Middaugh Coaching Corner – Breaking Bad Habits

Presented by Suunto

Learning to swim as an adult has been the most challenging part of my competitive triathlon career.  I’ve certainly worked hard at swimming over the years, but in some ways, the hundreds of thousands of yards I’ve put in have reinforced some bad habits.

After the XTERRA World Championship in October, XTERRA Warrior John Davis and I got together to swim a few workouts. As a former elite swimmer, John is a master of his craft, whereas I started triathlon with no formal swim background. And I know I’m not alone in this. Many XTERRA athletes are adult learners like me, so our approach to swimming needs to be different than life-long swimmers.

Luckily for us, it’s never to late to learn something new, and the off-season is a perfect time to break bad habits and replace them with new skills that will make us faster, more efficient, and ready for a new season of XTERRA. Below are five steps that will make your practice more purposeful.

Slow it down
Any time we learn something new, it’s important that we slow things way down. New movement patterns must be learned slowly so that you can pay attention to technique and correct any mistakes before they become habits. 

The off-season is the perfect time to have your stroke analyzed, find a swim coach, or join a masters program. Most likely, a coach will give you drills to correct a bad habit. Our muscles learn new skills only through repetition, and drills are great for isolating movement patterns and reinforcing correct neuromuscular pathways. 

Decreasing drag is free speed, meaning you can go faster with the same or less energy expenditure.  Start by focusing on this part of the equation first with drills to improve body position, breathing, and streamline.  Speed can come later when your new movement patterns become more permanent.

Increase frequency but not volume
As endurance athletes, it’s easy to want to just go, go go. However, when we are learning a new skill, it is more effective to spread your yardage out over more training sessions. Mega swim sets will result in fatigue, which always causes us to regress back to what is comfortable – bad habits.

Instead, shorten your workouts, but increase your swim sessions per week. This is known as “distributed practice.” For motor learning it is better to work on a new skill for ten minutes a day five days a week, rather than once a week for an hour.  Even if you are brand new to swimming, increasing the frequency of swimming will help you get more comfortable – and faster – in the water. 

One thing at a time
Swimming involves many moving parts. We are moving our arms very specifically, rotating the hips, kicking, and breathing in a coordinated way. This is much different than just taking off and running through the woods. Most endurance athletes are over achievers and very analytical, so it’s tempting to think we can change everything all at once. However, thinking about too many things at one time results in paralysis by analysis. 

A better approach is to focus on one specific aspect of our stroke, such as a relaxed hand during recovery, or one gross movement pattern like body rotation. Kids usually learn best with gross movement instructions like: “arm over a barrel” for your catch. Or: “streamline off the wall like a torpedo.”

Older kids and adults can use a combination of fine and gross motor skill instructions. However, repetition is key. You might have to be told the same thing 10 – or even 100 different ways – before something sticks. Drills often isolate one aspect of your stroke so think about the purpose of each drill so you can apply it to your swimming.

Now is the time to be patient and determined to see this through. Learning a new skill can be uncomfortable and awkward, but have faith that with practice and patience, you will get to the other side. 

Forget about the clock
Nothing derails a practice session quicker than self-doubt. Therefore, whenever you are learning something new, it’s important that you don’t attach as much importance to the clock. 

Sure, this is a tough habit to break, but ultimately, what will make us more efficient in the water is the same thing that will make us faster. The temptation is to “test” your new swimming technique with the clock, but an efficient technique is learned in steps and your first attempts at a new movement pattern might actually be slower.  Initially, you may even swim more slowly as your stroke rate is slowed down so a coach can help you with your skills. Ultimately, you will come back more efficient – and faster – than ever. 

Visualize your new skill
One of the best ways to cement your new swimming technique into your brain doesn’t even involve the water. Science has shown that visualization can have a powerful effect on motor – or muscle – learning. According to research using brain imagery, visualization works because neurons in our brains – those electrically excitable cells that transmit information – interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement.

An effective strategy is to visualize a skill at night before you go to sleep. When you wake up for your morning workout, you brain has already had a chance to “practice.” 

Additionally, it’s helpful to have a couple of go-to YouTube videos of efficient swimmers you want to emulate. Keep in mind that there is no one, universal swimming model that is best for everyone, but the best swimmers share common traits that enable them to efficiently move the water around them. Therefore, look for commonalities among good swimmers (not their abnormalities). 

I like to watch this video of Olympian Jono Van Hazel. As you can see, he has a central axis around which his hips and shoulders revolve. He makes swimming look easy, relaxed, and fast.  I like this video because he is swimming at a variety of speeds, but maintaining efficiency.  

Note that his stroke rate looks slower than it actually is because he is so smooth.  One misconception is that an efficient swim stroke is only long and slow, but it only looks that way with the best swimmers.  Eventually, to swim fast you will need to find a balance between stroke length and stroke rate.  When I write swim workouts I make a conscious effort to never write the words “slow” or “hard.”  Instead, you can swim EASY or FAST…or both!

This kind of stroke doesn’t happen overnight. But, if you slow down, increase your frequency, and visualize your goals, you can bring your new, improved stroke into your next XTERRA season. 

Josiah Middaugh is the 2016 XTERRA Pan America Champion and the 2015 XTERRA World Champion. He has a masters degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a masters degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for more than a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at http://middaughcoaching.com.

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