workout motivation

Don't Let Your Elbow Drop!

If I were to give you a pop quiz right now and ask where the majority of your power is driven from during freestyle, what would your answer be? For the longest time my response would have been “the kick,” but that answer would have given me a failing grade. Any thoughts? Ideas? Guesses? Well the correct answer we’re looking for is “the catch and pull.” If that’s what you were thinking woot woot! Give yourself a high five and a pat on the back for me. While you’re at it, maybe grab a cookie or two as well, you earned them. Hopefully this helps you understand why soooo so many of my posts are about proper catch, but let’s dig a little deeper while I have your attention.

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If the catch and pull are ohh so important, how do we go about making sure they’re done properly and effectively? The biggest key? Keeping your elbow forward and up. That’s it, nice and simple. Okay thanks for checking in everyone, have a great day!

Ha, okay, sorry, sometimes I really think I’m just hysterical. But really, keeping your elbow forward and up, let’s break it down. I like to say forward and up as opposed to just up because that tends to give people the wrong impression. You want your elbow to stay on the same plane as your body during your catch, pull, and recovery. I NEVER want you to lift your elbow upwards during any of these movements. Why? Doing so will actually bring your arm behind your back, prevent your shoulder blade from gliding up and down properly, and put the power into your shoulder joint, eventually leading to injury. So what does a dropped elbow vs a properly forward and up elbow look like? Take a look at the image below. The dropped elbow is on the left, and the correct elbow is on the right.

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The dropped elbow on the left is pulling ZERO water as it moves through to the pull phase. Whereas the forward and up elbow on the right has created a paddle from the fingertips to the elbow to push back against the water to propel you forward. This is a great image to show just how little help your pull is giving you when you drop your elbow. No paddle is being created, and almost zero propulsion is gained from swimming this way.

This is where the word “forward” is really helpful. Think of yourself in the pool, swimming nice and easy freestyle. If I were to tell you to swim, but to make sure your elbow being brought forward is what’s going to bring your arm around during your recovery, now you would know what I mean. Having your elbow be the lead for your arms, as opposed to your hands, will help you keep your elbow in the proper position. This also helps you enter the water already set to start your catch, as opposed to having to set it up after your hand enters the water, therefore wasting time and also missing out on making the most of your paddle with your hand and forearm.

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This movement probably sounds pretty simple, but it takes A LOT of practice to get this right. I still have workouts dedicated to just this movement, spending 1-2 hours focusing on how to get this just right. And when I get tired, I tend to go back to my old habits, not good. When you go to work on this start a little at a time to prevent the impending frustration. Just like with all movement corrections in swimming, you have to work on this over and over again before it will start to become a habit. Even when you think you’re doing it all the time, keep practicing! This is the biggest component to having a strong and efficient freestyle, so don’t skip working on this!

Take a look at our video to see what a dropped elbow vs a forward and up elbow look like in motion!

Work With Your Nerves, Not Against Them

With my race looming right around the corner (only three days to go!) I find that my nerves are beginning to rear their ugly head, creeping into my thoughts at every moment of down time. When they first started to get a hold on me I held it in, didn’t say anything, and tried to push them down without addressing them. News Flash: this doesn’t work for me, unless you count increasing my anxiety and it’s presence in my day to day activities as working, then it worked wonders. Next, I started to frantically voice my concerns to my husband, the pitch of my voice growing ever higher as I spiraled even further down the “what if” rabbit hole. This merely sent me into a frenzy akin to that of a six year old being told Toys R’ Us was out of the Special Edition Barbie they wanted and unfortunately Santa wouldn’t be able to deliver this year. So nope, that didn’t work either.

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Instead, after being calmed down and regaining rational thought and logic, I decided the best way to handle my nerves was to accept their existence and work with them.

So, what was I most nervous about in the Aquathlon? First thing that comes to mind is the transition and start of the run portion. I can’t help but worry that, even though race workers and volunteers have spent days setting up markers and cones and all sorts of other things to direct participants, I won’t know where to go when I get out of the water. AND that I won’t know where to go after I finagle my shorts, socks, and shoes on without spending the time to towel off from the swim. Why am I afraid of this when it’s people’s SOLE job to make sure these things don’t happen? Let’s journey back to the second (and last) triathlon I competed in for a moment. Cue me running out of the first transition with my bike ready to start the course, running through two cones and under an archway that I thought signaled where to go, only to have countless people screaming at me that I’d gone the wrong way and had to go back, turn around, and go through different cones and under a different archway so that I was actually going over the timing mat and heading in the right direction. Now I don’t know about you, but that was pretty embarrassing for me. I know no one else cared about the incident, and the people who yelled at me forgot about it immediately after it happened and I had left their POV, but still, not fun for me. Hence my fear of not know the right direction. But okay, if I do mess up, there will be other people to yell at me and get me back on track. I’ll still start the run, and nothing detrimental to me completing the race will have happened. Okay, next.

My second biggest fear is simply staying on course in the run. Why? The exact same reasoning as above. That whole missing the timing mat and having to turn around really messed with my head, and it seems to be the seed of my nerves right now. But okay, easy enough to deal with. I have plenty of time between when my plane lands in Miami and the start of the race to do a run-through of the course so that come race day I, at minimum, vaguely know where I need to go. Got it. And at this point in figuring out how to work with my nerves, I realized that making these plans and realizing I would be able to deal with my fears - even if worst comes to worst and they actually happened - was helping me calm down. I could count the “what ifs” for hours and just make myself feel worse and worse. But, working through the scenarios and having a plan of action was what actually helped me realize I need to use my nerves to my advantage, and not let them get the best of me.

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After I talked myself through my biggest fears, I decided to focus on what I knew, and what I could control. Starting with the swim. I have twenty-four years of competitive swimming under my belt, I’ve been training in our Endless Pool to get used to not having walls, and I’ve been practicing my sighting. Reasonable enough, at the very least I know the swim will be okay. Next, I know that I can survive a 5K. My training has mostly been distances longer than that, and I’ve been going PRs in my last two 3.1 mile runs. Logically, I know I have the stamina and strength to power through that run and cross the finish line. Easy. Well, okay, easier said then done, but still a good mental exercise to help me best utilize my nervous energy and thoughts.

Lastly? I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience and to be competing with some of our closest clients. I know the Aquathlon is nowhere near the distance of the Olympic distance tris or the Ironman races they compete in, but I have a better understanding of their training, dedication, and perseverance now that I would never be able to get from just swim practices alone. Now it’s time to put all of my words to actions and finish this race!

Giving Paddles a New Look

Learning how to properly set your catch might be one of the smallest details with the largest impact for your freestyle. Fun fact: I didn’t learn how to properly set my catch until about 2 years ago, and I’ve been swimming for twenty-four years…yeesh, my bad. The hardest thing for me was that I didn’t even know the feeling that I was looking for during my catch, so I never knew I wasn’t making this movement correctly. To this day I still work on this 2-3 times a week with different drills to help me better understand what I need to be doing. My favorite drill right now to focus on finding the right feeling for my catch is Paddles in Hands.

Instead of using your hand paddles they way they were meant to be worn, this drill has you simply hold them in your hands while wrapping your fingers and thumbs around them to hold them in place.

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Using the paddles this way forces you to focus on creating your paddle, as well as actually feel the resistance of the water against your forearms. Because of the paddles, this drill makes you have to set your paddle with your hand AND your forearm. This can be a tricky movement to understand, but the more surface area you have pushing against the water, the more you’ll be able to propel yourself forward.

This drill is also great to help you learn to set your catch early. If you set your catch late during Paddles in Hands, you’ll definitely feel the difference. A late catch during this drill will give the feeling of pushing down in the water, which is not what we want. You want to have the feeling of pushing backwards. A downward push will not help to move you forward in the water, and will actually throw you out of streamline and off balance.

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The image above is a great shot of both a late catch and a properly timed catch. The left shows the late catch, which you can see is set when the arm is almost perpendicular to the body. When you set your catch this late, your arm drifts downward and loses all of the potential propulsion you would have if you’d set your catch when your arm is closer to parallel to your body. The right shows good timing of the catch. You can see the slight bend in the wrist, indicating the beginning of the catch before we move into the pull phase. By setting this early, when your arm is closer to the surface of the water, you’re able to push backwards against much more water than you would if you set your catch later.

It might not look like a huge difference, but having a good catch means you’re pushing back against more water. This leads to stronger pulls, fewer strokes, and an all over more efficient stroke. A late catch? That leads to having less water to push back against, more strokes, and will end up tiring you out more quickly because you’ll be stroking more and pulling less, causing you to expend more energy to move through the water more slowly.

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As I’ve said before, swimming is a sport of centimeters. So even though this drill is working to fix what looks like a very slight difference in movement, it will pay off ten-fold once you get the hang of it.

Two Disciplines, One Race

I started swimming competitively when I was 6 years old. My best friend at the time was joining the swim team at our local pool and asked if I would join with her. And since little kids are so courteous and respectful of our parents (HA) my friend asked this question in front of my mom, which, I learned later, was a great way to get your parents to say yes to things they normally would balk at. Not that my mom wouldn’t want me to swim, but this tactic came in handy pretty much any time I wanted a friend to come over and knew my mom would say no. Instead of being polite and asking my mom in private, I would beg and plead with my friend at my side, creating that oh so wonderful guilt in the bottom of her heart that would always result in an impromptu play date. But anyway, the point here. I started swimming when I was 6 and I never picked up another sport or joined another type of team from then forward. Because of this, working out was always one thing: swimming.

Fast forward to my Aquathlon training and all of the sudden the race I’m training for is made up of two things, not just the one I’m used to. Nothing crazy, considering triathlons and decathlons are made up of three-ten things, two should be a piece of cake. But training for a race with two different disciplines? That’s something I’m still getting used to.

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When I started this training it was a lot more than what I had been doing for my typical workouts. Now, believe me when I say I like to workout since I grew up with crazy amounts of physical activity being normal, but this training seemed to be taking up a lot more time than I thought it would. Talking to a bunch of our triathlete clients, they told me they tend to break up their workouts throughout the day so they’re not taking 2-3 hours at a time to get their training in. So? I started to do the same. But what I didn’t realize was that this could actually be detrimental to me come race day.

So this past Friday I switched things up. Instead of doing my planned 45 minute treadmill run and 800M on the SwimErg, I combined them. My workout consisted of:

  • 10 minutes running (at a moderate pace & with an incline)

  • 5 minutes slow and steady on the SwimErg

  • 10 minutes running

  • 5 minutes on the SwimErg

  • 10 minutes running

  • 5 minutes on the SwimErg

The planned pace on the treadmill was supposed to be around a 9-9:10/mile, but my legs were DEAD when I started, so my pace hovered between a 9:30-9:50/mile for my runs. Not what I wanted, but better than not running at all. That being said, this workout was KILLER. Combining the run with the swim without any breaks in between is something I’ve never done before. And even though I didn’t do either of them fast and furious, I kept my heart rate up for the entire 45 minute workout, the only relief being when I jumped off the treadmill and hopped onto the SwimErg.

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I’m not trying to say that breaking up your workouts throughout the day is bad, and I’m still going to do that some days of the week. But since the races I’m used to have never lasted more than two and a half minutes of all out effort, I need to get used to keeping my heart rate up, throughout multiples disciplines, for over 45 minutes. For most of our triathlon clients this is just a blink of an eye, but to me this is over twenty times my standard race length. So I need to buckle down and work on making this my new normal.

Yikes, over twenty times? Typing that out makes it even more exciting…

Drills Have a Purpose, Trust me

During my swim practices back in high school there was nothing I hated seeing on the board more than a giant set full of freestyle drills. Well, except maybe an entire workout made up of butterfly sets, those were the worst. 3000-5000 yards of 80% butterfly? No thank you. And yes, this happened, unfortunately there’s no exaggeration here. Those dreaded drill sets just bored me to tears. If you’ve never been a teenage girl doing thousands of yards of slow, monotonous, freestyle drills at 4:15am before going to school and having to actually pay attention to things (and apparently “learn”), give yourself a pat on the back, because that was the actual worst. All of those drills would never get me to my goal times and make the champs meets.

Or would they?

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One thing that has finally gotten through this thick skull of mine is that the very drills my coaches had me do over and over...and over again, had a purpose. AND that I actually needed to be paying attention whilst doing them, not just daydreaming and thinking about how excited I was for breakfast (my mom got up with me EVERY MORNING at 3:45am to make me a fried egg and cheese sandwich before practice, that woman is a saint) in order for them to have the desired impact. Huh, who knew?

All of the drills your coaches put into your practices have a point, and a purpose, and are there to help you build a proper foundation for your swimming. And that proper foundation? That’s what’s going to keep you injury free throughout the years. And the reasons you have to keep going back to them? So you can stay injury free. Swimming can be monotonous, even mind-numbingly boring at times, trust me, I’m aware (and don’t worry, I say that with love). But you have to focus on the technique of your stroke. You need to focus on the drills that help you perfect that technique. Doing so will help you be able to make improvements to your stroke faster and understand the purpose behind making the changes that lead to those improvements. And all of this will lead to a stronger, safer, and more efficient stroke.

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The next time you head to the pool and see a laundry list of freestyle drills, don’t start singing songs from your favorite Disney movie and trying to figure out the math on how many cookies you can eat after this workout. Focus on each drill, take your time, and try not to fall asleep in the water. The more you focus, the more you’ll want to practice these drills over and over. Because you know what happens when you focus? Progress.

PS the drill I’m working on in these pictures is Triangle Drill, which helps you focus on proper catch position and the movement of your shoulder blades. Check out our instructional video and try adding it to your next swim workout!