Most days I can swim better than I can walk. I can’t stub my toe on the corner of an end table, trip on a step, or slip on the ice when I am in the water. Maybe it’s because I’ve been swimming competitively almost as long as I have been walking. Or maybe it’s because when I am in the water, there is a sense of calm and quiet. Little to no distraction. No electronic devices. No cars or city noises. No chance for conversation. Just me, the water, and my sense of movement.
One would think that with such focus, and adequate practice, perfecting a movement pattern in the water would be easy. Simple. Read books and articles on swimming, watch the videos of Michael Phelps, listen to coaches and then move accordingly. Not quite. It is not that simple because it is not about knowing. It is about having a feel of the water and an accurate sense of your body’s position in the water. What we are talking about here is proprioception. As you read this article, you are likely aware of where your arm is in space. If I ask you to touch your nose, you can do that accurately and with a subtle awareness of the path of movement. Proprioception plays an important part in motor control. We are unable to move towards a target without ongoing proprioceptive feedback. And it gets far more interesting following injury, surgery, with age, and in the water.
Have you ever tried to look at an object at the bottom of a pool of rippling water? The object is distorted. Similarly, knowing where your body is in space, or your proprioception, is different in the water than on land. It’s wild. If you’re a swimmer, you know what I am talking about. A coach might tell you to enter your hand further from midline during freestyle (i.e. widen your entry). You will move your hand a fraction of an inch outward and feel as if your hand is clear out to your side, perpendicular to your body. Meanwhile the coach might accuse you of not listening to what he said!
Proprioceptive sense can deteriorate with age and be altered by injury and surgery. In these cases, we all need additional, consistent feedback, such as coaching, filming, mirrors, verbal cues, and tactile feedback to inform us where our limb is positioned in space (or in the water), in order to change the way we move.
Bear with me while I get a little technical here. Receptors involved in proprioception are located in skin, muscles, and joints. When you move your arm, all the tissues around the relevant joint – skin, muscles, tendons, fascia, joint capsules and ligaments – are deformed. These tissues are innervated by mechanically sensitive receptors, and their density varies across muscles and regions of the body. The information about your arm position and movement is not generated by an individual receptor, but by groups of receptors. These signals generated during a movement are interpreted by your brain which tells you the position of your arm. But that interpretation can be off for lots of reasons. And how will you know? A swim analysis can help.
In my time as a swimmer, an injured swimmer, a coach, and a physical therapist that specializes in treating swimmers, I have come to appreciate the importance of position sense. Knowing how your body should move is only the tip of the iceberg. You won’t remember what your coach or your physical therapist said, but you will remember what a movement felt like. Feeling or sensing your body move properly can open up a world of untapped strength and efficiency.
Every way you move matters, whether you are aware of it or not. And pretty soon, if the movement isn’t just right, you get injured and then you really areaware of every move! So if you can take subtle notice of your position in space, you may find that you can decrease your pain or improve your performance with a slight change. For example, increasing hip rotation during freestyle can decrease neck pain. An effortless change in the position of your shoulders can occur when you engage your deep abdominal muscles. Whether you are young or old, in the water or on land, injured or not, having a sense of your body’s position in space can make all the difference. Think about….rather, feel it.