One of the more interesting discoveries while writing this post was finding that despite Finding Freestyle's historical usage of the term (dating back to 2009), the word integrator has never existed in a swim instruction context. All successful swimmers have used them, and all successful coaches prescribe them, but there has never been a conscious acknowledgement.
Which makes "integrators" a challenging topic, and it will be nebulous and awkward without some clear definitions. Let’s get those out of the way first.
Integrator - activities that force the athlete’s body to assemble component skills in an effective fashion that is tailored to their own capabilities. Something that produces a superior product from discrete technical skills.
What then is a component? And what do we mean by a skill as it pertains to swimming?
Component - a little bit or piece like “rotary breathing” or “finish kick timing”.
Skill - A movement is skillful when one can exercise voluntary control over its’ extent, location, timing, rate, roll, pitch, yaw, etc. Awareness and control inherently underpin skillfulness.
It should be noted (if not now obvious) that integration is not the 1st step. First, there needs to be skills to integrate. It should also be noted that learning component skills and integration of those skills are not entirely separate activities. Much of the time, both can be happening at once. When we construct a swim program, we front load the skill building, back load the integrators, and work to strike a balance where both are available in the proper doses, at the proper times.
Basic mindful swimming could be an integrator, as could a 5000 straight swim, but certain activities seem to facilitate the process more quickly.
Some of our favorites:
One Arm freestyle & Head Up freestyle – One arm swimming (especially combined with speed-play) and Head-Up or "Sighting Breath" swimming are a natural complement to one another. Not because they are equally treacherous in dissimilar ways, but because they are equally stimulating in complimentary ways.
One arm swimming has been a great challenge for many of us, mostly because it asks you to maintain balance and coordination in the water while doing things that are characterized by a very narrow range of execution. If you execute outside these narrow bounds, you will fall perilously out of balance. This is akin to "walking along the edge". As you struggle (but persist) with the drill, you consciously and subconsciously learn to integrate the previously developed timing of head, kick, and arm motions. This will allow you to develop the interrelated skills of: 1) getting a breath, and 2) deriving some power from the pull.
Sighting Breaths are another indispensable tool in the open water. Head-Up swimming helps us to develop our ability to perform sighting breaths as well as helping us to practice increased stroke-rate. We need to be able to raise our head to look around at will (i.e., any time in the stroke cycle), and we need to be able to do so with a minimum of extra effort. At the same time, the head-up stroke can be a very powerful stroke development tool, as lifting the head will place downward pressure on the legs, highlighting the significant role of the kick-timing in body position. This will bring that timing into focus for you, while proving quite challenging.
Meta Drilling – Some drills are combinations of multiple drills. In this way we can think of them as "meta" drills. These drills don't stand alone, but rather are the child of one or more parents. When we do a meta-drill, it really emulates the process of integration that we are hoping to attain when we swim. Your swimming stroke will ultimately be a very subtle meta-drill of all the skills that you have introduced to it over time.
A classic example of a meta drill as an integrator is the use of basic Float & Paddle as a baseline, and then adding 1 and 2 beat kicks, followed by increased elbow and shoulder articulation, but maintaining opposition (or at least non catch up), and rotation driven breathing and propulsion.
First the basic Float and Paddle Drill, for reference.
Here we see a hybrid version of the drill, with a 2 beat kick and strokes that resemble more fully articulated swimming.
The Happy Medium drill is a pure integrator. It allows your body to really understand the concept of "economy of motion" by allowing you to spend time focusing on squeezing every little bit of propulsion out of the stroke on the odd lengths, and then extracting only the most essential bits on the even lengths. Ultimately, the optimal swimming stroke is somewhere in the middle, striking a happy-medium between extracting every bit of distance out of each stroke and using only the most effective parts of the stroke.
Speed-Play, to include Descending, Negative Splitting, Fast/Slow patterns, and Build Up swims, is the ultimate integrator. It also hones rhythm, and stimulates the athlete’s ability to relax while exerting effort. Speed play integrates because not only will the effort be appropriately dosed during speed play activities, but many variations of component skills will be unconsciously applied, as the swimmer seeks to maintain a state of balance across those varied efforts. Your body will be trying different things, and adopting the ones that work. Speed play is probably the most widely used integrator across the spectrum of swim training. It is both fun and effective, though many use it without understanding the subtle mechanisms.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this blog for many will be simply that integrators exist. That there are certain activities whose primary purpose is the delivery of new component skills, and different activities that facilitate the assemblage of those skills into competent swimming. The concepts of skill building and integration also speak to the age old questions of “Should I do drills or just swim more?”, and the even more pervasive, “Is that a good drill?”
I hope this can help to further dispel the previously explored notion of the technique versus training rift, as well as provide the reader with the knowledge to decide for themselves what is good and what is not good.
"And what is good, and what is not good...? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"-Plato (maybe the pace clock?)