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Butterfly has a richly-deserved reputation as being the most difficult stroke. Something about that climbing out of the water for precious air. Consequently butterfly wanna-be’s often end up putting so much effort into breathing and recovery that there’s nothing left for the actions that move you forward. Here are some insights into how Jenny Thompson broke the oldest world record – the women’s 100-meter Butterfly – in 1999.

Jenny Thompson broke her first world record in the 100-meter Freestyle in 1992 but was still a good-not-great butterflier, not considered by anyone to be a threat to Mary T. Meagher’s world record of :57.9. But she and her coach, Richard Quick worked tirelessly over the next six years to improve her technique in both strokes. In 1998, Coach Quick told me:"Jenny is still a freestyler but her evolving fly technique has freed her up to improve her freestyle. The same things that have proven helpful in butterfly – not pushing water back, emphasizing weight shifts forward instead – are working for her freestyle too and she’s swimming it with more stroke length than at any time in her career."

Jenny’s freestyle refinements might not have happened if she had not been hungry to swim a better butterfly. "Jenny felt freer to experiment in butterfly," according to her technique coach Bill Boomer, "and she didn’t have to break old habits." Boomer listed four key technical aspects of her improved fly technique:

1. Breathe "inside" the body motion. A common mistake of novice flyers is breathing as though it’s necessary to "chase" air with the head. This leads to jutting the chin on the breath, which breaks the line of the stroke, and minimizes the ability to generate power. Jenny keeps her head as close as possible to its natural position at all times – both during and after the breath.

2. Channel your energy forward. Jenny is never concerned with pushing water towards her feet. She gives far more attention to catapulting her hands to the front and directing momentum forward during the recovery.

3. Anchor and unload early. "We work on getting Jenny to anchor her ‘paddles’ early so she can whip her body over the anchors. As soon as her center of mass passes over the anchors, she immediately flares out into a ballistic recovery." Translation: Instead of pulling back, use your hands to hold onto the water as far in front of your body as possible; as soon as your body moves over your hands, release the water and whip them out and over the body again.

4. Develop force and tempo in the core. Jenny swims stronger and faster by moving her torso more powerfully and quickly, not by pulling or kicking harder.

The same learning techniques and practice strategies that helped Jenny break the American and World records in butterfly can help you learn to swim the most painless 25 yards of butterfly you’ve ever imagined. Or help you complete that 200 meters you never imagined you could do. Though she was already an NCAA butterfly champion as early as 1994, she didn’t hesitate to continue working on basics for six more years to mold an even better stroke. Here’s what you can do to build a smooth fly you’ll want to show off or to increase your current stroke efficiency:

Learn or improve through drills, not by trying to bully your way through more laps. According to Boomer, the most important basic skill of butterfly is "learning to manipulate your body down the pool in an undulating manner." Jenny did thousands of yards of very simple body coordination drills while trying to teach her muscles a new way to swim butterfly. Of all the strokes, butterfly is by far the most difficult to swim in whole-stroke, but the drills for butterfly are among the most simple. You can learn to undulate as Boomer describes above simply by doing Head Lead Body Dolphin drill, shown on the Total Immersion video -- floating in a balanced position with your arms at your sides and pulsing your chest gently and rhythmically, to create a body "wave" that ripples down to your legs. This drill was among Jenny’s favorites. Among the best lessons of this drill will be the benefit of remaining relaxed and supple so you don’t waste energy. Once you can undulate in a relaxed and rhythmic manner, then shift your attention to breathing – also shown graphically on the video. Breathe inside the line of the drill and avoid jutting the chin. This will be easier to learn if you breathe only once every 5 or 6 pulses. Once you feel comfortable and fluent, switch to a Hand Lead Body Dolphin, drill #2 on the TI video – same action but with the arms extended and streamlined. Beginners could benefit enormously by doing little more than these two drills for several weeks of learning butterfly. More advanced swimmers can substitute them for kickboard sets.

Don’t fight gravity. The double-overarm recovery of butterfly is difficult, but it’s manageable if you learn to just sweep your arms forward without trying to climb out for a breath as well. When you swim whole-stroke for the first time, try doing just 3 to 4 non-breathing strokes, then switch to head- or hand-lead drill the rest of the lap. Then start again from the other end with 3 non-breathers. Think about one of these tips on each length as you practice:

  • Minimize up-and-down movement in your head and shoulders. Imagine you’re swimming inside an air duct and avoid bumping your head on the ceiling. Keep your shoulders near the surface and your head in line with your spine as you channel all your energy toward the far end of the pool.
  • Land forward, not down, as you complete each recovery.
  • Anchor your hands early, then sweep them in toward your chin. As soon as your torso moves forward over your hands, karate-chop them to the outside to help catapult them forward again.
  • Sweep the arms forward (no lift) leading with the face of your wristwatch. Keep hands and arms relaxed as they fly forward.

Breathe with your body, not your head.

Once you can swim 3 to 5 smooth, long, forward-attacking strokes, it’s time to add breathing. Breathe with body movement and keep your head looking down slightly throughout the breath, just as in breaststroke. And whatever you do, don’t jut your chin forward. The most important idea here is to keep your head in line with your spine during and after the breath. One way to practice is trying to "hide" your breath. Imagine someone watching you as you swim. Try to breathe so it would be hard for them to see you take the breath. When you start learning to breathe with your body, rather than your head, just add one breath to those short segments of 3 to 5 strokes, as done above. Then add another. Your goal should be to eventually be able to breathe every stroke with no loss of balance. As Coach Quick advises, "Don’t hide your mistake by not breathing." If you breathe correctly, you should be able to breathe any time you want, including every stroke and that will help you finish races better.

Don’t practice "Butter-struggle!" Don’t feel as if you have to plow through that set of 10 x 100s butterfly to prove your character and toughness. Jenny did a large percentage of her butterfly training in 20-yard repeats in a diving tank (see below). This is even more important to the beginning butterflier. Once you start to get your butterfly into decent shape, keep practicing with those half-lengths of whole-stroke, followed by a half-length of drill. Swim only as many strokes as you can execute a balanced, long stroke. The first stroke that starts to feel like a struggle, switch immediately to a drill, until you’re ready to swim beautiful butterfly again.

Jenny’s favorite Butterfly set.

Jenny did this set in Stanford’s 20-yard diving well. The entire set consists of single widths, done in various ways with varying rest between 20-yard repeats. The interval cited is how long she has to swim the width, then rest before doing another. If she takes 10 seconds to swim a width and the interval is :20, she rests :10 before starting again. You might adjust this set to your own ability by reducing the number of repeats and/or increasing the rest interval.

10 x 20 on :40. Done at 100% effort breathing every stroke..

20 x 20 on :20. Moderate effort and no breathing. The emphasis is holding a consistent stroke count. Jenny held each at 5 strokes.

Rest 2:00

20 x 20 on :15 Same set as above but less rest. This is Jenny’s endurance training.

10 x 20 on :40. Same as the first set.


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