Archive for swimming

Coach Al on the Swim: Calf Cramps

pursuit athletic performance

As many of you well know, calf cramps while swimming can be quite common, especially for triathletes…and there’s a very good reason why. Some athletes think it has to do with hydration or an electrolyte imbalance. It’s neither.

So why do these occur?

The reasons usually come from two things:

1. Trying to point the toes during kicking, which is active “plantar flexion” that creates tension in the calves. DON’T do this! DO NOT try to point the toes while you kick.

2. The other thing, which is somewhat related, is that there is OFTEN simply too much TENSION in the lower legs, period.

(Remember what a cramp is: it is simply a “hyper”chronic contraction of a muscle. That is, activity within the muscle (tension) is heightened and rises to the point where the contraction hits overdrive — and then, bingo, cramp!)

Why all that tension? (This relates to why it happens to triathletes more than swimmers).

Triathletes run. And with all of that running there is tension in the calves, as they are so active during that endeavor.

Often, what adds to the tension is the colder temps you find in some competitive pools. With colder temps, tension rises (which is why I love jacuzzis! :) ).

So, what to do? Two things:

1. First, the MOST IMPORTANT thing: RELAX YOUR FEET AND LOWER LEGS.

The term I use to describe how to kick correctly (while reducing the risk of cramping in the process) is FLOPPY ANKLES. Really good “kickers” have very mobile, floppy ankles. In fact, great backstrokers can lie on their backs on the floor and easily touch their toes to the floor as they point their ankle. Most triathletes can’t come close to doing that. Limited ankle mobility means tension when kicking.

So what we must do as we are swimming down the lane? It’s simple. Think: FLOPPY ANKLES. Let the feet just flop. Relax and release them completely.

As you relax your feet and JUST LET THEM FLOP, you’ll reduce all of that tension in the calves that leads to cramping.

Of course, relaxing the feet and letting them flop DOES NOT give you permission to also flop your knees or relax them.

In fact, what I’ve found works best is if you keep that knee straight, and, at the same time, flop the ankles, you’ll get exactly what you’re looking for, which is a nice compact kicking motion. The bonus is this motion is, at once, streamlined and relaxed.

When I say “straight knee,” I am really saying to keep it straight–locked out. What will most likely happen is that your knees won’t actually “lock,” but they will bend less, which is a good thing. From my experience videotaping dozens of triathletes, those with the worst kicks will bend their knees a LOT, and their ankles a little. That looks ugly on video.

2. Second, make sure you keep those calves nice and long. Stretch. They will tighten up from running and, over time, shortness in that area raises risk of running injury. It also leads to increased risk of cramping.

To avoid cramping in the calves while swimming, keep the calves LONG, and relax those feet and think: FLOPPY ANKLES.

Of course, all of this could be solved by simply doing all of your swimming in the JACUZZI! ;)

~Coach Al

Every Breath You Take, Part 2: Three Steps to Deep, Power-Filled Breathing

pursuit athletic performanceAs runners, swimmers, cyclists, and triathletes we’re always talking about the next workout, paces we strive to achieve, upcoming races on the calendar. Sometimes we need to, literally, take a breath and think about some very fundamental ways our bodies are working. It’s why we are taking the time to write about our most involuntary of actions–breathing–and how it can be trained to help maximize your athletic pursuits.

Many cultures believe the simple process of breathing is the essence of being. As many of you know, in yoga the breath is known as prana, or a universal energy. In our previous post we talked about how sport training should absolutely include work on diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Today, let’s talk about the idea of doing more to integrate this “universal energy” with athletic movement.

Isn’t it amazing how “hard” some movements are when our breathing isn’t connected to that movement? Conversely, how much easier do things feel when we connect and integrate our breathing into all we do?

We believe the integration of the breath with athletic movement may be the most under appreciated and underutilized aspect of moving better and getting stronger. And it’s all so simple. The key to utilizing this powerful tool? It begins with AWARENESS. Simple awareness.

Think about the relaxed rhythm you need when swimming to generate efficient and powerful strokes. Integrating the breath is a central component, is it not? Mess up the breath when swimming, and efficiency and smooth easy speed go out the window.

Runners who breathe deeply and diaphragmatically can run at a faster pace with less effort. Breathing deeply, in and out through the nose and mouth not only gets more air into the lower lobes of your lungs, it also helps you maintain better posture and a relaxed composure. The next time you watch a good cyclist climb powerfully yet relaxed, you can be sure proper, rhythmic, deep breathing is part of that easy-seeming form.

How to work on your breathing?

Step One
The first step is to simply become mindful and aware of what you are doing and how you’re doing it, by integrating the diaphragmatic inhalation/exhalation exercise into your daily routine. It is deceptively simple, but it takes focus and practice.

To begin, lie on your back on the floor. This position creates an enhanced postural awareness. Be sure your pelvis is in a neutral position, and your shoulders are relaxed down and back with palms facing up. Put one hand on the stomach area and the other on the mid chest area. Relax as much as possible, allowing your body to “sink” into the floor. This position of lying on your back creates enhanced postural awareness; however, this exercise can be practiced in other positions.

Start by recognizing (awareness) where the breathing movement is taking place at that moment. Do you recognize which area is moving? Can you feel the movement more under the hand which is on your stomach, or under the one on your chest? Don’t make judgments at this point about what is “good” or “bad,” or even try to change what you are doing, just observe and become aware of what you are doing, however subtle it might be.

Step Two
Now that you are aware of what you are doing, you will begin to change and shape your breath. The first step is to focus on extending each EXHALE. That is, each time you exhale, simply try to lengthen how long you breathe out. Next, can you change that exhalation so that the hand over your stomach sinks inward under your hand? Once you start to feel it moving under that hand, try to increase the depth and intensity of the exhalation.

Now that you are feeling your belly sinking to the floor as you exhale, have you also noticed the movement that occurs naturally during the inhalation that follows? Your stomach, which sank during the exhale, is now bulging outward as you inhale. What is happening? It is simple but profound: the diaphragm is descending caudally (toward the pelvis), causing your belly to move outward.

Step Three
Now that you are breathing diaphragmatically, see if you can both increase and decrease the amplitude of the movements. Remain aware of what is moving. Relax and try to feel the same movements whether you are inhaling a small volume of air, or a larger volume of air. Nice work! Be aware that as you practice, you may find yourself falling back into chest breathing. No worries, pause for a moment and come back to your awareness.

This seemingly simple exercise is the basis for learning a new and powerful way to breathe more deeply and fully. It is a technique that will unleash more powerful athletic movements and performance!

Lastly, for now, as you bring this awareness into your athletic training, be sure to EXHALE on exertion, INHALE on recovery. Be aware when you are holding your breath when you shouldn’t be. Breathe deeply.

Take the time to work on your breathing. It’s free, you can do it anywhere, and it is the most pleasant of all training exercises.

Every Breath You Take, Part 1: Do You Know How to Breathe? can be found here.

Core Stability and Swimming: What’s The Connection?

Coach Al Lyman, gait analysis and functional movement expert

Coach Al Lyman, CSCS, FMS, HKC

I had a great conversation worth sharing on the issue of core stability and its vital role in swimming. Triathletes, in particular, ask me about this all the time.

In the audio below I discuss what it means to have a stable core, and I explain the purpose of training that stability. Let’s just say that consciously trying to “engage the core” when swimming–or doing any other sport for that matter–is NOT the way to generate power. Rather, it’s all about building core stability as the foundational element of proper and powerful movement that translates across all sports.

Myths about core strength and core stability are rampant. I talk about a number of these issues in the audio, and you can learn more in our blog post series on the core beginning with What You Don’t Know About the Core Can Hurt You.

Train smart, and have a great weekend!

Coach Al

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Learn Something New About How You’re Moving!

Coach Al Lyman

Coach Al Lyman, CSCS, FMS, HKC

Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. ~Chinese Proverb

Matt Kredich, the women’s swim coach at University of Tennessee, gave an excellent talk at the American Swim Coaches Association convention I attended. There are many things I could expound upon from Matt’s talk, but one thing he said about setting goals for dryland training rang especially true for me:

If we move the body through the RIGHT sequence of movement, the body learns something. ~Matt Kredich

That simple statement is a summary of what my partner Dr. Kurt Strecker and I emphasize daily with our Pursuit Athletic Performance athletes and clients in our Gait Analysis Lab. It is what I preach to the athletes I coach in regards to proper, authentic movement in strength training, and in all sport skills. This is how I see it:

  • Moving authentically = quality learning = improving skills = more efficiency, economy and better production of force = more power = more speed!
  • Moving poorly or not correctly = poor learning = less skill development = less power AND increased risk of injury = stagnant or lack of improvement, or worse, injury and burnout, mentally and physically.

I fully believe that my enthusiasm for what I do as a coach and athlete is grounded in the idea of continual LEARNING and growth, NOT in simply training hard and racing.

So I encourage you–this week, go out and LEARN something new about how you’re moving! The year is new, and it’s great time to do so. Since this post was inspired by a swim coach, let’s stick with the sport of swimming. Here are a couple of suggestions that can help you learn about how you’re moving in the water:

1. Find a coach in your area who is versed in training on the Vasa swim ergometer. (The Vasa is such a great training tool, and we’ll talk more about that in future posts.) Being on the Vasa with someone who can give you appropriate feedback is a great way to LEARN about how you move when you swim. We have no reason when on the Vasa to NOT move correctly. Swimming or any other movement starts with executing some basic proper skills. The Vasa is great for this skills-based learning.

2. Videotape yourself in the water. Video work is essential! How else will you know what you’re doing? And if you don’t know what you’re doing, how can you know what must change to improve? Start videotaping yourself, and do it routinely. Start now.

We spend so many hours training, yet so few of those hours are spent really trying to understand what we should do, vs. what we are actually doing. In my mind, that adds up to a fairly large amount of wasted time and energy.

Think it’s time for me to schedule another swim clinic….