TrySport Niagara Swim Clinic

Posted: March 22, 2012 in Swim
Tags: , , ,

Approximately one month ago – I know, I’ve been a busy boy – I was invited to participate in a special Masters Swim Clinic hosted by the good folks at the new TrySport Niagara store.  ‘TrySport Niagara’ is run by local professional triathlete Wolfgang Guembel and his equally athletic better half, Barb Szybka.  I’m sure you know by now that I’m a sucker for personal development opportunities when it comes to triathlon, specifically as I’m gearing up for my toughest challenge of all, so the opportunity to learn from the best simply wasn’t something I was going to pass up on; even though I knew he was going to make me kick.

The clinic was separated into two specific parts, a lecture part followed by a pool session with Wolf with the opportunity to have myself videotaped and analyzed both before and after a skill-orientated swim session in the Brock University pool.  Oh goodie…video.  Because you all know how much I love seeing myself on video and in pictures.  However, given the intent, I’m prepared to suck it up.

Where I’m getting confident in my ability to turn out rather successful swim times in most of my triathlon events, I know my swim form leaves much to be desired; past opportunities to view myself in the water resembled that of a drowning orangutan.  How I manage to just stay afloat with my full-body seizure approach to front crawl is as miraculous and mysterious in itself as the ‘Great Pyramid at Giza’,  the ‘Hanging Garden of Babylon’  and the other five ‘Wonders of the World’ but, any feedback that helps develop this poor form while making me more efficient in the water only equates to success come September in my mind, so bring it on.

In my eagerness for this feedback, I was the first to arrive and upon entering the ‘TrySport Niagara’ store, a quaintly converted house in Welland, Ontario, I was immediately welcomed to browse the swim, bike, run and yoga portions of the store where it became crystal clear that I am going to spend a LOT of money at this location in the near future as the need arises; my credit card was literally trying to commit suicide by leaping voluntarily out of my wallet…no kidding!  It is very apparent that both Wolf and Barb are very proud of their little triathletes paradise and are going through great lengths to promote themselves in the community by hosting swim clinics such as this one, a weekly Aktiv Run Club, nutrition talks, and other kinds of triathlon-based workshops that hungry wannabe’s like myself love to involve themselves in.

One by one, the other participants began to show up and while being introduced I was immediately impressed by the wide spectrum of athletic skill that was participating; from beginner to advanced – both swimmers and triathletes alike.  I was originally a bit apprehensive that I might have joined something where I would have been in over my head with other dolphin-like swimmers who would literally swim laps around my lifeless corpse in the water.  But this was not the case and I was eager to begin as it was apparent that it was definitely going to be an interesting and informative afternoon…inevitable kicking aside, that is.

The clinic started with an informal lecture (complete with PowerPoint presentation – so you know this is some professional shit) around the proper form in the water for effective, effortless swimming.  The key highlights of this discussion include:

1)     Rotation and Breathing – The overall point of a good body rotation is to minimize frontal drag, while being vital to breathe.  In other words, you rotate to swim and not necessarily to breathe; that’s just a perk of a good rotation it seems.  Good to know.  Likewise, a good body rotation is absolutely vital for good arm and shoulder recovery and therefore reducing energy, fatigue and future injury.  Sweet!  To affect this good body rotation it is imperative to maintain a good body position in the water including having your head in line with your spine so that your eyes face down or just ahead of you in the water.  This helps to bring your hips/legs up to the surface to improve your overall buoyancy and minimize drag.  As far as breathing goes, Wolf strongly endorses a ‘bi-lateral’ (every three strokes) approach to breathing to improve your body symmetry and balance of stroke.  Me?  I can breathe bi-laterally no problem but much rather prefer the whole ‘gasp for your life’ approach on every stroke, so that’s something I can definitely practice.  But here’s something I feel I’m getting much better at: exhaling freely and continuously under the water instead of holding it in.  Good for me!  I’m doing something right!

2)      Kicking – Oh shit.  Here we go.  Yeah, yeah, yeah…I’m supposed to kick. I get it already.  However, I was particularly surprised to learn that kicking comprises of nearly 20% of your actual swim.  Holy shit!  That means I can go 20% faster?  Why hasn’t anybody mentioned that before?  A good effective kick is initiated in the hips, with relaxed knees and ankles.  Yeah, that’s so not me…yet.  Contrary to what I thought, though, there is only a small range of motion with the feet and knees close enough together so that the big toes touch and just the heels break the water.  Most encouraging to me however was when Wolf advised: “get rid of the kick board” (meaning do your kick drills on your side). That’s music to my ears as I have developed a total hate-hate relationship with my kick board, so that’s a philosophy that I can embrace and utilize.

3)      Catch and Pull – Proper ‘catch’ position is equated to ‘reaching over a barrel’ while keeping your elbows high.  I’ve heard this before but always struggled to visualize what ‘high elbows’ are exactly, thinking this was some strange Winter Olympics swine flu thing again.  What this means is to leading with your elbow higher than that of your wrist or hand anywhere in the stroke, no matter if above or below the water…or, reach with your armpit.  Huh.  Definitely not a practice you want to use at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but in the water that just crazy enough to work.  Furthermore, you ‘catch’ the water with the hand, arm, armpit, and your whole body to literally crawl across the water as opposed to just paddling through it with your hands.   The analogy Wolf uses here is unlike that of paddling a canoe: you look for resistance to ‘catch’ and then pull on instead of allowing your arms to move between the paths of least resistance.  I can get down with that.

4)      Arm Recovery – The main purpose of the recovery portion of the stroke is to relax and avoid wasting unnecessary energy. Okay, I am SOOOO down with that!  To affect this good recovery position is important on work on all the other aspect of the stroke listed above:  lead with the elbows, maintain a good body rotation, relaxed shoulders and, for the love of God, KICK!

From here – after a quick snack of ice cream bars that is – we made our way to the Brock University pool to begin practicing these very techniques in the water.  First, however, let’s look at the before video prior to reaping the benefit of those drills.  Get ready for the ‘Total Aquatic Shit Show’  here, folks!

Viewing Notes:

  1. (0 s – 24 s) Hey, not too shabby.  Strong exhale through the nose, breathing every third stroke, reaching with my armpits, high elbows, finding a nice ‘catch’ in the water…not bad.
  2. (25 s) Holy shit!  I even did a flip-turn!
  3. (30 s – 35 s) What…the…hell…is…that?  My feet look like those of seals fins slapping together anticipating a herring being tossed in my direction.  B-R-U-T-A-L.
  4. (41 s)  Ouch!  How I have not, like, broken or bruised my ankles yet as the result of repeatedly slamming them with the heel of my other foot totally escapes me.  How could I not even feel this happening?
  5. (51 s) Hey!  Where did that nice flip-turn go?
  6. (52 s – 1 m 15 s)  Okay, smooth entry; nice extension; decent ‘catch’…rotation?  Meh.
  7. (1 m 16 s – 1 m 35 s) Umm…I’m fish-tailing through the water here like a car on an icy highway.  Good lord.
  8. (1 m 36 s – 1 m 45 s) Yup…drowning orangutan for sure.  I can’t bare to watch any more…definitely not sexy.

The Solution:

After the initial video-taping and a brief warm-up, we were run through a series of drills designed to show us what we could be doing on our own to improve our form in the water over the next few training months leading up to the beginning of official ‘triathlon season’.  And, yes, this means LOTS of kicking unfortunately.

Wolf specifically recommended we lose the board.  Beauty!  If you’ll pardon the blatant pun, I’m all on board with that idea.  Instead learn to kick on my side to mimic a good sideways rotation while maintaining a good solid, yet relaxed kick…remembering to keep it quick and small.  His recommendation is for me to start with a 100m  of kicking on my side (switching sides every 25m), and then build by another 100m  each week.  By the start of triathlon season in May(ish), I should be able to complete 20 x 100m  of just kicking.  And how awesome would that be?

We also practiced our kicking by using a band around our ankles to keep our feet relatively bound and forcing us to keep our leg movements minimal and fast in order to get any propulsion at all.  And where I might have really stunk it up good at doing this, come time to remove the band and kick – low and behold – voila!  I was kicking.  Kicking like a starving Rockette even!

Viewing Notes:

  1. (0 s – 28 s) Yeah, yeah, not so bad.  See initial notes above…
  2. (28 s) Screw the flip turns at this point, my ass was primo tired.
  3. (30 s – 51 s) SAINTS BE PRAISED!  I’m kicking, beotch!

Likewise,use the band every time I do ‘pull’ drills in the pool (you should never be kicking when doing pull), and work towards being able to do pull without the pull buoy and with the band only.  This will help with my overall rotation and maintaining a stroke core throughout.


Okay, so I’m sold on this whole kicking thing. Already I have begun incorporating the ‘Side-Kick Challenge’ into my morning pool workouts and already up to 300m  of kicking on my side sans kick board.  That’s easily way more than I could ever do in the past.  I’m still no speedboat while doing the rest of my workout, as kicking has never been instinctual and I expect that will still take some time to develop.  I am pleased however that I am developing the leg strength to at least kick more than 30 seconds at a time and can turn it on when I have a mind to do so, depending on when I want to save energy or explode with some acceleration to get around the swimmer in front of me.

All in all, it was a very successful afternoon put on by ‘TrySport Niagara’ and provided me, not only a very unique chance to see my ‘windows of opportunity’, but also a specific means and plan by which to begin improving them for optimal swimming efficiency in the future.

I will definitely be looking forward to visiting Wolf and Barb again in their Shangri-la and participating in other featured workshops as this is going to be a momentous year indeed.  Hell, I might even survive this whole Ironman thing yet.

  1. Jan says:

    I loved being a part of your learning, seeing more specificly the mechanics of your swimming and how you now are kicking….well! Wonderful that I could SEE this, that it was video’d and feedback provided. I learned a lot from this video. OMG you are going to be even faster. I am so excited that you have grasped this Triathlon thing, made it your passion and have succeeded so wonderfully. You love a challenge don’t you!

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