroke cycle. Do several more rotations and repeat, starting with the opposite arm from which you started the previous two-stroke cycle.

After you've got a handle on 2-stroke cycles at high rotation rhythms you should move to 3-stroke cycles - which of course will take four rotations to complete. This will likely be the first place where you will be able to feel a continuity and flow of swimming rhythm and momentum. And, again, as you increase the number of strokes you are trying to string together you'll want to "let go" of the water and perhaps shorten up the back end of the stroke a bit till to allow your arms to easily complete the motion cycle within the core rotation rhythm.

Making the leap from 1-stroke to 2-stroke cycles and from 2-stroke to 3-stroke cycles can sometimes be a frustrating and drawn-out affair. Why? Because as you try to string together several strokes it is quite likely that some of your old habits (established during all those training sessions where you tried going faster by simply kicking harder and whirling your arms faster) will try to take over. Common lapses include losing front quadrant timing, trying to pull too hard with the arms, getting sloppy about recovery/entry, trying to initiate the roll from somewhere other than the legs etc.

But most people find that once they've gotten the hang of 3-stroke cycles, they are pleasantly surprised at how much easier it is to move to 4 and more strokes in swimming rhythm.

Putting hot, smokin' rubber on the road

Earlier I suggested you "let go" of the water a bit till you get a better feel for cycling the arms through their motions in harmony with your fast tempo rotation pattern. Once you get to where you are able to go three or more strokes, all connected to leg-driven core body rotations, it's time to start "holding on" rather than "letting go". Do this a little at a time by gradually increasing the vertical forearm aspect of the front end of your stroke (see Dreaded Dropped Elbow) and then keeping the forearm and hand vertical for as long as possible throughout the stroke. The idea is to do this without slowing down the speed of your kick or the rhythm of your rotations. As you do this you'll find yourself moving forward farther with every stroke, yet keeping the same stroke turnover rate. From the basic equation of V=SLxSR we can conclude you'll be going faster.

Don't worry too much about the last few inches of your stroke. Those few inches aren't nearly as important as getting and keeping traction during the first few inches on the front end of each stroke.

Odds 'n' ends

As you attempt these drill progressions keep in mind the following:

  • You can use the fins, Zoomers, naked feet progression to smooth out the learning curve a bit.
  • Till you get really good at these drills, breathe at some other time than during your stroke cycles.
  • Once you've mastered a drill using 6BRRhythm try it using 2BRRhythm.
  • As you increase the tempo of core body rotations and strokes you'll likely find you need to come a bit short of a belly-button-pointing-toward-the-side-wall position on each rotation. Its OK to somewhat decrease the amplitude of rotations as you increase turnover rate but you should try to lose as little of that rotation as possible - and perhaps try to gain some of it back as you increase your coordination in these drills.
  • Resist the temptation to "pull hard" with your arms. This will quickly get you out of sync with your core rotations. You need only "pull" hard enough to have your stroke finish at the same time your rotation finishes.
  • Resist the temptation to leap forward too quickly in the progression of skills and drills. Most people assume that once they've executed a new skill correctly two or three times that they "have it" and can proceed with impunity. That's a little like going under par once at the local putt-putt and then wagering heavily on yourself playing real golf against Tiger Woods.
  • Pretty much all of this is applicable to backstroke as well. You'll find minor differences, most notably that once you start the drills involving strokes you'll almost assuredly find that doing them using an arms-at-your-sides starting (and finish) position, rather than from an arms-extended-in-front position, will make your life easier.

Hitch in yer gitalong?

Let's say that at some point you realize that your attempts to move through the preceding progression of skills and drills are not producing the desired results. Or imagine you've gotten through the drill progressions successfully and have had some success in stringing multiple strokes together, maybe even entire lengths, all connected to your leg-driven core body rotation - but then the "feeling" escapes you and you find yourself unable to continue to "put it together." What should you do? I suggest you go back - way back - to the basics outlined in Bottom Up Swimming - Part 1 and Swimming in Circles. Spend time refining these skills with your newfound knowledge about where you want those skills to take you. You'll be surprised at the difference in how you approach those drills and skills - and the progress you'll make with them.

What separates L. D. Swimmer and D. D. Sprinter?

It is common knowledge that people with predominantly slow twitch muscle fibers are generally distance swimmers and those with predominantly fast twitch muscle fibers are generally sprinters. The most often proffered theory ties this difference primarily to energy consumption patterns of the different fiber types and how that impacts lactate accumulation and clearing. Additionally, much is made of the ability or inability to move the arms fast enough to sprint.

Allow me to offer an alternative theory. You now understand that the tempo of stroking rhythm is set and driven by the legs. We also understand that there is an upper limit to how far your body can be expected to travel with each stroke (roughly one full wingspan). At elite levels of swimming we find that sprinters typically do three things very well: they maximize distance per stroke, they have fast stroke tempo and they have very propulsive kicks. There are three ways to get fast stroke tempo:

  1. Use moderately fast kick and 2BRRhythm
  2. Use a very fast kick and 6BRRhythm (or more - there are some sprinters that use a 10BRRhythm).
  3. Completely disconnect your arms from your kick and whirl them with reckless abandon.

Assuming we recognize that #3 is pure folly, we are left with #1 & #2. If you go with #1, a 2BRRhythm, you cannot expect the kick to be very propulsive in the traditional sense of flutter kicking. However if you use a 6BRRhythm you can expect a propulsive kick (if you've got good ankle flexibility). Therein lies the rub. You've got to have an extremely fast kick to be able to set a 6BBRhythm that is fast enough to really sprint with. But if you're of slow twitch ilk, you'll never be able to produce a fast enough kick tempo to have a fast 6BRRhythm. And opting for sprinting with a 2BRRhythm leaves you without those extra motorboat kick beats between rotations. I think this represents the single biggest aspect of slow vs. fast twitch muscles that affects sprinting vs. distance swimming. One of these days I'll wax expansive on this concept in a separate article.

That's all folks!

So here ends my three-part diatribe on Bottom Up Swimming. It's a lot to wade through, but hopefully you've found it useful. Remember, swimming is the most complex set of repetitive motions that exists in modern sports - yet there are a few people who set out to hide that complexity, hide their effort and exhibit grace and fluidity whenever they are in the water. These people often end up as the swimmers everyone aspires to emulate (or to beat). You too can be one of those few. v

Copyright 1999–2009, H2Ouston Swims. All rights reserved.

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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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