Swimming: What is feels like to 'Feel the Water'
As Triathlon Swim Coaches, we often use that phrase, 'Feel the Water'. Here's an example of how we use it in a sentence; 'to develop a good catch, you really have to Feel the Water' and 'it really helps to Feel the Water.' This is sound advice, if you know what the heck we, and other coaches, are talking about.
Feel the Water is really, really important; probably as important as your body's ability to stay afloat. But unfortunately it's not as simple as focusing really hard on the bit of your body that is being touched by water. If it did, this would be a thought piece about the feeling of wetness - and that would really make our heads hurt, and yours' too.
Feel the Water, from a coaching and swimmer perspective is significant because the purpose of swimming is to move our bodies through water, and water, for all it's beauty and joy, isn't always moving in the same direction and at the same speed as we need. Water doesn't care about us, unlike headwind on a bike, which clearly cares enough to always strike up when we decide to go for a bike ride. Water is a powerful, mysterious force that is only concerned with being water. It is heavy, it is strong, it tickles, it keeps us warm, or cold, and it can make the difference between life and death, but it definitely doesn't care about our mission to move forwards. That's not to say it wants to fight us or hold us back. Like I said, it doesn't care about whether we're there or not, but if we do come ploughing through, arms and legs flapping and splashing, head bobbing all over the place, behaving like the water will drag us down, hold us back or even drown us, it has a way of meeting our expectations.
Water is not working against us. It's just being water. If we know how to use it to our advantage, it will support our quest to pass through it like a fish. And this is where 'feeling' comes in. Water doesn't have concrete for us to grip with our trainers or bike tyres. It doesn't have a handle or a bit of rope you can grab and pull yourself forwards. It is an element, which means it slips around, splits open, is effected by energy and movement and can be really difficult to work with. The added challenge when it comes to swimming is that the techniques we've developed for moving our body through water, known as front crawl, is one of the most complex arrangements of arm, hand, foot, leg, hip and head movements we will ever know; plus we have to hold our breath and breathe in a super synchronised way.
It would be great if we could by reciting processes in our heads; stroke, kick-kick, stroke, kick-kick, breathe. Or if we could improve technique by reciting coach's points as we swim; 'bend your elbow more', 'point your toes more', 'drive your hips more'. I'm sure most swimmers have tried. Unfortunately, swimming is not as simple as executing movements in our limbs, like other sports. The only way to move yourself through it efficiently, is to feel it.
To help develop our understanding of what it should feel like to FEEL the water, we've developed a pretty comprehensive list of what water should not feel like when you're trying to FEEL it:
1. Swimming should NOT feel like an exercise in not sinking for intervals of 25m / 1 length
2. It should NOT feel like you are hanging horizontally from the ceiling by bungee chords (think Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible), desperately trying to stay still
3. It should NOT feel like a game of 'dodge the lane rope'
4. It should NOT feel like a game of 'dodge the other swimmers in the lane'
5. It should NOT feel like you're swimming at altitude with thin air and limited oxygen
6. It should NOT feel like you're swimming in quick sand, sinking a little more with every stroke
7. It should NOT feel like you're sliding around on ice, constantly losing balance and un able to move in a straight line
8. It should NOT feel like the water is big brick wall, with no draw bridge and no way through
9. It should NOT feel like you've landed in a rehearsal for a Beyonce video and have to attempt to copy and keep up with all the dance moves or face total public humiliation
10. It should NOT feel like you're lying in a hammock in gale-force winds
11. It should NOT feel like someone just switched the jets on in the pool or sea
As I've alluded to, Feeling the Water, doesn't just come from perfecting all of those things you've read in a Swim Smooth or Total Immersion book. With practice, anyone can 'tip the wrist', 'reach over a barrel' or make their hips rotate more. Feeling the Water requires just that; feeling. And this is how we think water should feel when it feels right:
1. Like you are being held up gently by 20 pairs of hands that are suspending you in mid air and allowing supporting every movement you make to move yourself forward
2. Like you are a slippery, muscly fish effortlessly gliding through the water with the greatest of ease
3. Like the water parts around you, allowing you through with a gentle tip of the cap
4. Like you are a knife moving through room temperature butter
5. Like you are reaching and 'gripping' your next handle on a climbing wall and pulling your body up to, and beyond that point with every muscle in your body
6. Like you are floating, free of any tension, fear, anxiety and care in the world.
7. Like you imagine it might feel to fly like Supergirl/man does (minus a cape that flaps around you)
8. Like you are lying on a big crash mat that you might find in a gymnasium, rolling from side to side, smiling.
9. Like you are taller, longer and straighter than you are on dry land.
To reach the point where you are truly FEELING the water, it helps to understand the challenge our bodies face so we can give it a bit more help.
Most of our day-to-day movements are performed vertically - think walking, running, driving, working, eating - with the exception of sleeping, crashing out on the sofa and having sex (in bed), we are vertical people. With this, most of our activities are carried out in front of us - think eating, typing, driving, carrying something, texting, picking something up off a shelf, pointing at something etc etc. Swimming front crawl is a huge exception to our daily habits. It is a horizontal movement with all the action happening i.e. how we move forwards, overhead.
There is nothing like front crawl, except maybe pulling yourself along a rope that's suspended across a canyon as though on an armed forces exercise or stuck in an action movie. Only instead of a rope you only have water to grip and pull yourself forwards, and instead of a canyon you have more water to fall into. The good news is water doesn't hurt your hands like rope does and our bodies are naturally buoyant in water because we are full of water and air so we won't fall to our deaths. However, just like lying on a rope, we can lose our balance and 'fall off'.
The more we FEEL the water and work with it, not against it, the easier it becomes to keep moving forwards, keep out balance, and feel like this activity and this environment is the most natural thing for us in the world. Feeling comes with body-awareness and developing your proprioception, which is your brain's ability to detect the slightest forces against your body and counter them. It takes practice but the practice is very simple, very useful and incredibly meditative.
We need to practice 'feeling the water'; our grip on it, our balance inside it, our within it buoyancy, our slipperiness through it, the way it's not dragging behind us (hopefully) and the way we are made to be moving through it. We should feel this on every part of our body from toes to ribs, the backs of our legs to our finger tips. The more we feel the more information we receive about what our body is doing, or not doing, and how we can change it. Can you feel that your palms have 'gripped' the water and are now pulling and pushing your body forwards? Or do you feel like your palms are slipping through custard and your body is falling down? If it's the latter, focused work on your 'catch' i.e. how your 'grip the water' will help you to Feel what you're supposed to; water being gripped and pushed behind.
Learning to Feel the Water also help us to engage the right muscles for the right movements. Do you feel like you are pushing the water down with the front of your foot? Or do you feel like you are kicking into nothingness? If it's the latter, it's time to start engaging your glutes so that you are kicking from your hips, not your knee. This creates the most streamline position in the water while also engaging the whole of the leg in the action of pushing water down, thus keeping your body high in the water. As for the foot, well in order to feel like we're pushing water down here, we need ankle flexibility so that we can point our toes and transform the top part of our foot into a fin.
So to conclude, swimming front crawl is the most challenging thing you are ever likely to learn in your life. If you were lucky enough to learn as a child, now you can engage your ability to Feel the Water to improve your efficiency and pace. If you are learning front crawl for the first time, Feeling the Water will be the difference between feeling like you're trying not to drown, and feeling like this is the most incredible activity in the whole world.