Getting In Tune With Your Swimming Senses




            – Any of the faculties by which stimuli from outside or inside the body are received and felt, as the faculties of hearing, sight,smell, touch, taste and equilibrium.

           – A perception or feeling produced by a stimulus: sensation

One hugely important sensation we all have available to us as swimmers is the ability to feel or sense the water. Sometimes this might feel good other times it might be bad, even being able to distinguish between the two is a good starting point. All really good swimmers have this amazing feel for the water and that is why they are able to swim fast and so efficiently. Some swimmers are born with this feel but other swimmers have developed it through practice but one thing is for sure, with the right direction we can all learn to develop these feedback skills to become more self aware swimmers.

This is also an area that I feel is neglected by many triathletes and swimmers alike, many seem to just plough up and down the pool with their senses completely switched off with no thought or comprehension to what they should be feeling as they move through the water. Swimming isn’t just about fitness work (although this plays a big part of it), its more about how you combine fitness with the ability to feel and sense the water to make you more “connected” swimmers. The sooner a swimmer realises that swimming is a sensory sport the better, feel is everything and it will lead to much faster progression in the water.  One of the main reasons I think a lot of triathletes struggle to “feel” in the water is because it isn’t something that can be “measured” using a fancy watch, power meter or some other highly technical training device. The only way to measure feel for the water is to start to engage that big old brain of yours, if you do it can open a window into a new world of sensory perception.

Frequently I ask swimmers that I work with…

“So how does it feel to move through the water?”

Surprisingly this confuses many swimmers, I often get the response…

“I’m not sure but how did it look to you?”

A coach can certainly tell you how it looks but what any coach can’t do is tell you how it feels, only you can do this and it’s an important skill for any swimmer to learn. Usually when a swimmer doesn’t feel anything in the pool there will be a good reason for it. All to often I see swimmers who are so focused on getting every technical element right that they lose sight of what swimming is really all about, that is the ability to feel the water and sense whether it feels good or bad. This is a classic trait of the “over glider” swim type who tends to over think and over analyse their stroke (see I will never forget being poolside one day when I asked a computer scientist  (highly analytical by nature!) this question:

” Henry how many things are you thinking of as you move through the pool?”

He then listed 9 technique elements he was thinking of! When I suggested focusing on just one key element to avoid confusion, he replied:

“But Julian the brain needs to be worked!” much to my amusement.

This is not solely found in the over-glider swim type but can in many other swimmer types, my point is the less you over-think and the more you “feel” the better. The water is an amazing medium to move through, fight it with poor technique and it will fight back twice as hard, move with it and it will certainly reward you by feeling good. Get in tune with your sensory awareness and be able to adapt on the move and you will be dangerous.

Most of the time swimmers just don’t relax in the water due to constantly being tense, particularly if swimming isn’t your strongest discipline. If this is you then you need to try to turn that tension switch off and loosen up every muscle in your body. You will be amazed at how much easier swimming is when you start to relax and not try so hard all the time. There could be any one of a number of factors coming into play that can make a swimmer tense, usually these stem from a lack of confidence in a certain area of their stroke, doing something incorrectly or not having the right guidance.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with and meet great swimmers in my time, what a lot of them have in common is the way they talk about swimming. Its almost poetic, with descriptions of how the water feels around their bodies, how the water sounds as they move through it or how at the end of a length they will look back at the water to see how it moving that can tell them so much about how they’ve just swam. Make no bones about it these are highly developed senses that has come about through many thousands of hours of practice, but that doesn’t mean to say you cant still start to develop them too.

Two swimmers that optimise this ability to get in tune with their senses when they swim and coach people are swimming legends Ian Thorpe and Duncan Goodhew, both Olympic gold medal winners. I’ve had the privilege to coach master classes with Duncan and there is no better person who can captivate an audience with how he talks about swimming. He talks about how beautifully the water moves and how the light can dazzle and reflect off it, he talks about how amazing it is to feel the water surrounding your body as it supports you as you swim from end to end. He talks of how the water feels against your hands as you pull through it. In doing so he captivates his audience into thinking about things they would never really have thought about when getting into a pool or swimming through it before. Once he does this it becomes a whole new experience for swimmers who suddenly realize that swimming is about so much more than swimming from end to end.

I recently read Ian Thorpe’s autobiography called ” This Is Me”, a really interesting read if you are a swimming lover. What captured my imagination is his opening page to the book, which I copied below – this literally had me hooked after the first page because it’s so descriptive. This is a swimmer truly in tune with his senses in the water.

” When I first dive into the pool I try to work out how the water wants to hold me. If I let it the water will naturally guide me into a position: a place for my body to settle, resting with my head down almost meditating.  Then I begin to initiate movement: lifting myself, pushing with my chest and engaging my muscles. That’s the basis of the way anyone should swim, although it’s not the way we learn because we are not taught to connect so immediately with the water. 

As I begin to swim I allow myself to feel where the water is moving around me, how it flows off my body, I listen for any erratic movement which means I’m not relating to the water and I have to modify my stroke, change it until I feel the water moving smoothly past me.  I can do this at low speed or very high speed. 

It’s really rewarding because I receive constant feedback without stopping. I don’t need someone to tell me that my stroke looks great or that it looks terrible because I have an inner sense of the water and the environment is already communicating with me. 

If I’m swimming next to someone and they aren’t swimming properly, I can hear it, even without looking at them – although I prefer to swim by myself. Elite swimmers tend to become very territorial of the water around them, as if we own it. We don’t want anyone else messing with out water. 

At times, especially when I feel as though I’ve swum well, I’ll turn around at the wall and look back to see what the water is doing. I look for telltale signs: little whirlpools which mean that I’ve created the right amount of turbulence as I’ve moved through it”. 

These too are skills you can develop over time through purposeful practice, you just need to open your eyes and ears and learn to feel the way you move through the water. These sounds and senses will tell you all you need to know.

So what should you be feeling?

When coaching swimmers I constantly ask them to give me feedback when I ask them to focus on a certain part of their stroke. The response I try to get swimmers to avoid using is “it feels ok”, I hear this all the time. This doesn’t really doesn’t tell me anything, its not descriptive enough. It’s interesting when pushed for something deeper the types of words they start use to describe their feelings following on from this. Frequently I hear words like – smooth, effortless, easy, easier, controlled, quiet, slipping, sliding, resistance, connection, balance, rhythm, rhythmical, flow, scrappy, uncoordinated, noisy, splashy, easy, hard, metronomic, fast, slow and so on. These types of words are music to coaches ears because it tells us a bit about what the swimmer is feeling, more importantly it means they are finally connecting their brain to the senses available to them. They can even surprise themselves as to what they come out with. It is also giving them direct feedback on whether their stroke feels good or not. If the comments are negative then something can be adjusted to hopefully get it right, but if it feels good then you’ve hit the jackpot. Learning to adjust on the move based on feel is what every swimmer should aspire to. Remember I don’t expect swimmers to just suddenly be able to do this but by listening to their feelings they can start to move things in the right direction. The key thing is don’t be afraid to try!

One thing for sure a great stroke will look and feel almost effortless. When you pull the hand & forearm through the water it will feel more connected than ever before and you will feel a great surge forwards when you get it right (this is typically where most swimmers get it wrong). Body position should feel nice and high in the water so it can just flow underneath you. Your body rotation should feel gentle, balanced and not forced as if you are just slipping through the water in front of you. Your alignment should also feel very straight smooth so you slice through the water with each stroke. Your stroke should also have a really great flowing rhythm with no pauses in it. Typically we see the opposite with many swimmers, which can be frustrating. Once given the right direction through good coaching or video analysis the path forwards can be a lot clearer. A good coach should help you develop all of these senses so you can get in tune with your own stroke much better.

Open water swimming madness

One of the situations I feel a lot of swimmers completely lose sight of their senses is when they get into open water. They spend all year work developing a lovely efficient freestyle stroke only to forget all of this when they start racing in open water. Its almost as if they allow their brains to completely shut down completely then it all becomes one big battle for survival. This is definitely not the way to become accomplished open water swimmers, if you ask any elite open water swimmer they will tell you how important it is to remain absolutely calm at all times. You need to turn off the “mental chatter” at the start of a race. There can be all sorts going on around you but you have to internalise your feelings and remember everything you have learned in the pool.

For me the key area for a swimmer to focus on in the open water is breathing and pace control (don’t go too fast!), getting these two elements right can lead to a much better swim. It is also one of the areas of the stroke you can get in tune with and sense very easily. If it’s too hard, fast, out of control and you feel your chest tightening then something is up so you need to learn to adjust. This usually just means swimming slower and focusing on your breathing. Remember to breath out gently under water, this can be through the mouth only, nose only or both – experiment with each these to find what feels you best. Then breath in as you turn your head to the side, there should no holding of the breath. Breathing is easy and can make a huge difference you just need to find the method that works for you.

A simple breathing pattern focus of “stroke stroke breath” is what took Paul Newsome to his amazing NYC round Manhattan marathon swim victory recently. Paul predominantly breathed bilaterally the entire way saying “stroke stroke breath” to himself, a great distraction technique that ensured a great rhythmic stroke, which works beautifully in open water.

For more information on breathing take a look at the link below:

Are you doing the right drills for you?

Here at Swim Smooth we invest heavily in using certain drills to develop good technique and feel. In fact it is my number one goal when working with new swimmers, this can be hugely rewarding when they get that eureka moment when suddenly their senses become alive. It can be very powerful for a swimmer to finally understand what they should be feeling in the water when they get it right. Unfortunately the problem with a lot of swimmers is they spend too much of time doing drills that are not specific to their stroke faults, this is just wasted time in the water. I also find it quiet extraordinary when swimmers tell me the drills they’ve been doing but have no idea why they are doing them in the first place!

Some of the most important drills we use are sculling drills, underwater doggie paddle, UNCO, 6 – 1 -6, 6 – 3 -6, broken arrow and the list goes. What’s important is that if taught in the right way any drill you do should have some kind of affect on your stroke that will give you sensory feedback. Some drills will be more powerful than others but it all depends on you as a swimmer as no two swimmers are the same. A good coach will help you find these drills by helping you connect your brain to what you should be feeling.

Video analysis is a very powerful tool that can help identify where you might be going wrong, once you’ve seen your self swim identifying the areas that need work is so much easier. If interested please see the link below for further details:

So as you can see there’s a lot to be gained by finding the right drills, this will enable you to engage your senses with the water like you never thought possible. I like to remind my athlete’s athletes to “smell the roses” when out there training, appreciate the beauty that surrounds you – especially in water. Too often athletes are blinkered because they focus too much on accumulating volume, intensity and numbers. They also spend too much time looking at their expensive watches looking at data. If you can learn to appreciate the environment around you it will make training so much pleasurable, when that happens you might be surprised to see how much your performances really start to improve.

Very best

Julian Nagi