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Critical Mass in the Twilight Zone

(or Getting Acquainted with Effective Aquatic Posture)

Expanded from an article first published in Runner Triathlete in July 2004.

(Rod Serling's voice...) Imagine, if you will, a pool. A seemingly ordinary pool, this, beckoning on a hot summer day. Yet, something seems amiss. Not a swimmer in sight, no splashing or swimming sounds. No children laughing or playing. Presently you note a sleek, carbon fiber kayak in one lane and a shabby, under inflated rubber raft in another, bobbing gently in the breeze. And over there, just ahead, a faded pup tent erected in the grass by the pump house, one flap swaying gently, silently. Your intention: to simply step out into the sunlight and stroll leisurely around the pool. But we know better. You are about to take an irreversible leap, into the Twilight Zone...

If you were to spend more than just a few moments manipulating each of the aforementioned aquatic vessels in the pool you'd soon discover a couple interesting things. In playing with the raft you would note that each part of it works somewhat independently of the other parts. All parts of a kayak, you would find, work as a unit. If you rotate one end of the raft the other end barely moves. When you push one end toward the bottom the other end appears not to care. On the other hand, either of those forces applied to the kayak will instantly affect the entire kayak. Briskly push the raft toward the other end of the pool and it will quickly come to a stop and likely get crossways in the lane. Push the kayak with half the force you used on the raft and it will travel to the other end of the pool.

Critical Mass

A swimming human is also an aquatic vessel. In learning to control that vessel to greatest advantage the swimmer must be concerned with three critical core body masses - head, thorax and hips. Left to their own devices, each of these masses will move somewhat independently of the others, despite the presence of structures and tissues - spinal column, muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia - connecting them. Such independent movement is akin to that of the rubber raft above. But if the swimmer draws the three critical masses into a straight and firmly connected line, his body will behave more like the kayak.

Rolfing, chiropractic, Pilates, yoga, Watsu, Alexander Method and other disciplines seek to give the patient/student greater awareness and control of core body parts, particularly the three critical masses. The importance of such postural awareness and control is widely accepted in nearly all land-based sports and movement models. Application of these concepts is just as important in swimming but, perhaps because of how different the aquatic environment is from the land environment, they are often either overlooked or misapplied.

For those concerned with maximizing distance per stroke while minimizing unnecessary energy expenditure, this has monumental implications so read on! For those interested in generating maximum propulsion, this also has great payoff potential so keep tuned! For those who want to continue to use short, choppy strokes, slowly and ineffectively, print this out and then wrap fish in it.

Get organized

Go over and take a close look at that old pup tent Mr. Serling pointed out - a goodly patch of fabric, a pole at each end, ropes and stakes. Here is a question - answer with the first thing that comes to mind: "What holds the tent up?" If you said "The poles," you are with the crowd. But take your handy-dandy pocketknife out and cut one of those ropes. What happens? The tent collapses. It is the ropes, or more accurately, tension in the ropes that holds the tent up. The poles and stakes are simply supports and attachment points that guide, direct and deliver the tension where it is needed to keep the fabric organized in a useful fashion. You need not even cut a rope, but simply loosen it a bit to see the tent begin to collapse. Then, one need only reapply tension on that rope to reorganize the fabric of the tent. Similarly, that under inflated raft may be organized into a more suitable aquatic body by simply inflating it to apply appropriate tension throughout its shape.

When a swimmer moves through the water, the way in which those three critical masses are organized determines whether he moves like the sleek kayak or like the half-flat raft. If the critical masses are disorganized - little or no tension in the muscles that connect them along the spine - then that swimmer's body parts move and react to balance, rotation and propelling forces like the raft does, independently and thus ineffectively. But if there is sufficient core-muscular tension to firm up those connections we can have a much more pleasing result. If the swimmer applies moderate tension that straightens and lengthens the spine, drawing each of the three critical masses into one straight line, he will have an organized body that will act on, and react to, the water in a highly predictable and controllable manner. Like the kayak, such a position transmits balance, rotation and propelling forces throughout the body instantly and effectively.

Take it from the Stooges

"Coach! How do we achieve such organization of the three critical masses?" you ask. Or perhaps you demonstrate your piqued (though perhaps less focused) curiosity with something more like, "Hunh?"

In either case, I must digress a moment to expand our terminology. The portion of your spine between your head and your shoulders is referred to as your cervical spine - the "neck" portion of your spine. The cervical vertebrae, together with associated muscles and connective tissues, form the connection between your head mass and your thoracic (or chest) mass. Think of one of those insipid little bobble head dolls with its coil of spring wire attaching the head to the body. In fact, for lack of a more accurate term, from here forward I'll refer to this area as your neck coil or cervical coil.

Try the following. Stand in front of a mirror in an upright but relaxed position with your nose pointing directly toward its reflection. Now extend your neck forward so as to push your face straight forward such that your nose moves straight toward its reflection with no tilting of your head. Another way to think of this is to move the plane of your pace forward without tilting it (1). Now reverse the direction of motion and pull your face away from the mirror, keeping your nose pointed directly at its reflection, till your head returns to its original (neutral) position (2). Now continue retracting your head a bit farther, still keeping your nose pointing straight forward. This is an organized cervical coil position (3) (you could also think of the reflexive motion of your head when someone gets "in your face," too close for comfort). You'll note that a moderate amount of muscular tension in the cervical coil is required to maintain this organized position. If you followed the pup-tent analogy you'll understand that this tension is desirable. It gets you one step closer to emulating that sleek kayak.


Up against the wall

You can continue the process of acquiring effective aquatic posture skills by extending the insipid-bobble-head doll analogy to a "bobble-body" doll. Such a doll would have an additional wire coil between the body and the legs. Similarly the human body has another coil of vertebrae, muscles and other tissue connecting the pelvic/hip mass to the thoracic/chest mass. We refer to this as the lumbar coil or abdominal coil.

Stand against a flat wall surface, leaning firmly against it with your heels a few inches from the wall. You will note that your butt touches the wall but that the lumbar spine forms an arch (the "small" of your back), which is not in contact with the wall. This is a relaxed or disorganized position. The goal, now, is to flatten out this arch to make the lumbar spine touch the wall. To do this, contract your abdominal muscles to sort of scoop the pelvis up and forward. You can also think of drawing your navel toward your spine. This is an organized lumbar coil position. Just as with the organized cervical coil position, some muscular tension is required to maintain this position.

Disorganized Organized

Putting it in the water

These two posture adjustments, when taken together, serve to lengthen the spine and bring the three critical masses into one firm straight line. When translated from land-based posture to an aquatic posture, the muscular tension required to maintain such organization allows the body core to coherently and effectively transmit balance, rotation and propelling forces throughout the body. In addition, the straight body line provided by organizing the three critical masses allows the swimmer to move with much less resistance than a disorganized swimmer.

Learning to properly organize your three critical masses in the water and maintain that posture throughout rhythmic swimming motions at various intensities requires a significant learning cycle. There are a number of dry land exercises as well wet exercises and drills that can move you along the path to swimming with a well-organized aquatic body. We're also experimenting with methods and terminology that allow coaches and swimmers to effectively propagate this knowledge. Toward that end, I'll be posting a follow-up to this article that will attempt to describe some of the things we are doing. Hopefully I'll find the right words and be able to purloin appropriate graphics to be of some benefit to lurkers here in the Twilight Zone.

H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2004

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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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