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Dancin' with Yourself

See Jane swim

There's Jane Swimmer in the fast lane over there. The one gliding from stroke to stroke with no apparent effort, turning out lap after lap, each faster than you can sprint a 25. And, as if to mock you, she's barely kicking at all!

What little kick she has, however, is quite purposeful. You see one kick beat per stroke or, more importantly, one kick beat for each rotation of her body core. If you watch her legs and torso closely you can see that each snappy rotation of her core is actually initiated by one of those kicks. Jane's is a classic two-beat kick. Each kick drives a rotation; each rotation powers a stroke. Envious? Read on.

Look like Jane

Try the following:

  1. Stand up straight and tall with your heels close together, but not touching, and your toes turned out slightly.
  2. Pull your navel toward your spine, try to knit your lower ribs together and see how long you can make the back of your neck. You have now assembled a good portion of the "tight-line" posture needed for effective swimming.
  3. Holding that tight line, lean a bit forward from your ankles without bending at your waist (as if leaning into the wind). Note that as your weight shifts to the balls of your feet your tight line is immediately extended all the way to your feet - you are, as swim/Pilates guru Michelle Haver says, "from head to heel like steel".

This postural tension allows your body to move through the water like a sleek kayak instead of an underinflated rubber raft.

Rotate like Jane

For this next part, sock feet on a smooth floor would be a good thing:

  1. Again assemble your tight-line posture and, holding this tension, rise up on your toes. You'll notice that your tight line is again extended all the way to your feet.
  2. Now rotate your torso, as a single unit, first toward your right, then toward your left, making sure that your hips and shoulders rotate the same amount and at the same time. If your shoulders rotate before or after your hips, or if they rotate further than your hips, then you are twisting your core, not rotating it.
  3. When your core rotates, note what muscles you are using to make this happen and note what it feels like. Also note that your legs stay pretty close together in the process. And your knees do not bend. Not at all. Not even a little bit.

Kick like Jane

In a proper two-beat kick for distance swimming we want each kick beat to drive a rotation of the body. This is classical action/reaction physics. Your legs are levers that connect to your feet and move them through kicking motions. But it is important to understand that you have a choice of how long a lever you use for each kick. Imagine you are floating horizontal on your stomach and kicking:

If you keep your legs straight from hip to toe, then you are using long levers, each stretching from foot to hip. Each time a foot travels down it drives the hip at the other end of the leg-lever up. Each time a foot travels up, it drives the hip at the other end of the leg-lever down. Your legs, moving in opposite directions, scissor past each other to drive one hip up while driving the other hip down and, presto, your hips rotate. The next kick reverses the action of the leg-levers and, presto-reverso, your hips rotate in the opposite direction. Keep kicking like this rhythmically and keep your tight line engaged - so that your shoulders rotate precisely when your hips rotate, precisely as far as your hips rotate - and, presto-rock'n'rollo, you have rhythmic core rotation.

But what if you bend your knees as you kick - specifically, what if the upbeat of each kick (taking your foot behind the plane of the body) is accomplished by bending your knee? Your leg-levers now only connect your feet to your knees, thus they can no longer drive your hips to rotate. Kicking from the knees results in lots of froth, but little or no rotation.

So the idea in a two-beat kick is to keep your legs stiff as planks, as you swim - recall the sensations you had when you did the leaning and rotating exercises above. As you gain skill, you may be able to let your knees bend very slightly on the downbeats, yielding a bit to water pressure. But we want each leg straight throughout each of its upbeats. When you "kick from the hips" like this and keep your tight line engaged you will be "from head to heel like steel" and should be able to feel the large core muscles driving crisp body rotations (instead of your spindly arms trying to yank your shoulders around from side to side in motions you can only hope look like Jane's rotations).

Keep up with Jane

Aside from the rotation aspect, there is another reason to keep your legs straight and avoid knee-kicking. As you swim, your upper body and hips slide through an imaginary tube. A straight-leg kick action from the hips is easy to keep inside that tube and inside the mass of water your body has already started moving. Bending the knees on the upbeat, even a little bit, gets your feet well outside that tube and, consequently, well into the oncoming rush of water where the drag is much greater - kinda like puttin' on the brakes with every kick.

Be like Jane

The posture you assembled, the motions you are going through and the muscles you are using all form a very close approximation of what Jane Swimmer is doing over there in the fast lane. Do those land exercises a bunch at home. Then at the pool, spend a few quality moments in sock feet on the deck before hitting the water to put these new sensations, posture and motions to work in your lane. 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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