I am doing a series of blogs breaking down the ‘Ocean Walker Technique’ in order to support those swimmers who are suffering with injuries or slow, inefficient, energy consuming front crawl techniques. Swim techniques can be confusing and as a qualified coach for the last 20 years (coaching 15 years of that the conventional way) and five years ‘The Ocean Walker Technique’, it’s very hard to accept that there may be other ways of doing things, especially when you’ve done it for so long. We are all creatures of habit, so it was going to take something major to happen to me to change my mind-set. Well that is just what happened!!
For those who don’t know, I had a ruptured bicep tendon in my left shoulder caused by an old injury in water polo prior to training for the English Channel. At first my shoulder was just a little sore whilst training, however as I increased the distance and number of sessions a week I began to feel a pain down the front of my left shoulder and in the centre of my bicep.
Over arm rotations became more painful and I would need two physio sessions a week just to get back in the pool. In the summer I started doing the non-stop 6 hour swims, I couldn’t train all week afterwards due to the intense pain. I even started to see a hypnotherapist to try and manage the pain in my mind.
In short, following two rounds of surgery to re-attach the tendon back after the English Channel, my surgeon advised the operations were a partial success and not to do any more long distance swims. He said that most likely the thousands of overhead arm rotations had worn away at the tendons, eventually creating the rupture and that the majority of swimming injuries are due to overhead impingement. I had given up all other land based sports due to injury and this was my last chance at doing an active sport.
I knew I had to make massive changes to my stroke technique if there was any possibility of taking on more long distance swims. Even then it might be too late as the damage was already done. For once in my life I had to think about the technique and the bio-mechanics of what I was doing to have any chance of prolonging my swimming.
My old stroke consisted of my arms lifting and swinging overhead from a high position. The muscle activation in my arms and shoulders were significant as I entered the water. This one motion used forearm flex and extensor muscles, deltoids, trap biceps, trapezius, back and pectoral muscles. Most significant for me was upon lifting my arm, caused an irritation in the shoulder and a cracking noise which then was impounded by my driving into the water on entry and then extending into the water.
I also found driving my arm into the water painful on top of the shoulder and sore into extension. It requires a number of muscle groups to make this happen which is additional energy. In addition, by driving the arm into the water, I had the tendency to drop my elbow and drive the arm upward towards the surface of the water often towards the centre line. Rather than wide as my hips. I would then create what I call an ‘armpit fart!’ where my elbow would collapse in the water creating splash and resistance as my forearm and hand would be higher than my elbow.
As the arm went up, so would my head, which in turn would drop my hips as the head is the heaviest part of the body. It felt like I was swimming more uphill with added resistance.
When the rotation element of the stroke was introduced, I realised that the 180 degree rotation from hip to hip would actually send my hand and arm into the water anyway, so there was no need to drive it in fast and actually allow the hips as a power source as they are in many land sports, such as boxing, shot put, javelin, kayaking etc. (Look out for a future blog on the hips). I found if I rotated 90 degrees to a flat body position and drove my arms into the water to complete the other 90 degrees (180 degrees in total) I was not as fast and smooth with the stroke. I put this down to using only 50% of the hip power as the chest and arms would then take over to finish the movement.
Therefore if I did a full 180 degree rotation using the hips, not only would the stroke be more powerful, it allowed the leading hand and arm to drop into the water in a relaxed way. This meant that I also shut down the chest and shoulder muscles. I would then guide my arm to a deeper 40 degree position with hand entering first, followed by forearm, elbow and shoulder. I would then finish in this position under water and have the feeling of swimming down-hill, with the hips up and straight into the catch with my hands pointing downwards. The stroke was smoother and I was gliding taking my strokes down from 19 per length to 12 in a 25 metre pool, with no loss of speed and over 100 metres 2-5 seconds faster on average.
This was very different to my hand and arm entry previously, which was with a straight arm long and extended on top of the water. At the time, I believed this would create more power as I would be extended out in front quicker than an early entry and therefore get the catch phase of the pull earlier. Although this is true in one sense as air is thinner than water to pass through, when I did enter I hit the water from a high trajectory, it caused shock vibrations through my shoulder. The splash and resistance was significant as I entered with forearms extended in front. The position being like that of a belly flop in a dive.Now by waiting for the hips, there is little effort as they send the leading arm into the water during rotation with the hips creating forward momentum and glide, with the catch taking place after the hips have done 180 degrees so the pull is never flat. This means that you are pulling less body mass through water and why you can imagine fish use a corkscrew motion to move through the water as it’s more efficient.
Next blog in this series – High elbows BEWARE!
Also in this series:
‘The Importance of a Still Head‘