A Major Minor Breakthrough

Hello all from the cold, dark northeast.

I wanted to share a thing that happened. For me, it was a breakthrough, even though on the grand scale of things, it was pretty small. But that, in fact, is kind of the point. More on that in a sec.

I have been working on my swim technique for a while now. Like a lot of us, I’m an ‘adult onset’ swimmer, so all of the technique I have has come from foggy memories of childhood lessons, two video analyses by Robbie, and a crap ton of practice. Just grinding out the laps, trying to be aware of my body and figuring it out as I go. Sometimes it’s a little bewildering because I never exactly know if I’m ‘doing it right’ and there’s nobody I can ask in person (my usual pool is pretty much an old folks’ home. Sometimes I swim at a university pool but they have a very different style there. They are zippy but I don’t think they’d last 500 yards in open water).

One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is paddles. Every now and then, I get a paddle workout. What the heck is the deal with these uncomfortable things? What am I supposed to be accomplishing with them? Are they supposed to make me faster or slower? Looking at my TP data, I have seen that they usually slow me down. Intuitively, I thought this was probably not quite right. It seemed like I should be faster when using a paddle instead of just my hand. But I rarely was.

Trying out my paddles for the first time. On the advice of my coach, I removed the wrist strap.

Separately from that, I have been trying to sort out my stroke finish. I know the theory: push the ‘book’ back against the wall. Don’t drop the ‘book’ early by your hip and pull your hand out of the water too soon. But knowing the theory and putting it into practice are two different things. Once I feel something, I can usually latch on to it. But I’ve been having trouble finding that feeling.

So earlier this week, I was doing 15×200 in the pool, all upper body work. I was supposed to alternate three 200’s with pull buoy, then three 200’s with pull buoy and paddles. As I worked through the first three 200’s, I was trying to find the feeling of that finish motion, trying to figure out the mechanics of getting my arm from the catch, through the high elbow forearm motion to ‘pushing the book.’ The timing of that last transition has been eluding me. As I anticipated putting on the paddles for the next three 200’s, I realized I would actually have what I could imagine as a book in my hand: the paddle.

It seems painfully obvious to me now, but thinking of it like this had never occurred to me before this. I had just strapped the paddles on and tried to muscle through. But what would happen if I tried to use them to deliberately enhance my technique? Because you can use them to build strength, sure, but they can also exaggerate technique so it’s easier to understand. But you have to be looking at them with that in mind, rather than just seeing them as resistance training aids. At least, that’s how it was for me, never having talked to anyone in person about paddles before.

The paddle is the book. The book is the paddle. I tried it. I started pushing that book-paddle against the back wall deliberately and with specific focus. I stopped thinking about building strength. I thought only about form.

The results were pretty staggering. I was instantly fifteen seconds faster over 200 yards. It was kind of hard to believe. But the data never lies. (Okay sometimes it does but that’s another story).

This really cemented for me how much of swimming is about technique over strength. Suddenly I understood how all those skinny-armed women (and men) can absolutely demolish me, a fairly strong male, in the water.

Since figuring this out, I have been literally pretending that I have paddles on whenever I swim without them, visualizing and mimicking the feel and form that they gave me, to transfer it to my normal swim technique. I’m already seeing results, and my average swim paces are dropping.

As I said at the start, this is a pretty small and highly specific breakthrough. On the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty insignificant. But to me, it felt enormous. And I realized that the victory of figuring this puzzle piece out was almost as satisfying to me as pulling off a race. It was a moment of ‘process achievement.’ By definition, a process-minded approach never ends, wins or loses. It continues. The process itself is the goal, the joy and the accomplishment. But there are milestones along the way, and those are what give process its shape. Some milestones look large from the outside, while others look smaller, but from the inside of the process, they can be almost equal. Because the gauge of a milestone is not the impressiveness of its stature, but rather what it teaches you — what it gives you to carry forward. I could have a good race and ultimately learn very little, because everything just went well. But learning that ‘the paddle is the book’ took my entire process to a new place. And that makes it much bigger than it looks on the outside.