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Where does technique fit in a swim program?

Posted May 01 2008 1:59pm

Now there's a question. Last night during our triathlon session our coach told me of a mature swimmer (a runner) who used to swim with us but has since moved on to another session (in a different pool). Now this swimmer is a real struggler - very little (natural) ability and swims incredably slowly and poorly, this isn't because he's unfit, on the contrary the guy's a very fit fell and distance runner. It's because water is a very alien substance to him and swimming's really hard.

It appears that he's given up our sessions and moved to a technique oriented setting where he was seen taking 45-50s to complete a length. These sessions are TI-like, but don't know the whole ins-and-outs. However I do know of the chap that runs these sessions, I know that he isn't a bonefide TI instructor (because that costs a whole heap of money to get through their accreditation) but he does have (some) coaching qualifications. And I know that he says he teaches TI-based swimming.

And I also know that when he came to watch/help at one of our sessions a few years back he made an absolute point of staying away from me both before/after the session and whilst I was in the pool. This I found interesting - because I was then, and still am, a big advocate of TI - and I would have thought some conversation would have been interesting/useful to both parties. The person who brought him to the club had told him my history in TI so may be that concerned/worried him - don't know... but I have my suspicions.

TI - isn't anything special (I think Terry Laughlin, founder of TI, would agree) it's just based on a number of core techniques, philosophies of a (large) number of very good swimmers. And here's the rub - our triathlon coach agrees that there's nothing special about TI because all good swimmers need balance and a certain level of technique. Now where he has problems with TI is in its over accentuating of certain aspects of technique (extended front quadrant swimming for one), and perhaps the biggest issue the general lack of speed of TI swimmers.

Now I have a slightly different slant, but that's because I am bias, but I believe I can see this from both sides. Front quadrant (FQ) swimming when drilled is/can be very catch up like, and a lot of drilling can be bias towards catch up. And it's true you just don't see any fast swimmers racing with a catch up stroke. However FQ is but one aspect of TI, and most very fast swimmers have a degree of FQ in their stroke. This is where a lot of pro-TI/anti-TI people get all hot under the collar, but I stand by the previous statement - because the devil is in the semantics of what FQ is. My definition is:

Front quadrant swimming is where, during some point of the stroke cylce, both arms are within the front quadrant of your body space (i.e. somewhere in front of your ear/temple area).

That doesn't mean just mean catch up, though by the above definition it is clear that catchup is FQ. If you watch most very fast swimmers their stroking and recovering arms will cross very close to the temple area. In longer distance swimming (look at Ian Thore and Grant Hackett) this cross over happens more towards the forehead - very definitely FQ.

No, the problem here is that a lot of TI based coaching (including self coaching) seem to miss this point - and end up swimming catch-up. The second most common failing is that people learning the TI way - do so slowly. One of the key aspects is to learn to drill thoughtfully and slowly, focusing on one aspect at a time (swimming's hard don't forget). However there is a real catch here in that some people (a lot from the people I see doing TI-based stuff) never progress passed this.

I know, from my own experience, I did a whole lot of drilling for a very long and protracted period. And I got quite fast (especially since I'd never really swum as a youngster and at that stage never with a club), but there was a definite ceiling on my speed. And that was TI-based self limitation, I'd gotten so used to drilling and the feel of my stroke (and yes I liked it) that I simply couldn't sprint/swim really fast. So I fell right into the anti-TI sweet-spot(sic) in that I had a very pretty stroke, was very efficient, but just didn't have that much speed.

It really is only in the last year or so that I've started/learnt to let go a bit, and swim fast. I still do this in a TI-way (read the last post about things I've been consciously experementing with) but I do now swim for speed.

In TI's defence - there is nothing I've read, nor seen from the upper-end of the TI "team" that says anything about TI being for slow swimmers. But what's missing somewhere in the message is where/how to take this technique stuff to the next level and swim fast.

Now back to our ex-triathlete swimmer. I think doing technique based swimming when you are basically a beginner/learning/a poor swimmer is the right way to go. What I do worry about, is the mind set of some coaches who advocate TI but use it as a meal ticket. I hope that he gets what he wants out of his sessions, and that his coach is a good one.

So back to my original question - where does technique fit? For me swimming is probably one of the most technique driven sports there is - it is so alien to most of us. So you've got to put the mileage in doing technique work. But it's got to be techique that's fit for your purpose. And there is more than just technique - get the basics, then go and swim; learn a bit more, then go and swim; set your goals and go and swim. My goals now are to swim really fast (sub-27 is my lofty target). Am I going to get there? Who knows! How am I going to try? Well with a combination of both technique and raw - fast - swimming. Speed doesn't come only from technique, but technique has a lot to do with it.

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