Swimming quickly in no way implies good technique, and whilst an inefficient stroke may get you (either slowly or quickly) from A to B when the distances involved are short, over distances of several kilometres an efficient stroke is needed. This is especially true if the swim forms part of an Ironman triathlon, in which case it will be followed directly afterwards by 180.25km of cycling and then 42.2km of running. In this case, efficiency in the swim stage is key.
This article is devoted to front crawl, as up till now this is the stroke that I have been focussing on in my lessons. Before I start with my list of lessons learnt, I would just like to add something to this earlier post that I wrote. In it, I mention that a good pair of goggles and a nose clip are wise investments. The first thing my coach told me to do when we met was to ditch the nose clip. Coach S. assured me that if I breathe properly, no water can enter my nose.
Common problems and lessons learnt
How should one breathe when swimming?
It is important to breathe out through the nose whilst your face is underwater, and then to breathe in through your mouth when you lift your head above the water's surface. The part that was lacking in my case was the breathing out through my nose whilst my face was submerged. The laws of physics make it impossible for water to enter your nose if you are actively breathing out through it. It took some getting used to at first, and a great deal of swimming pool water ended up in my nose and lungs during the learning process, but I am starting to get the hang of it now. A good breathing pattern of in through the mouth and out through the nose also has a nice, calming effect on the nervous system.
Legs too far under the water?
The most common reason for the legs being too far under the water is related to the head being lifted too far upwards. Rather than looking straight in front with the head raised whilst swimming crawl, it is better for your head to face directly down in the water, and then to just use your eyes to look a metre or two in front of you in order to see where you are going. Another reason can be too much tension in the hamstrings. If you release the tension in your hamstrings you usually find that your legs start to rise naturally.
Cramps in the calf muscles?
This one hit me last night for the first time but it was a killer. My muscle was visibly bulging (whilst I did appreciation the nice muscle definition I most definitely did not appreciate the pain). It was enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to get out of the pool and stretch it out for a few minutes. Thank goodness that didn't happen half way through an open water swim. Calf cramps whilst swimming are usually caused when people forcibly try to point their toes. The toes will naturally tend to point if the ankles are kept nice and relaxed, and there is no need to forcibly point them at all. If you do get a cramp try to pull the toes back to allow the muscle to extend. It is best to do this in the first few seconds, before the cramp becomes so painful that stretching out the muscle is no longer possible. Sometimes, after a cramp has occurred the muscle can be sore for a day or two afterwards. In this case a combination of heat and cold can be applied to bring some relief. Heat tends to relieve the tension and spasms, whilst cold relieves soreness and tenderness. Some massage can also be helpful. Cramps can sometimes be brought on by dehydration, so it is important to remain hydrated before, during and after your swim.
Making full use of each arm pull - stroke length
One of the keys to having an efficient stroke is being able to make full use of each arm pull. A lot of people let their arm enter the water and then immediately begin to pull the water back towards them. The arm should enter the water slightly bent, and then you should stretch it out as far as possible until it is fully extended. Now at this point you can being pulling the water towards you. Like this you have just added a good few extra centimetres to your stroke length, with minimal effort.
Yes most of you have probably heard of road rage, so I am sure you can imagine what lane rage is. It is the uncontrolled anger provoked by another swimmer's act in a swimming pool that has been cordoned off into lanes. According to this article in the Independent newspaper, lane rage is on the rise. I myself was a victim of lane rage last night, not that I gave two hoots about the guys ten second rant. All I did was accidentally touch his foot with my hand as I came up fast from behind him, and that was enough to set him off. "Watch where you are going ...." blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. In a busy lane where there are swimmers of mixed abilities, the occasional foot touch is inevitable. Ignoring these crazy ranters is probably the best bet, or simply turn to them and say "What is your problem mate?". That seemed to shut the guy from last night up, as he didn't really know what to say to that. Other than to repeat himself once or twice. To which I simply replied "What is your problem mate?" Had he not begun his rant I probably would have simply raised my hand or said sorry.
Having covered the issue of lane rage, I think it important to cover lane etiquette. Just like driving on the road there are certain rules, which if followed, tend to make things easier for everyone concerned. In many pools the lanes are marked according to both speed and stroke. In my local pool for example, as well as having lanes marked for breaststroke and front crawl, backstroke and butterfly, we usually have one or two lanes marked "tempo". These are reserved for the faster swimmers.
Just because you think you are fast does not mean that you should get straight into the fast lane. Take a few seconds to look at the speeds of the swimmers in the various lanes and try to find one that closely matches your intended speed. You may find that whilst one day you are in the fast lane, another day you are in the medium lane (because all the local Michael Phelps' turned up at once). Also do not get into the front crawl lane if you intend to swim breast stoke.
The exception to the above rules about finding the correct lane based on your speed and stroke is when there is only one person in a lane and there are other free lanes available. Never get into a lane with just one solo swimmer when there are other lanes with no swimmers in still available. You can always move into the "correct" lane later if the pool becomes busier.
If there is only one swimmer in the lane and you have no choice but to enter that lane, enter the pool when the other person is not just arriving at the wall where you are. Now you will have to decide whether to split the lane with the other swimmer, in which case you each take half of the lane and you always stay on your respective side, or whether to circular swim (which becomes obligatory when there are more than 2 swimmers in the lane anyway). In my local pool circular swimming seems to always be the standard practise.
Circular lane swimming means that all swimmers travelling in one direction stick to one half of the lane, and all swimmers travelling in the opposite direction stick to the opposite half of the lane. In Europe it is usually done counterclockwise, meaning that as you approach the wall you move to the lefthand side of the lane and then you turn. People taking a rest at the wall should stick to the righthand side of the lane.
It is bad practise to just hang out in the water on the end wall of a lane, talking to your friends for hours and hours. If you want to do that then move to the free swimming area. It is a lane for swimming, not a coffee club after all.
The final contentious issue is that of overtaking. Some people insist on a series of foot tapping rituals to let the other swimmer know that you are just about to pass, whilst others just get on with it. Either way, the accepted way to overtake on the move is to check that there is no oncoming traffic and then to move into the middle of the lane, pass the slower swimmer and then move back to the side of the lane that you were originally on as swiftly as possible without cutting up the slower swimmer. The slower swimmer should be polite and allow the overtaking person to pass, and not put on a sudden last minute burst of speed. Close encounters and occasional collisions can occur when three people (2 travelling in one direction and 1 in the other direction) are all trying to pass in close proximity with arms and legs flailing. If bad collisions do happen and you know that you are to blame, apologise and check everyone else is okay before continuing. The occasional knock can happen and it is not usually necessary to stop unless it is serious.
Overtaking can also be done at the wall, but would probably necessitate some soft of communication to ensure that neither person gets cut up and feels put out. Just try to be considerate and treat others as you would also like to be treated.
Just before signing off this post, I wanted to highlight the following part of the The Independent article that I mentioned earlier, which I found very amusing:
Lifeguards at Finchley are instructed not to get involved in arguments between swimmers but to blow a whistle - the thinking being that, since the adults are behaving like children, they will respond to a playground-style command.
Be safe, swim safe and have fun!