Story by Tim Elson, Vice President of FINIS, Inc.
It is widely accepted that the best tool on the market for competitive swimming is the Swimmer’s Snorkel, also known as the center-mount snorkel. The testimonials at the highest level are innumerable. I have a personal recollection going back to the Summer Olympics in 2004. Every member of the United States Olympic Swim Team brought two Snorkels to Athens. How do I know? Because I personally loaded up my truck and delivered them to their training camp at Stanford. And why did they have two? Because Olympic Coach Richard Quick told us that he wanted them all to have two just in case they lost one along the way. In 2008, Dara Torres made headlines for winning a silver medal in Beijing Olympics at the age of 41. She was frequently photographed at “the Cube” with her Snorkel. That same Olympic Games I recall seeing a picture of the famous Australian swimmer Eamon Sullivan, who at the time was the world record holder in both of the freestyle sprint events. I could go on and on about the great swimmers and coaches world-wide who use the snorkel every day and in every practice, but I want to get back to the premise of the article: Why I believe every triathlete should use a Snorkel. The Olympic caliber swimmers who use the Swimmer’s Snorkel are almost trying to perfect perfection, so lesser swimmers will see huge contrasting improvements, and in this article I’ll tell you why.
You may be asking, why is the center-mount snorkel so different? Snorkels have been around for quite some time, so why is it advantageous to have the tube fixed towards the center of the face? Well, the traditional side snorkel was designed primarily to be used with just your legs kicking, and at slower speeds. The center-mount snorkel is designed to be used at swimming speeds and allows you to maintain proper body alignment throughout. The ability to swim at all speeds with both arms and legs is very significant to the learning process, especially when you are not having to turn or lift the head to breathe. I’m sure when you woke up today, breathing was not on your list of top-20 things to get done, but when you jump into a body of water breathing goes from not even being on your list, to priority number one. If you took a poll of people in the United States about what the best form of exercise is, swimming would be right up there near the top, if not the very top. Then why don’t more people swim? Quite simply because they can’t breathe, or they breathe incorrectly or inefficiently.
A person of any ability can learn to breathe correctly through a Snorkel. Once breathing becomes natural, a person will then relax, and eventually will not have to consciously think about breathing. Imagine getting up in the morning to go for a run or bike and having to think about every inhale and exhale. It may seem silly, but this is how many people’s trip to the pool plays out. The Snorkel will allow a person to remove breathing from their mental equation, which allows you to focus completely on your stroke technique.
I also mentioned earlier that the ability to swim at different speeds was important to the learning process. As land animals, we learn to do athletic movements by committing them to muscle memory. The most accepted way is to mimic the motion as specifically as possible, with balance and stability, all in SLOW MOTION. Slow motion for someone who can’t breathe well is very difficult. In fact, most people who are poor swimmers (and poor breathers — they go together) are somewhat frenetic in the water. They speed their motions up and do not complete fluid movements, which makes learning proper stroke technique almost impossible.
In review, if you want to get better at swimming, you need to learn to breathe. The need to breathe trumps every other. It is our number one continuous need. When that need is satisfied to the point where it is automatic, and natural (again– no thinking!), the ability to relax in the water can be achieved. Once a person can relax in the water, they can swim at any speed and focus on the things that will help them improve. A person will never relax until they are comfortable breathing, so if it is an issue in training, spend some more time on this piece before you move on.
Getting Started: “Going Nowhere, Doing Nothing”
Here is a drill/activity best done with a partner.
I’ve done this with as many as thirty 6, 7, & 8-year-olds before.
1) Start in three or four feet of water (A Nose Clip makes it even easier, but not required).
2) Tell the kids we‘re going to have a contest to see who can “fall asleep” in the water.
3) Everyone finds a space where they can put their face down while breathing through the Snorkel. Instruct them to lay down (float) with their arms out and slightly up with their hands about even with their head. They can move their hands a little bit to stay in one place and move their feet a little to keep them near the surface, but primarily you’re trying not to move at all.
4) Each set of partners will take turns timing each other to see how long they can remain in a prone floating position.
The pool record after the first attempt was 17 seconds before everyone lifted up. On the next round it was 43 seconds. After about five minutes we had a pool of 30 kids breathing through the Snorkel floating face down, not moving.
The swim coach bought 50 Snorkels on the spot! Again, the significance to this is being able to breathe naturally, without fear, and without the need to make it your main focus.
Once you master this skill, you can move on. If you haven’t mastered this skill, don’t think “I’ll do this later” or “I don’t have time to breathe naturally”. Do not move on. Again, when your need for air is satisfied, you can learn to relax and focus on the most important areas of training.
People who have mastered this can now transition into something that is a bit more challenging.
Start from the “falling asleep” or prone position and begin to kick your feet.
Beginning slowly, bring the kick to a soft continuous boil and make your way down the pool. Your arms should remain motionless by your side as you move down the pool. When you master this transition and balance you have established the cornerstone of efficient swimming.