Want to Swim Like an Olympian? Then Avoid the “Crossover Effect”

Want to Swim Like an Olympian? Then Avoid the “Crossover Effect”

Two Olympians racing in a sprint, viewed from directly above

2016 Olympics Women’s 50m Sprint


You can learn something from 100m sprinter Simone Manuel or distance specialist Katie Ledecky, regardless of which one of these remarkable women is your hero.

Streamlining and drag reduction in the water helps us conserve forward momentum because water is 800 times denser than air.  Anything you can do at any point in the stroke to become more streamlined, even as you’re trying to swim faster, will allow you to swim better, with less energy. Why? because slowing down is what humans do best in the water!   Staying fast means paying attention to small details…for example, the “crossover effect”.

The Crossover Effect is Human

The Crossover effect occurs because of the way our shoulder joint is oriented, and the fact that we are used to operating in our daily lives with our arms reaching, holding and manipulating objects directly in front of us.   When we turn our upper body, we are usually still operating in the frontal plane, or the plane that divides your body into a front half and a back half.  the shoulders lift the arms forward and typically our arms stay in front of us most of the time.

Picture things like typing, driving, cooking, cycling, having a conversation with someone (arms folded or hands in front pockets) as typical things we do.  We carry this habituated position of the arms into swimming and as a result, while you don’t feel like you’re crossing your arms in front of you, the effect is that arms cross midline of your direction of travel.
This is a key point, and the reason it’s so difficult to correct…your arms are still in front of you when you crossover in swimming.  The crossover effect is that you direct your energy diagonally instead of the direction you really want to go!  How frustrating, right? Believe me, I know.   But sometimes you don’t know you’re doing it until you see a video or photo of yourself, or have someone physically make that correction for you.

Olympians Eliminating the Crossover Effect (this is the slick arm trick)

Here are two examples from the 2016 Olympics, Katie Ledecky in the first photo, and Simone Manuel in the 2nd photo.


Their arms are extended parallel to the lane rope, right? The arm is aligned, no crossover.  The effect of arm aligned, is that momentum continues forward.   However look at where their sternums are directed, and look at their body rotation.

Now imagine those activities I mentioned previously…driving, typing, shaking someone’s hand.  If Simone Manuel were autographing a gold medal photograph at this moment instead of swimming, her left arm would be pointed way over towards the right edge of the photo in a diagonal direction, right?

Her arms would be “in front” of her chest or directed to the right since her body is rotated to the right.

Weird, huh?

How does she do that?

When the body is actively rotating in freestyle (or backstroke), the lead arm aligned requires you to have the sensation that your arm is kind of off to the side a bit, even sticking out.  Visualize yourself in their rotated positions in the pool…now hold your arm above your head and visualize where the surface of the water and where the lane rope would be.  Can you get your arm lined up with the lane rope? It will feel far off to the side.

Avoiding the crossover effect is one easy trick you can practice while standing in the mirror so that you start to develop your Olympian’s freestyle stroke!

How else can you practice it? I wrote a book all about it!

In Fresh Freestyle: 99 Practices for triathletes and swimmers, we included a specific focus on alignment and eliminating crossover.

Practices 10 from Coach Celeste, 36 from Coach Dinah and 68 from Coach Suzanne in Fresh Freestyle address these skills.

Give these practices a try and let us know how it goes! if you need a copy of Fresh Freestyle to give it a try, you can order it here: https://www.createspace.com/5523934

In the meantime, don’t try to sign any autographs while swimming, things will get messy and you’ll avoid the crossover effect!

4 Keys for Open Water Swimming this Spring

Open Water Swimming & Spring Triathlon Season is here!


The first local triathlons are coming up soon and our local club membership kickoff is right around the corner. This summer two local to the Pittsburgh and Eastern Ohio area lakes will have organized open water swimming for triathletes including safety boats as well as buoy marked courses set up.  It’s my favorite time of the year!

I’ve invited Dinah Mistilis of Discovery Aquatics in Moorsville, NC, my fellow Fresh Freestyle author who also received the distinction of Master Coach during her time with Total Immersion, to share some of her insights with you and I.  Dinah has distinct advantage as a triathlon & open water swim coach of living right on a lake with an endless pool in her ground floor.

Are you getting the picture?   Take a day trip to Moorsville, spend a  Saturday doing a 90 minute endless pool session, have a snack then go straight out on the lake to put your open water skills into practice.  What an ideal setup for triathletes! Dinah your swimmers are lucky to have you there.

Here is Coach Dinah’s post…and if you read to the end you’ll also find information for our local open water swim events you can put on your training calendar.

It’s heating up!


This time of year is wonderful! The air is getting to be that perfect day time temperature and the lake water is not far behind. Open water racing is underway and the first local triathlons have been completed. Last week also saw Discovery Aquatics athletes swimming at the USMS National Masters competition in Greensboro NC. So much swimming to be done!

If you have taken a break from swimming that is okay too.Most of us will take a break from swimming at some point. It may be a few weeks, months or longer between swims. Making the decision to head back to the water is the first step. Now, what to do when you get there?

Take these ideas with you to make the first swim back enjoyable, purposeful and successful so that you will want to do it again. and again. and again!

1. Relax Into It – choose a warm up distance and pace that is a comfortable for you. The goal here is to find relaxed exhalation and inhalation, and to keep the body tension free. Use this time to make a connection with your environment by stimulating your senses – what do you see, hear and feel?

It may be 4×25 repeated 3 times, or 6×50, or 3-5 x 100, or a 300, or a 500. Make it your practice from the start by feeling what your body can do comfortably.

2. Find a Focus – training yourself to think about swim technique in all of your practices is important. Start in this practice by repeating your warm up distance, this time with one swim focus in mind.

You may recall the focus from previous coaching, or from watching a swim video, or self assessing your stroke, or by watching graceful swimmers at the pool. Make it your practice by feeling the focal point and holding the thought and form for this set.

3. Add Some Speed – just enough to wake up your neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems. Choose some short distance repeats, a series of 25s or 50s and pick up the pace. Keep the focus from the second set and allow yourself recovery time between each repeat.

4. Warm Down and Reflect – round out your first swim back with an easy relaxed warm down. Use this time to congratulate yourself and to reflect on the swim. What went really well today? What can you improve? and….When will you be back for the next swim?

Coach Dinah

Thanks coach Dinah! We always love your insight.


2016 Summer Open Water Swimming Opportunities in SW PA


Here is information for the local open water swims in our area of southwestern PA and southeastern Ohio.   Be sure to put these on your calendar and note what the requirements & costs are.

The first opportunity is at Keystone State Park with a series of four monthly swims by No Boundaries Fitness.  Each swim day has two start times, 10AM & 11AM. Show up for the first, or the second or for both.  Safety kayaks will be present.

The second opportunity is weekly Monday night swims at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park.  These are set up by Joella Baker of Get Fit Families.   In addition to the ‘open house’ swim setup, she has several open water races on her calendar as well.  Joella’s swims have become something I look forward to every summer.  Whether you swim 200 yards or 2 miles, it’s so gorgeous to swim in the setting sun on the lake with the safety of a marked course and plenty of kayaks.  Usually after I swim I’ll hop in a boat to do some coaching as well.

This summer I’ll be doing some mini open water clinics in conjunction with her swims as well.  If you’d like to be notified of those events, please take a moment to fill out this contact form.


Fresh Freestyle: 99 Practices for Triathletes & Swimmers

Fresh Freestyle Cover

Looking for more practice ideas?  Pre-order my book of 99 Swim Practices for Swimmers & Triathletes.  Fresh Freestyle, a refreshing way to approach your freestyle practice. Fresh Freestyle is perfect for new swimmers, fitness swimmers and triathletes. This collection of progressive technique based practices will have you swimming with focus, ease, confidence and speed.


Now taking pre-orders at a discount, with shipping expected by May 31st, 2016

1000 Meter Freestyle Workouts for Triathletes

1000 Meter Freestyle Workouts for Triathletes


1000 Meter Freestyle Workouts for Triathletes

Whether you are looking to swim a sprint distance or an Iron distance triathlon, having a few “goto” 1000 meter or 1000 yard freestyle workouts will help keep you from getting into a rut when training.   For the long course triathletes, do these 1000 meter/yard sets 2 or even 3 times through to cover the distance needed in your training.

Creating a Mini-Project Accelerates Your Progress

You can use these sets to create mini projects or tasks to challenge yourself. It is a great way to stay engaged with your swimming and take control over your own training plan.

For example, a 1000 yd improvement project may look like a sequence of 3 sessions cycled through for 3-6 rounds before retesting.  You can use these 1000 meter/ yard sets as the main set, add a 500yd tuneup or warmup to swim exactly 1500m (a swimmers mile).  If you are swimming in a yard pool, just add on a 150 yard cool-down for an imperial version of the swimmers mile (1650 yards)

If you are looking for a main set that’s longer, such as 2000 or 3000 yards or meters, you can repeat the main set, or combine two of these into one practice.

Suppose you’re looking for 2000yd main sets, you could take these three suggestions below, each at 1000 meters/yards and to them in any of 3 combinations (1 & 2, 2 & 3, 1 & 3).  Rotate through these combos for a unique set of 3 main sets, each having a set that you do twice before taking a break from it.  There are a lot of ways to customize this practice idea.

Here are sample 1000 meter practices sets for you to play with

Pre-project test set: favorite warmup, 1000yd TT with splits & stroke counts, cooldown

Swim #1: 5 x 200

Swim #2: 10 x 100

Swim #3: 5 sets of 4×50

For each of these swims you can choose some element to improve like…consistent SPL across all sets, or consistent tempo (use a tempo trainer). When you gain or if you already have good control, manipulate a variable…like 5 x 200 swimming the first 50 at one SPL, the next 100 at SPL + 1 and the last 50 at SPL + 2. This should result in a build within each 200.

Vary the rest intervals to create a bit of variety. Since the 200s are more aerobic, keep the RI short in that practice. Since the 50s *can* be anaerobic, maybe choose to swim descending 50s with 30 sec rest, rest 2 minutes and repeat that 4 more times.

Then you cycle back to the 5 x 200 set and have some comparison…choose 1 metric to try and improve.

After 3 cycles of this…whether you swim every day, every other day or 2 times a week…you go back to your 1000yd TT and by that time you should KNOW before you swim it that you’ve improved based on metrics from the previous sets.

Maintain Focus on Form and Skill During this time as well.

Be sure to toss in at least 1 swim, possibly 2, of un-timed, form only swim sets, other strokes, or a team workout for variety. Or a water aerobics class.

Comment below with how you are using these sets!

For more ideas on creating swimming improvement projects consider downloading this Fresh Freestyle Sampler for 3 practice swims from our book.

How Swimming Helps Your Balance

How Swimming Helps Your Balance

Yesterday this interesting article in the Washington post discussed a study linking a decreased risk of falling to the activity of swimming. Men over 70 who had fewer falls also swam more than their counterparts. While the study does not identify a causal link, I have a few ideas that I think are worth sharing.

Swimming may help improve Balance.


Swimming may help improve balance and neuromuscular response, for additional reasons that are not discussed in this article.

The horizontal orientation of swimming challenges the cerebellum & vestibular system in a different orientation than on land…without the risk of injury. Much like a baby learning to walk by falling, catching itself, trying again and again until it “learns” how to balance, a human body in the water is always falling towards gravity…without the impact.

Every time the body rotates or changes its orientation there is an up/down shifting of the body in the water due to gravity…much like the body is “falling”. But as soon as buoyancy equilibrium is found, the body returns to neutral buoyancy.

During these “falling” episodes, humans respond by kicking or flailing or sculling or lifting the head…they are in built reflexes. Overcoming those reflexes forces the vestibular system to deal with a new normal…an new sense of orientation.

Whether a swimmer realizes it or not, swim time is “play time” for the brain and new pathways are be established. Like a baby learning to walk.

A sense of “falling forward” when swimmers get to the positions that are better swimming positions, horizontally balanced head, shoulders & hips, is due to the vestibular system & cerebellum being used to a much more vertical orientation.

If this sounds like you, try this curious experiment. Lay flat on a bed and let your chin be off the edge so you are looking at the floor…do you experience any vertigo? And if you do so then look right and look left a bit…how does that feel? This is the position you should be in ideally in the water…body horizontal, head looking down & aligned cervical spine.

Could be interesting to play with!!

Better Swim Drills: Arm Lead Streamline aka Skating  or Side Kick Drill

Better Swim Drills: Arm Lead Streamline aka Skating or Side Kick Drill

Suz-arm lead streamline numbered

I’m fully convinced that every coach out there is doing their best to help their athletes improve. Drill recommendations are made based on their own knowledge, understanding, background and exposure to various coaching techniques. Great coaches pick up the best of what they are exposed to and add their own customizations based on their own personality.

And as we learn, we discard old ideas, ones we may have previously thought were grand…in favor of a new, better or different way that seems to work better.

SO here are my thoughts on better ways to do the freestyle swimming drill known as “side kicking drill”, “one arm extension drill”, “statue of liberty drill” or the older version of “skating drill”. all describe a similar body posture, but there are better ways for triathletes and swimmers to execute this and practice it well.

In this drill the body is rotated, head is looking down with nose/chin directed at the bottom of the pool, and the arm that is lower in the water is extended forward. This drill helps imprint the “slipperiest” streamlined position in swimming freestyle. However because full stroke freestyle is not a static activity, the most streamlined side kicking position is NOT the best position from which to initiate a freestyle stroke or recovery.

It’s best to practice a body position that is in a better dynamic position to initiate the next stroke when ready. Here are three quick checks to make sure you’re doing it better.

Rather than having the body rotated a full 90 degrees or with shoulders “stacked” one on top of the other, flatten the body’s rotational angle just a little bit so that the top shoulder comes closer to the surface.

Belly button is pointed at the corners of the pool where the side walls meet the bottom, rather than the side of the pool.

The lead arm and the head should have a small gap or separation between the shoulder and the chin rather than being resting or touching together.

These small changes may be very subtle but the approximate the posture of full stroke swimming better than the “older” versions of the drill, and help to avoid imprinting cues that may lead to errors down the road.

All drills compromise the full freestyle stroke and while understanding their benefits we should also try to minimize detrimental takeaways. By making these deliberate adjustments, flatter rotation, gap allowed between the chin & the extended arm, and fingertips/palm tipped down towards the pool bottom, you can bring focus to each of these three areas in subsequent full stroke if you choose.

Critical Swim Speed (CSS) and Deliberate Swimming

Critical Swim Speed (CSS) and Deliberate Swimming

CoachSuzanneOlympicSwimClubI was always a math geek, which comes in handy in endurance coaching.  Way back in 2007 or 2008 I took a clinic from Dr. Phil Skiba on periodization. The clinic covered topics such as the dose-response curve in endurance training, collective fatigue over time, shedding fatigue, and the rate of fitness loss vs. fatigue decay. The clinic was one of the first times I can recall that the formal idea of a “time-distance” relationship in endurance sports was brought up in the context of how to coach athletes and interpret their abilities.

I started experimenting with using this assessment in my own swimming & my athletes.  Several years later I began combining this idea with what I had been practicing when I was a Total Immersion coach.  I tried combining ideas that were well studied in traditional sports science literature with what I’d had learned from Terry Laughlin regarding stroke length and rate.  I felt that I developed much better coaching agility as a result.

Shortly after experimenting with these ideas…in fact the very first day I used it in a  group of triathlete swimmers, many of my swimmers set PRs for 50 & 100m swims just by refining and defining their control over their stroke.  How did they do it? The short version is that I had them perform a simple fatigue decay test by doing test swims of either 50 & 300 yards (>2:00/100yd swimmers) or 100 & 400 yards (faster than 2:00/100yd swimmers).

I used some simple algebra to determine the rate of decay, or how quickly they tire with distance.   Swimmers who fatigue more than expected for the 300 or 400 yd swim are typically strength dominant, and able to power through shorter distances with what appears like speed, but is really just strength masking marginal skills.

On the other hand, swimmers who had trouble swimming more quickly at the shorter distance, are typically endurance dominant, and able to swim for long durations but at a slow rate of speed.  They may have good skills, but are afraid to exert more effort, or have learned that when they try to swim faster they tire too quickly.

By identifying each swimmer’s strength I was able to give them a target practice set that took about 10 minutes to complete.  Their goal was to swim each set of 50s at the same pace with an effort equal to a predicted mile pace.  How did I predict the pace?  With the magic formula of course.

In 2012 I shared some of my thoughts on the total immersion website, where many thoughtful and provocative discussions took place. I have often gone back to that thread to review what I wrote at the time as well as revisit the thoughts of another coach, Charles Couturier of Montreal, Canada. Charles is an outstanding coach at the University of Montreal and runs a large tri training program for people of all abilities.

Here is the largely unedited text of what I shared that day in response to using CSS to train speed and pace. CSS is a concept that dates back to at least 1965 when a distance-time model was proposed by Monod and Scherrer as they evaluated world records in swimming, running, speed skating and cycling.

Since that time many sports scientists have examined and used the model to try and define specific stroke rates and stroke lengths in swimming, resulting paces, power targets for cycling and running paces. Swim coaches began using “Critical Swim Speed” as measured by using either a 400m & 50m swim test or a 400m & 200m swim test. The choice of distances affects the resulting slope & intercept (speed and anaerobic work capacity) as calculated by the model.

In theory, the shorter test, which taps into anaerobic energy stores, helps to “strip out” the anaerobic contribution from the longer test. The resulting pace represents an aerobic swimming speed that can be sustained for long durations by trained swimmers.

I use the CSS concept to establish initial goals along with tempo & SPL targets for my masters’ swimmers who are new to pacing or have not trained with me long enough to have a feel of their targets or points of improvement.

About once a quarter I’ll have my swimmers do the following:

Assessment Set

10 minute warmup
300-500yd/m time trial (this should be at  least at least 5 minutes)
8 minutes of active recovery in the pool
50m-100 yd/m all out sprint (this should be 90 seconds or less)

The critical swim speed plots the time vs. the distance of each of the two swims. A line drawn between the two is described by the basic algebraic equation:
y = mx + b

m is equal to the theoretical critical speed (or power in the case of cyclists)
b is the intercept and represents the anaerobic work capacity

by plotting a “long” and a “short” time trial test, the anaerobic and aerobic capacities for each effort are normalized. The above equation to determine the slope removes the anaerobic component from the longer time trial (whether it is 300, 400 or 500yd or longer TT).

Here is the easy way to calculate it Critical speed = [long distance – short distance] / [long time – short time]

400yd TT: 8 minutes
50yd TT: 35 seconds

critical speed = 400 – 50 / 8 * 60sec – 35sec
critical speed = .78 yds/second

Even in a yard pool, I like to normalize in meters per second as a lot of the literature is written that way. Just 1.1 yards = 1 meter so .78 yd/sec = .78/1.1 m/s = .71 m/s

.71 meters/second (or .78 yards/second) is the critical swim speed for that swimmer or 2:08/100 yards

Why is the critical speed slower than the 400-yard time trial speed?

In an activity lasting 8 minutes, even 20-30 minutes or more, a component of the speed comes from anaerobic muscle activity…brute force.

The comparison between the long time trial where the aerobic system makes a significant contribution and the SHORT time trial which is primarily anaerobic, allows you to subtract the brute force component out of the longer time trial speed.

This leaves us with what should, in theory, be completely aerobic training.

In the Steel City Endurance approach to swimming, this is vital because the intensity level is low enough to allow us to focus on technique improvements while swimming at a pace that isn’t “too slow” by anyone’s standards as long as the CSS was calculated from two recent time trials.

We are left with what in theory, represents the highest aerobic speed a swimmer can swim, meaning that at this pace and anything slower we should be able to more easily implement technique changes and adjustments.

Just as you would practice a new or challenging passage of a piano piece or any other musical instrument slowly enough to allow you to learn proper timing & finger placement, an aerobic pace in swimming allows you to learn and imprint new and better neuromuscular pathways to make your swimming faster and more streamlined.

Here is where the Gear Changing differential comes in….

At Steel City Endurance and Fresh Freestyle, we focus on the neuro-muscular connections and movement pathways from brain to muscle. We can swim at the critical speed in many different “gears”, but we want to find the optimal gear, or stroke length and rate, that will allow the swimmer to work in a comfortable capacity while leaving ample room to grow in speed and get faster.

Once I’ve calculated the speed with a spreadsheet I’ve set up to do that, I”ll give my swimmers a test set of 10×50 at critical speed + 5 seconds rest. Again I have this already set up in a spreadsheet so the set is ready to hand to them when they finish the test and I put the numbers into a calculator on my ipad.

While they are swimming their 10×50 they count their average SPL. For some this the first time they have ever done that, but it’s in the context of a familiar type of training…a time trial followed by sets at a prescribed pace. This helps people understand that counting strokes is not the same thing as aiming for lowest stroke count…we are just collecting information at this point.

With this second set of data points, average stroke count per 50 at their CSS pace, they are now honing in on a really valuable set of training parameters…not JUST critical speed, which can be swum at many tempos and stroke lengths (ie many different stroke techniques or GEARS) , but they are establishing a typical stroke length for their current fitness and skill level. This creates both a current measurement of stroke length AND  a target metric that can be improved.

After the 10×50 counting strokes, their next set (on a subsequent day perhaps), will be to use that SPL and the critical swim speed, and swim the long set again, but with focus on holding SPL at that average number and not exceeding it.

What we’ve done is used the swimmers current fitness & ability to give them a starting point, without placing any specific focus on the swimmer adhering to SPL or tempo constraints while swimming the initial time trial. This allows anyone to do the set, not just people who are math inclined.

I can take any of my swimmers with any level of experience, have them do the assessment set, plug their times in and my spreadsheet does the calculations, recommends the 10×50 pacing and the swimmer then begins their journey!

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