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Come to Your Senses -- and Spring Forward this Swim Season

· Swimming,Coach,Maine

This was originally written for the Maine Blue Lobsters Masters newsletter.

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If you're like me, you may find it difficult to maintain the same intensity of focus in your swimming season after season. It can be especially difficult to reload after training for a specific goal. Recently I have been exploring the role that our senses play in swimming. Just taking notice of small connections between mind and body can lead to adjustments -- and small changes can translate to big gains in the long run, not just in technique but in renewed motivation.


Senses are defined as any of the faculties by which the mind receives information about the external world or about the state of the body. In addition to the five traditional faculties of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, the term includes the means by which bodily position (proprioception), balance (equilibrioception), and pain (nociception) are perceived.

The word sense comes from the Latin sēnsus, meaning sensation, feeling, understanding. Because our sport must be performed while balancing in water with our faces submerged, one could easily argue that the interplay of stimuli is more complex than that of land sports. How many other sports require relearning how to breathe?


Here are a few suggestions to get you thinking about how many stimuli bombard us during a swim:


Sight. Environment forces us to use our senses differently in the pool as opposed to open water. In the pool we subconsciously use the lane line, black line, wall to keep moving in a straight line. Conversely, in the open water we have no such frames of reference and must use a buoy or assigned object to help us assess our direction, hone our sighting skills, and make stroke adjustments to keep towards a goal. Try closing your eyes in the pool or the open water (avoiding collisions of course) and swim towards a predetermined object -- this may reveal stroke flaws that you have been compensating for.


Hearing. When I am swimming well, I sometimes notice a different sound of the water whooshing by my ears. I often ask my swimmers to notice sound differences as they descend a set. On another note, I am surprised by how many of my students don't use mental music to aid their rhythm and tempo. If this isn't something that comes naturally to you, you might think about repeating mantras or trying a tempo trainer.


Touch. We often describe "feeling" the water -- a finesse-type motion that is crucial to setting up for a powerful pull. It is hard to articulate this concept to someone who has never achieved it -- it's more of a tension or a pressure than merely a touch. Besides sculling, I rely on a variety of fist drills to focus on the importance of the hand and forearm connection to the water.


Pressure. Swimmers not only use touch receptors but, even more, pressure receptors if they want to achieve more power. However, if the angle of the pull is flawed, they unknowingly may be wasting energy pushing water down or to the side instead of behind. I recommend having a coach videotape and analyze your stroke. Most don't realize that they are pulling with a straight arm, pushing down instead of back, breaking their wrist, and dropping their elbows, just to name a few of the major offenders. Visual cues for body awareness (proprioception) are key to achieving effective technique.


Balance. Try placing a pull buoy between the ankles. On the next swim, place it between the knees. Next time, use it between the thighs. Repeat. By shifting the balance point the body learns to make the adjustments needed to stabilize the core and maintain equilibrium.


Whether you take a moment to look at your stroke real-time (I like the eyes-up catch drill), in a video, or in your mind's eye -- being more self-aware is an excellent first step toward self-correction. If technique isn't your thing, there are many other exciting options to pique your sense of derring-do. Many of our friends and teammates are attempting grueling marathon swims and frigid ice swims (think: nociception!). I participated in the inaugural Casco Bay SwimRun last summer, which forced me to run for the first time and consequently opened up a whole host of intriguing parallels and contrasts with swim training. It's never too late to take a fresh look at an old puzzle.


Happy Spring!