One of the best ways to improve your freestyle is to incorporate “fist” swimming into your practices. Of course, you would never know this because all of my swimmers groan or mutter profanities under their breath whenever I assign it at swim practice. If you read most triathlon books or magazines, the common reason for doing fist swimming is to “feel yourself pull with your whole arm.” While this point is valid, it reflects the “pull hard, kick hard, swim hard” mentality of most triathlon coaches and misses about 90% percent of the value of fist swimming. Worse still, it actually encourages most swimmers to do the one thing you absolutely don’t want to do when fist swimming — focus your mind on pulling harder. I want to talk to you about the real reasons to do Fist Swimming, how to make it easier to do, equipment you can use to help, and ways you can incorporate it into your training.
The Real Reason to do Fist Swimming
The real reason most of us need to do fist swimming into our practice is that we use our hands (and therefore arm strokes) for things that we shouldn’t use them for:
- Pulling the body to the side using a stroke flick at the finish rather than catching water and turning the body as the arm stroke is progressing
- Pushing down on the non-breathing arm during the breath to compensate for bad balance and poor breathing timing
- Using over-acceleration in the arm stroke to power down the pool rather than having the arms, torso, and legs work together to generate power and forward motion
Because many swimmers, both novice and advanced, swim at fast tempos, these deficiencies don’t show up on your mental radar. When you close your hands into fists, you can feel all those places in your stroke where your arms are out of synch with your body. If just closing your hands and taking 33% of the surface area can make your stroke feel that awkward and disjointed, you need some work on your stroke. Congratulations! You’ve broken your movement patterns and you can spot areas of improvement.
How to Make Fist Swimming “Not Suck”
Having used this technique in my coaching and training now for 14 years, I’ve learned some tricks to help maximize the benefit of this technique:
- It’s Okay to Slow Down — Don’t feel like you need to go the same speed with fists. You will go slower. It’s okay to slow down. Really, I’m not kidding. I would suggest going on a fixed rest interval (e.g., 15 seconds after each 50 yard repeat) rather than using the pace clock. Don’t compensate for the lost of arm power by kicking twice as hard. All you’ll do is tire yourself out and wake up in the middle of the night with a Charlie horse.
- Focus on Streamlining and Sending the Motion Forward — Focus on the forward part of the stroke rather than how hard you are pulling water back. Reach to full extension on each stroke. Hold your streamline and catch water until the other arm passes the head, so you always have length and weight in the front of the body. For the Total Immersion initiates, we call this type of swimming “active streamlining with patient hands.”
- Keep the Arm Stroke Simple — Watch for any major insweeps and outsweeps in your stroke — what I call “waggles.” Odds are you are still trying to drive the motion of your body through your arms. Use the KISS method — catch, pull straight back, and circle the elbow out and around. If you do that you will get all of the “S-curve” you need without losing grip on the water and potentially irritating your shoulders
- Think Finesse — Despite the fact that you are literally punching the water, think about finesse. Keep the stroke smooth and silent. Slow down your arm speed and synch it with your body extension and streamlining.
If you can do all four of these things, you’ll be surprised that your hands will feel like frying pans when you open them up again. That’s because you are now using your hands and arms for what they are meant to do: catch water and send your body forward.
Equipment to Help You Practice
While you can obviously go low tech and just close your fists, you can buy some training aids that help keep your hand in a fist without tiring you out from doing it yourself. Look into Fist Gloves and Finis’ PT Paddles as two possible options. We’ve used both to great success with our training groups. The Fist Gloves are the best but you just need to invoke the “gentle part of your soul” when putting them on because they can rip; you can bring some hair conditioning and put it on your hands to make it easier to get them on.
Sets to Help Your Practice
While you can incorporate fist swimming into your practices to change your feel of the water at any time, here are some ways that you can get an understanding of how it works to set the context:
- Open Hand vs. Fist Stroke Counting — Do some lengths at a moderate tempo with open hands and count your strokes. While some watches do it for you, they only count 1 arm at a time. I like counting both arm entries because it’s easier to draw a comparison. Then do some lengths with Fists and compare your count. If your count jumps more than 1-2 strokes higher, you are using your hands too much in your stroke. Pay attention and see if you can get it within that 1-2 stroke level. If you own a Tempo Trainer, set it for an easier tempo than you normally use and hold the tempo for the set. You’ll get an apples to apples comparison. After doing some fist work, open your hands again. See if your count is lower or if it feels easier to hold the count.
- Fist Ladders — A simple ladder would be 25 + 50 + 75 + 100 but you can do any ladder distance. Count strokes on the 25 and see how close you can hold that count for the longer distances. If you can keep the count within 1-2 strokes per length on the 100, that’s a good start. Obviously a consistent count is better, but there’s a process here. Again using a Tempo Trainer will make the counting comparison more accurate and keep you from gliding and breaking rhythm to keep the counts on.
While I would never describe fist swimming as fun, it’s one of the best ways that you can keep yourself focused during your upcoming training season and beyond.