Keep Those Ribs Closed!

Everyone always seems to be asking what the ONE thing they should be focusing on above all else when it comes to improving their swimming. Just like with everything else in life, there’s no magic button that will make everything better and get you to the Olympics overnight. There’s no blue or red pill to choose from, no “easy” button, no miracle drink that will have you bouncing around saving your tree from evil doers (Gummy Bears anyone?) But in this instance, I actually can tell you one thing that will improve your streamline, straighten your spine, AND keep your hips/legs at the surface of the water. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still have to focus on training, drills, and other technical aspects of your stroke (sorry, I tried), but this one’s a triple whammy when it comes to effectiveness.

So what is this insanely help one thing? Keeping your ribs down and closed during your freestyle.

Sounds simple, right? But what exactly am I talking about, and how can you start implementing it into your swimming routine? Take a second and stop everything you’re doing (including reading this) and cough. Do it 2-3 times, not too forcefully, and really pay attention to what’s happening to your ribs/midsection when you exhale that air. When you cough, you should feel your ribs contract and move downwards in your abdomen. If you pay very close attention, you’ll even notice a slight tuck inwards that happens right above your belly button. This slight tuck can also feel like you’ve raised your lower back slightly (think minuscule hunchback - but at the bottom of your back - not at your shoulders).

This is the position you want to have in order to keep your ribs down and closed. This position, when in the water, will straighten your spine, allow you to achieve a better streamline, and as a result your hips'/legs will be brought closer to the surface of the water. 

Not sold? Let’s think of it from the opposite end of the spectrum for a second. I want you to stop what you’re doing again and arch your back. This is the movement your torso make when your ribs are open. Swimming in this position forces a curvature to your spine (I refer to this as swimming like a banana, not cute) that brings your hips downward, making it impossible to straighten your spine, as well as causing your hips and legs to sink. Aka not what we’re looking for. 

The best way to feel these differences in the water? After your warmup, try coughing in order to set your ribs in the down and closed position. Then, after you’ve coughed and without inhaling, start swimming to see your new body position. Just take 5-10 strokes, then stop to get a breath. Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to cough before every swim set you do for the rest of your life (unless you want to, to each their own), but starting out this way ensures you’re in the position we’re looking for and helps you understand the impact it has on your stroke. Make sure you don’t stick your head out like a turtle when doing this! I say this because it’s my natural inclination to do so whenever I actively focus on keeping my ribs closed. 

Once you get the hang of this new feeling and swimming with this new movement, it’s going to become extremely easy to tell if you go back to swimming improperly. You’ll feel the curvature to your spine, and if you’ve really made a lot of progress but accidentally go back to swimming like a banana, your lower back will start to hurt. 

Not a magic button, but this position - with practice, practice, practice - will really help you to start swimming more efficiently, keep your hips/legs up, and straighten out your back, and help you maintain proper streamline.

A Fish In the Sea...Wait, What?

Crossing my fingers that at least three of you have seen the Christopher Robin movie that came out within the past 2 years and understand the title of this blog post. I’ll wait while everyone else thinks on it for a bit…got it? If not, try saying it in your head quickly. A fish in the sea, a fish in the sea - anything? Let’s pretend we all got it and say it together, EFFICIENCY! Woot woot you did it! Color me impressed. Now moving onto the actual topic: efficiency in swimming. Why is this concept so important? Why does it seem like it’s the only thing I spout off about on social media some times? And why do I like to write these posts with so many questions in them?

Efficiency, or being efficient, put quite simply and as an overall definition, is creating maximum productivity with the least amount of effort. Seems like the best concept ever, yes? At least in terms of swimming we like to think so, which is why I push “being efficient” as much as I possibly can.

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People can confuse efficiency with low energy effort. For example, just because you have a lower stroke count across the pool doesn’t mean you’re swimming efficiently. This can be achieved by increasing your kick, or doing the dreaded overextension of your arms and gliding to prolong the moment when you have to take your next stroke. But in terms of these two options, that’s cheating. You’re not reallyyyy being more efficient in that way, especially when you glide - PLEASE DON’T GLIDE. A better measure of being efficient is finding out if you can achieve the same stroke count, with the same level of effort, over long periods of time/longer swimming distances. The point I’m trying to make here is that you don’t want to make wasted movements, you want to make smart and strong movements that maximize the level of energy you’re giving without maxing yourself out for no reason.

A good example is to look at the catch of your stroke. Not catching properly, or simply letting your hand slip through the water each time it enters, forces you to take far more strokes than needed to get across the pool. Not catching properly causes you to spin your wheels without actually pushing yourself through the water. Whereas a proper catch allows you to create your anchor point to push back against and propel yourself forward with a stronger movement and less strokes. Making sense?

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Another way to think about it is consistency. As long as you keep a consistent cadence, and find a moderate amount of resistance during your propulsive phase, you don’t have to try to generate powerful strokes. Doing this will improve your efficiency. Not grasping in the swimming terms? Let’s think about cycling for a second. If you compare swimming to cycling, just like in cycling, you want to be staying on a medium size ring - with a consistent cadence - in order to maintain your wattage. As opposed to trying to stay on a larger size ring and pushing as hard as you can. Why? Because cycling on the big ring for an extended period of time will DRAIN YOUR ENERGY, and ultimately not help you get to the end of the race any faster. In fact, it will hurt your race since you unnecessarily drained your energy stores, with no good payoff, and can’t use them later when you really need them.

Being efficient with the movements you make in the water all boils down to keeping your energy up for longer and allowing the movements you make to actually have purpose. This is why we work on proper catch, proper head position, rotation, kick, timing, and so on and so forth. But Lissa, what about technique? Well, think about what you just said. Technique is what, making proper movements in the water to avoid injury. And? These movements are deemed “proper” because they’re the smartest way to move yourself through the water to avoid injury AND be efficient. It all goes together like one, big, happy circle of swimming life.

Kayaking in...a Pool?

Let me start this off by saying no, we did NOT put a kayak in one of our SwimBox locations, so I hope no one is reading this just to see what I’m sure would be a hilarious video of a kayak swimming through the current of one of our pools. Sorry to disappoint, but I just can’t make that happen for you. I love humor and stupid videos, but I love not hurting my precious pools more. My apologies to comedy. So what is this post about then now that at least 4 people have exited their browser window? Anchor points in freestyle. And how do we work on finding those anchor points? Kayak Drill!

The goal of Kayak Drill is to focus on creating two anchor points in the water at the same time. In other words, having one paddle in the back and one paddle in the front. We started out with the creation of this drill to help swimmers get better and more efficient at sprint freestyle, then soon realized it was also a great way to fine tune the timing and path your arms travel during the propulsive phase of your stroke for distance and sprint freestyle as well. What paddle am I talking about? The one you create from your fingertips to your elbow that you use to push back against the water during your catch, power phase, and through to your finish. This paddle is crazy important, as it’s the main source of your propulsion driving you forward through the water.

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Start by taking a stretch band or light resistance band and hold it in each of your thumbs. Do NOT hold it with your fists! If you hold the band with your fists you’ll be talking your hand out of the equation when it comes to your paddle. Once you’re holding the band in each thumb you’re ready to start swimming freestyle. The goal is to have the band stay taut at all time as you’re swimming. Make sure it doesn’t touch your body!

As you continue to swim with the band in each thumb you’ll need to make sure you’re keeping your movements continuous. If there’s ever a dead spot in your stroke - aka a portion where your arms aren’t moving - this drill will point it out. Turns out you have a dead spot? You’ll feel the band slacken as you hold that position and lose your momentum. Don’t worry if you feel this! All it means is that you need to make sure you feel where it’s happening and work towards turning it into a continuous movement. Most people pause an arm when they take a breathe. Do you?

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Take a look at the image above to see what we mean when we refer to your anchor points. An anchor point is something you make with your hand - an important piece of your paddle - that helps propel you through the water. Making sure you maintain your paddle throughout your entire propulsive phase - catch, power phase, finish - is key to maintaining your efficiency, as well as keeping up your velocity.

Make sure you watch our video before trying out this drill for yourself! You’ll get to see it in motion and get a better understanding of what we’re looking for in terms of your anchor points and continuous motion.

Taking a Cue from Han Solo

There’s a lot to be said for being an adult and the wonderful benefits it has over being a kid. No parents nagging at you (let’s be real, this never goes away), sleeping in as late as you want on the weekends, letting those worn clothes pile up on the chair in your bedroom (come on, we all know this chair), ordering pizza for breakfast, I could go on and on. But the one thing I still have trouble with? Not being able to swim with a group.

All throughout my childhood, from age 6 to 23, I had teams to swim with no matter where I was or what time of day it was. Now? Not so much. Practice times for masters teams can be all over the place and finding a consistent friend to go to the pool with you never seems to be an easy feat. So what’s a wannabe mermaid to do? Get used to training solo. And the more I got used to swimming by myself, the more I realized it has a ton of benefits that swimming with a group/partner doesn’t have.

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When you swim with just yourself there’s NO ONE else you have to worry about. You don’t have to get up earlier than you want to just to get to the pool at a certain time, you don’t have to make sure you swim late at night because your friend only has availability after work and before The Bachelorette, you can go whenever you want! I never had this as an option before, so when I realized I could go to the pool whenever I wanted, and I didn’t have to check with anyone besides myself, it was such a freeing realization. It might not seem like much, but being free from relying on someone else’s timetable or having rearranging your schedule to best fit your friend’s needs is incredibly liberating. When you’re used to swimming on teams or with specific groups you’re always beholden to their schedules. Now? Swim whenever you want! There are tons of gyms that open as early as 4am, close as late as 10pm, even some open 24 hours a day. I mean I wouldn’t recommend getting up at 2:15am to get your swim workout in, but hey, you do you.

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My next favorite thing about swimming on your own is creating a workout completely based on your personal goals and needs. You want to kick for 90 minutes straight? Go for it. Just want to do 25s freestyle on the :40? Do it! It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s what YOU want to do. Being able to train on your own gives you the freedom and creativity to create a swim practice that combines all of your favorite things and drills that perfect your trouble areas.

The worst part of swimming on a team can be doing sets that have nothing to do with you. On most swim teams, you have sections of swimmers broken into sprint, mid-distance, and distance. I was always hopping between the sprint and mid-distance groups as I got older. But most masters teams tend to just lump everyone in the same category and provide the same workout no matter your skill set or goal in mind. Meaning if you’re a straight up sprinter who only competes in 50s and 100s, you’re still going to have to swim the set of 8x500s pace that’s written on the board. Eep, no thank you. But swimming solo? See ya later 500s, I’m sticking to sets of sprint 50s with 25s easy built in. AND NO ONE CAN TELL YOU NOT TO.

All of this is just a long-winded way of me saying that yes, it’s weird to train by yourself, and can take quite a bit of getting used to. But try to look at the positive side of things. There are so many good things to swimming on your own! Embrace them! Use this time of working out without a partner or team to really hone in on what you want to be doing and have fun with it.

Open Water Swimming: What You CAN Prepare For

I know last week’s blog could come across as a bit of a downer, so I wanted to bring the mood back up and revisit what we talked about. Yes, there are TONS of factors in open water swimming that you have zero control over and can’t prepare for. But what about the ones you do have control over? The ones you can work day in and day out helping your body get ready to adapt to what the water might throw at you? Let’s see what they are.

Firstly, you can NEVER be too prepared in terms of sighting. Being able to sight properly and in a way that won’t negatively impact your swim/swim time is something you can never spend too much time on. Alligator Eyes is the perfect drill to help you get used to sighting in the open water. Yes, you’ll be able to see. No, it won’t be as clear or precise as if you were sitting on your couch staring at the “Are You Still Watching?” screen Netflix likes to use to judge us.

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You want to tilt your head upwards until your eyes breach the surface of the water and you can see what’s in front of you. DO NOT LIFT YOUR HEAD. Lifting your head will cause your hips and legs to sink, resulting in extra drag and forcing your body to work harder to move through the water than necessary. It was also put strain on your neck and cause you to have to use your arms to help you balance, taking them out of the proper position to get a good catch, propulsive phase, and powerful finish. Take a look at our post on The Best Drills to Perfect Your Open Water Sighting for more in depth information on this drill.

Next on the list of things you can prepare for? Getting used to swimming in crowded waters. This one might take some ingenuity, but it can be done. Next time you’re heading to the pool for your swim workout grab 2-3 friends to go with you. In order to mimic having to navigate through water filled with other people, you and your 2-3 friends are going to line up on the wall, next to one another, and all swim at once. I want all of you to push off the wall at the same time and practice swimming super close to one another. I can hear what you’re thinking now, “Lissa, no way, we’re going to hit each other.” Guess what, you’re right! You will hit each other! And it’s going to feel weird and wrong and you probably won’t like it. BUT practicing swimming this way will help get your body used to the feeling of swimming in a large pack of crowded people, all fighting their way through the water.

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The last thing I want to touch base on in terms of open water preparation is buoy turns. Whether you do a corkscrew turn or you simply maneuver your way around the buoy, this is something you should practice. I know not everyone keeps extra buoys laying around their homes like my husband and I do (we know, we’re weird), but that shouldn’t stop you from practicing. Use a friend, tie a full water bottle around a pull buoy to anchor it in place, or find any object in the water that’s stationary and that you can turn on (think a pillon in a lake), and you’re good to go. Start by practicing a traditional buoy turn (simply swimming around it) and then work your way up to a corkscrew turn. A corkscrew turn simply adds a backstroke stroke into the mix to help you stay tight and keep your momentum up while you’re getting around the buoy. Take a look at the video below for examples of how to best start learning a corkscrew turn, first in the pool and then in the open water.

What else can you prepare for? Your fuel. I always bring way too much food to swim meets just to be safe. Triathlons are even more important to fuel yourself properly for, as your race will last anywhere from 1-17 hours depending on the type of triathlon it is. My tip for proper fueling? Eat a giant breakfast from Waffle House right before your next race. If you do that, I can guarantee you’ll get second in your age group, walk for 18 seconds during the last 3 minutes of your run and watch the person who gets first jog right by you. Nailed it. But in all seriousness nutrition is different for everyone, so you’ll need to find what works best for you. Do your research, try different methods, and practice them during your long swims, runs, and bikes of your training.