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Swimming - Are you Gliding or Reaching?

Enter… Glide…. Pull….Repeat….. How many times have you heard your swim coach tell you to this?

Having spent many hours working on deck with adults who are looking to improve their swim, I shy away from the word “GLIDE”. In my mind, it conjures up images of getting into a streamlined position and then just hanging out, hoping that the body will somehow cut effortless through the water with little or no active effort. Instead, think of this phase of swimming as the REACH phase. Whereby, after the hand enters the water, the arm and hand is actively reaching towards its destination.

The REACH is always active. This means that before momentum is lost, the alternate arm needs to now prepare to lead. If the lead arm is left to ‘glide’, momentum slows down which tends to create a pause in the stroke and often a choppy appearance. Athletes who come from a paddling or cross country ski background can often relate to the importance of keeping the arms (or paddle) in motion.

The high elbow position during the recovery phase of the stroke helps to encourage the set up for a good hand entry into the water.  Therefore, it is worthwhile to practice this during training with drills such as the fingertip drag and shark fin positions. If the elbow is high during the recovery, the lead arm trajectory is more likely to be in line with the shoulder (which is what you want) rather than crossing closer to the midline of the body. When the hand comes too close to the midline of the body or crosses over, it tends to create an equal and opposite reaction, causing the legs to counteract the loss of a straight position and therefore kick out. The resulting effect is usually a ‘sway’ or zig-zag from the streamline, straight position.

Once the hand has entered the water and is reaching towards the destination, now you can pay attention to the lead arm. It is not uncommon to instead focus on the opposite arm that is pulling underwater, since many athletes perceive this to be the only active arm. Re-focusing on the lead arm will help provide greater balance due to the active search for length.  Also, since the body will be at its longest position; this will also encourage the natural roll of the hips. The benefit of this is that you will also have more time to breathe.

To get the extra ‘reach’ out of the stroke, pay attention to driving the lower hip down and forward. This will help to activate the connection of the entire body rather than the reach just coming from the shoulders.

So, now that you understand the importance of the REACH what can you do in training to help you focus on this phase of the swim stroke? Here are my top choices…….

  1. Single arm freestyle – focusing on the lead arm. Opposite arm by side or in front of the body.

  1. Single arm uncoordinated ‘unco’ drill – similar to a single arm freestyle. Keep one arm at the side and breathe only to that side. Focus on keeping the lead arm reaching as you rotate to breathe. Eventually this should go from feeling ‘un-coordinated’ to feeling long and smooth in the water.
  • Both the above drills can be done with and without fins. Fins will help you to remain focused on the lead arm. Without fins, the drills will be more challenging and requires both good body balance and a connection between hip and shoulder rotation.

  1. Single hand paddle – perform any of the single arm drills (as noted above) or freestyle with a single small hand paddle. Pay attention to the hand that has the paddle on it as you reach and rotate.

  1. Fingertip drag – this is performed as a freestyle stroke. Start the fingertip drag as soon as the hand exits the water and starts the recovery. Focus on a high elbow recovery position and allow the tips of the fingers to skim the surface of the water throughout the recovery. Draw an imaginary straight line (that is aligned with the shoulder) with the middle finger as you extend the lead arm.

  1. Counting strokes per length – count the number of strokes per length. The caveat to this is that you are also looking at your time per length. Don’t be mistaken that less strokes equates to more speed (i.e. anyone can do less strokes if they are merely ‘gliding’). Find your current sweet spot that is your fastest time combined with the number of strokes and work on getting your stroke count down while hitting the same time.

  1. Use a Tempo Trainer – if you have managed to get into a habit of gliding and need to know how to get rhythm into your stroke, the Tempo Trainer by Finis is a great little device that you can place under your swim cap. Determine what your current stroke rate is and then work on increasing the tempo over time. This will help eliminate dead spots in your stroke.

If you are looking for more advice on how to REACH instead of GLIDE then come join us in Florida from February 16-19th for our Women’s only (sorry guys) SWIM focus camp at the National Training Center in Clermont.  You will be sure to come home from this camp a faster and more knowledgeable swimmer. Details can be found HERE!

~Karen Allen Turner has been in the sport of triathlon since 1986 as both a coach and participant and works with both QT2 and OutRival Racing athletes.

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