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Travails of a Non-Swimmer

The Weaker Side


Do you have a preferred breathing side?

I’m left-handed. For some reason I breathe fine on my left side. It’s more difficult when breathing on the right. This was made painfully obvious when I hit the pool tonight.

Saturday is Pool Paradise

I love Saturday nights at the gym pools. On weekday nights it is always crowded, what with swim classes and fitness swimmers going to the studio & pools after work. But on Saturday nights it is relatively empty. I guess it’s because the singletons are giving themselves a much need break (after a long day at work, working out at the gym and pool is also work!), and the ones with children go to the recreational pools (the places with fake palm trees, water slides and floats decorated with cartoon characters).

Tonight was another fine Saturday night. I had to share the practice lane with only one other person. Even the fast lanes only had one or two swimmers. So peaceful and quiet the whole time!

On Aching Arms

I talked previously about having trouble with aching upper arms after a session at the pool. Yesterday, after finding out about the power of the hip drive, I started tonight with another go at the Switch drills in Lessons 4 and 5 of the Total Immersion Swimming: Perpetual Motion Freestyle in Ten Lessons DVD.

For the first twenty minutes I went back and forth across the pool with the Switch drill, holding One Thought: patient lead arm. The next twenty minutes I did the Switch with continuous breathing with One Thought: powerful hip drive. Then for about ten minutes I did the Marionette arms drill. After nearly an hour of drilling I flipped on my back to relax with the backstroke for 50m.

I knew that one reason my upper arms ached was that during freestyle stroking I would clench my arm muscles and catch and pull with all my might. Tonight, after incorporating hip drive and marionette arms for each stroke, propulsion and stroking became easier.

No more aching arms during catch!

That Dropping Lead Arm

After doing the Switch drills I was able to control the dropping lead arm when breathing on my left side.

The result was an eye-opener for me.

After two hours at the pool, the first spent doing drills and the second doing whole stroke, my right arm (the lead arm when breathing on my left) did not hurt one bit. Not one bit. It came into the water as a non-aching arm and left the water as a non-aching arm.

Wow. That put a big smile to my face!

The Weaker Side

It was different, however, with my left arm (the lead arm when breathing on my right). While I was able to relax both arms during catch, I was still pushing down on my lead arm when breathing to my right.

And so, after going back and forth in the 25m pool, it ached. Not as much as before, but still painful.

I’ve always known breathing on my right was a weak point for me. When doing the breathing drills in Lesson 3 of the Perpetual Motion DVD I could rotate to breathe fine on the left. On the right it took a lot more effort.

Still, for some reason unknown to me now, I did not do anything to balance out the right side with the left. I figured I was breathing fine (albeit on one side) and I felt ready to take the next step.

How illogical! The result is this: when doing a 25m, on the final couple of meters I feel my form collapse when breathing on my right. My brain goes: “Oops, I didn’t take in enough air. That’s okay, take in more air on the left.” So I would end up overcompensating on one side for failure on the other side.

Not a good way to swim.

The Habit of Bilateral Breathing

I guess I could just breathe on one side. But I don’t want to. My heart is set on full bilateral breathing, alternating left and right every three strokes.

I feel that, since I have just begun swimming, I am in a much better position to ingrain the habit of bilateral breathing because I have no unilateral breathing habit that I need to change.

I felt this even more when listening to one of my classmates in my group swimming class. She was a woman in her 70’s who has been swimming on and off all her life, always breathing only on one side. When the instructor said to breathe on both sides, she was in panic: “Please don’t make me breathe on the other side. I just can’t.” Poor woman. That’s what a lifetime of unilateral breathing does. It would be harder for her to undo it than it would be for me to acquire the habit of bilateral breathing from the very beginning.

No Shortcuts

I realized that my struggle when breathing on the right sprung from the fact that when doing the breathing drills I would always do 1 to 1. That is, for every drill I did on my strong side I did the same number of reps on my weak side.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

Now I see how I need to do it: for every drill that I do on my strong side, I need to do whatever number of drills it took on my weak side until it felt the same as doing it on my strong side. For example, if I did one drill on the strong side and it felt fine, I would need to do the same drill twice, thrice, four times (five times even, I don’t know) on my weak side until it felt fine on that side as well.

There would be no other way.

In the DVD Terry always says to work both sides. So far I’ve been doing some sort of self-deception: drill on strong side (nice!), drill on weak side (pretty bad!), but hey, I did the drills, so let’s do whole stroke NOW.

Just so not the way to do it!

No More Overcompensating

Next time I hit the pool, I’ll go back to the breathing drills and work on my weak side. For example, when rolling to breathe on Sweet Spot, I simply could do it better when rolling to the left than to the right. I’ll stop pretending I can do both sides well and work on the weaker side until it feels not much different than the strong side.

New Self-Talk

Going back to the hip drive and marionette arms habit, I found a new way of counting that seems to work for me. At first, I used “Catch, catch, roll” to emphasize that I need to rotate my core to breathe. Now that I am rotating to breathe, I found that “Drive, drive, hold” works better at this point. “Drive” puts more emphasis on the hip drive than using all the arm power at my disposal to do catch and pull. “Hold” means holding the lead arm in place during the breathing stroke, not pushing it down in the water.

Also, before pushing off the wall, I told myself: “Relax. Patient lead arm. Marionette arms.” That’s “RPM” when abbreviated, so easy to remember! (I would normally associate RPM with hard disk drives’ Rotations Per Minute, hinting on my IT background) 🙂

Can’t wait for another practice session at the pool!

What about you? Do you have any difficulties with bilateral breathing? How are you working on it?

Notes to Self: Do

  • Be patient when drilling on your weak side. Pretending everything is fine will do you no good in whole stroke. Drill on both sides until the weak side gets up to par.
  • Keep your lead arm in place. You can rotate your core to breathe fine without pushing down on your lead arm. Keep up the good work on your strong side, and work on your weak side until you stop pushing down on the breathing stroke.

Notes to Self: Don’t

  • Do more whole stroke than drills. What’s the use of doing plenty of whole stroke up and down the pool when you end up tired and gasping at the end? The drills work. You know they do. Don’t be impatient.
  • Feel slow and stupid when you see the people swimming super fast in the fast lane. Some of them have terrible form (all that kicking and spraying, churning up so much water you can feel it splashing on your face two lanes away). Some of them look totally miserable. You don’t want to swim like that. Be patient with mastering the basics. You’ll get on the fast lane someday, without looking miserable. So what if it takes you a dozen years?
  • Be discouraged. When seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, read this post. Most people have a preferred side, and most have to work to breathe equally on both sides.

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