Why Might Your Legs Be Sinking?

'Why are my legs sinking down when swimming freestyle?' might be the number one question we are asked here at Swim Smooth. The extra drag from a low body position slows you down dramatically but why does this happen? There's more than one possibility, here are the most common causes:

1) Holding onto your breath underwater. If you hold your breath and don't exhale into the water you have too much buoyancy in the chest - this lifts you up at the front. Since the body acts with a see-saw action when swimming, lift up at the front and your legs sink. If you have sinky legs, exhalation should be the very first thing you work on in your stroke. Find out more here.

2) Kicking from the knee and inflexible ankles. Both of these create a lot of drag and sink your legs, find out more here.

3) Flexing through the core. You don't need abs of steel to fix this but you do need co-ordination and engagement of the core muscles. Find out more here.

4) Pushing down at the front of the stroke. In swimming, we call the initiation of each stroke in front of your head 'the catch'. A good catch action bends early at the elbow and so presses the water backwards, to the wall behind you. This propels you in the opposite direction, forwards. A poor catch presses downwards on the water with a straight arm which does nothing for your propulsion but instead lifts your front end up. You guessed it, the see-saw action then sinks the legs down. Pressing down with a straight arm like this can also cause shoulder injury. Find out more here.

5) A high head position. We have to be a little careful with this as it is a very individual thing for swimmers. If you have a good body position then you can afford to look a little further forwards, so creating a higher head position. Doing so helps your proprioception and is beneficial for navigation in open water. However, if you do suffer badly from sinky legs you may have to look straight downwards to lift them up.

Which of these might you be suffering from? Shameless plug: we designed our Swim Type system to help swimmers diagnose their stroke issues (and provide you with a complete training guide to fix those issues).

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Should You Emphasise The Back Of Your Stroke?

Many swimmers are under the impression they should complete the back of the freestyle stroke with a big push as the hand passes the hip. You can reduce your strokes per length doing this but over-emphasising the push can cause swimmers numerous problems:

- It tends to fling your hand out of the water by your hip giving an unbalanced arm recovery action. Not only does this harm your rhythm but it can also cause you to snake which creates lots of drag.

- When emphasising the push, many swimmers push upwards not backwards, this is wasted effort and can act to sink the legs down, again increasing drag.

- Locking out your elbow by pushing hard causes a delay in the stroke timing. Since your other arm is extended forwards at this point it naturally causes a dead-spot at the front end too. Dead-spots harm your efficiency because you decelerate and then have to re-accelerate on the next stroke. In other words, over-emphasising the back of the stroke can harm your efficiency by turning you into an overglider.

- The amount of extra propulsion you gain is really quite small and it's inefficient because it overloads the small tricep muscles. The effort required is normally too high to sustain for more than a few laps. Swimming is quite deceptive in this regard, things that feel easy for 25m can quickly become unsustainable beyond 100m.

If you watch elite swimmers racing, you'll see that they don't complete each stroke with a distinct push and they don't lock out their elbows straight. In fact, they normally finish the back of the stroke with a distinctly bent elbow. Here's a nice clip of Ian Thorpe showing this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8egC7PbOME

Great swimmers like Ian finish their stroke naturally as a consequence of their body rotation and stroke timing. We suggest you target the same thing: work on your catch, stroke timing and rhythm, and the back of the stroke will follow and naturally click into place when everything else is right. When you find this natural timing you gain speed and efficiency - it's the cause of the 'sweet spots' you can find with our ramp test.

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A Necessary Evil?

We know a lot of people who follow Swim Smooth are triathletes. On our clinics we often ask you guys if swimming is a necessary evil for you, if you only really swim because of triathlon or Ironman. Normally at least half the room put their hands up! If this is you, we suggest an alternative mindset.

Embrace Swimming For Its Own Sake:

Enjoy the freedom swimming gives you from your daily stress and routine. Take the time to play in the water - even when you're not with your kids. Give the other strokes a go (often). Watch and understand the sport on TV. Race your friends (hard). Experiment with your stroke for fun. Swim without thinking about your stroke for a whole session (we dare you). Walk out poolside tall and proud. Swim twice in one day just to see what happens (it's interesting). Start thinking of yourself as a swimmer. Actually no, start thinking of yourself as a good swimmer.

It's very hard to be good at something you don't enjoy.  If you decide to change how you look at swimming you'll have taken one of the most important steps to becoming a better swimming. And you'll soon discover that swimming isn't really very evil at all.

Swim Smooth!
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Special Test Set: What A Pull Buoy Can Tell You About Your Stroke

On this week's Blog we're going to share with you a test swim set we use over here in sunny Perth which looks at how a swimmer performs under pressure with or without a pull buoy and fins. This set might hold a few answers for you about your own stroke and what you need to do to improve your swimming. Over to Swim Smooth Head Coach Paul Newsome:

In recent weeks I've been working one to one with a triathlete called Gillian who has a strong running background. We've identified that Gillian is a classic "Kicktastic" Swim Type and so needs to develop a better catch and feel for the water to generate a little more "oomph" and propulsion in her arm stroke. Gillian used to find that she would be substantially slower using a pull buoy between her legs (i.e. no kicking) than swimming normal freestyle. She found it very frustrating to see other swimmers with quite ungainly strokes suddenly being able to keep up with her - or even outpace her - with a pull buoy.

Gillian has been working hard on developing her catch and feel for the water and to see how she's progressing with this I reverted to my own coaching-type and designed a test-set! Try this set yourself, you might really learn something about your swimming which will help you move forwards.

Special Test Set: Free/Pull/Fins Comparison

Swim at maximum effort over a progression of distances from 50m to 200m. Swim each distance three times, one each using either a pull buoy (no kicking), normal freestyle (normal kicking) or fins (accentuated kicking). The main set looks like this:

- 3x 50m + 15 seconds recovery between each: 1) freestyle 2) pull buoy 3) fins
- 3x 100m + 30 seconds recovery between each: 1) pull buoy 2) fins 3) freestyle
- 3x 150m + 45 seconds recovery between each: 1) fins 2) pull buoy 3) freestyle
- 3x 200m + 60 seconds recovery between each: 1) freestyle 2) pull buoy 3) fins
(fins are flippers in swimming jargon)
Warning - this is a hard set! All these swims are to be performed at your absolute fastest pace for that distance! The recovery times are quite generous to allow for this. The order of the freestyle / pull buoy / fins changes during the set to ensure that you are not biasing one over the other as you start to fatigue.

The recovery times don't need to be exact but you do need to be accurate in recording what times you swim for each interval as this is the data we need to analyse and compare.


Gillian performed this set admirably and whilst she was 2½ seconds slower on the 50m pull buoy than she was without, her 100m times were exactly the same, she was (surprisingly) 3 seconds faster with the pull buoy than without over 150m and 2 seconds slower with the pull buoy than without over the 200m when fatigue had definitely started to kick in.

For someone who used to be 12 seconds per 100m slower with a pull buoy than without, Gillian has done some great work in modifying and improving her catch. This was a point which she noticed in today's squad session during a pure pull buoy set - she kept up with the group rather than being dropped like many  Kicktastics would do. A clear sign of improvement in her catch!

Why not give this session a try yourself? You may have noticed these idiosyncrasies in your swimming during a session but have never quantifiably tested them - this set will allow you to do that and get a great workout in the process. If you are consistently more than 6 seconds per 100m slower with the pull buoy than without then you need to be addressing developing a better catch and pull through as your limiting factor.

Conversely, if you are more than 4 seconds per 100m faster with the pull buoy, it's very likely that a poor body position is holding you back and needs fine tuning. Swimmers who are significantly faster with a pull buoy normally have 'sinky leg syndrome' and are classically Arnie/Arnette and Swinger Swim Types. Their body position is a key limiting factor for them, especially when tired.

If you find that your speed with and without a pull buoy is similar then this would indicate that the balance of power between your kick and your catch is relatively sound.

(Of course, all the methods you need to make these improvements to your stroke are in your type's Swim Type Guide)

A Few Points To Bear In Mind:

- You must resist the temptation to kick when using the pull buoy - everyone has the tendency to do so when swimming fast!

- Don't get flustered during the equipment changes - take a few seconds longer to swap over if necessary.

- On the longer intervals (150m and 200m) you may feel there's too much recovery time but stick to it - this is designed to allow you to continue at peak speed through the set.

- Most swimmers will be substantially faster when using the fins than without - the question is how much faster? Gillian's 100m time was 1'17" with fins compared with 1'52" for her pull buoy and normal freestyle swims - massively faster. This is very typical of a Kicktastic who generates a lot of propulsion from their legs. Swingers with a 2-beat kick will see a much smaller improvement with the fins.

Coaches:

I then tested this set with three squads of twenty swimmers each and it proved to be very interesting indeed. For example take two swimmers in the same lane with near identical times for freestyle and freestyle with fins: Trevor (who's a fast Arnie) was 5 seconds per 100m faster with a pull buoy than without, whereas Mel (another classic kicktastic) was a good 11 seconds per 100m slower with a pull buoy than without.


From this test information you could then run a technique session and assign three lanes based purely on how your swimmers responded to this set:

a) A Kicktastic and Bambino lane (those who were much slower with the pull buoy than without and need to work on their catch)

b) An Arnie and Swinger lane (those who were much faster with the pull buoy than without and who need to work on their body position)

c) An Overglider and Smooth lane (who probably saw very little variance on the test set and can focus much more on developing the rhythm of their stroke and fine tuning a variety of areas).

It will certainly make for quite a dynamic session and challenge you to recognise the different needs of your swimmers and how best to develop each of their strokes.

Enjoy and have a great weekend!

Coach Paul
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