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Smart strokes… swimming goes virtual with new apps

June 4, 2013
Splash out: swimmers are turning to gadgets

Splash out: swimmers are turning to gadgets

From where I am in the pool, everything seems to be going well. I have semi-overcome my fear of front crawl, I’m wearing goggles — which I’ve always found too uncomfortable to bother with — and I’m starting to feel a bit like I might be gliding through the water. But above water, it’s a different story.

Using a play-back mobile app on her phone, my trainer, who has been filming me while I swim, shows me in slow motion how I am kicking with my feet rather than the whole-leg movement I should be doing. At one point, I watch with embarrassment as I see how my poor alignment leads me to crash into the side of the lane.

While apps and gadgets such as Nike+ Fuel Band — which enables wearers to track their physical activity to earn “points” and compete with others online — have proved hugely popular in the running world, swimming has lagged behind. But as growing numbers of Londoners begin to take the sport seriously, swimmers are also starting to get techy.

Barbara Brunner, director, sports therapist & head coach at EnergyLab BTS near Old Street, says swimming has taken longer to catch on because while most people might think they can swim, doing it properly is a lot harder than running. “Running is a lot simpler: you can put your shoes on and run and technically, unless you’re running a marathon or something, you don’t need any lessons,” she says.

The popularity of triathlons — applications for events such as the Virgin Active London Triathlon, coming up in July, and Blenheim Palace Triathlon are at record levels — has also played a big part. Brunner says: “Swimming has taken longer to develop technologically because most people don’t like doing it because they haven’t been taught properly. About 80 per cent of people who approach swimming need coaching.”

The app Ubersense, which allows users to record their swimming performances on video, play back at different speeds and share performances with other swimmers and experts online, has seen a sharp rise in users in the past six months. To date, it has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times. Growing numbers of swimmers are also using Speedo Pace Club, an online swimming club, to log their training and compete with friends and peers. Popular gadgets include sports watches such as Poolmate, which counts laps, strokes per lap and calories, and Finis Tempo Trainer Pro, which is worn under the swimming cap and acts like an underwater bleep test, by beeping to keep your strokes in time.

Brunner starts my session by asking me to do two lengths of front crawl. Immediately I am terrified. Although I have swum since I was a young child and went to swimming lessons at least once a week until I was 16, I have always found front crawl uncomfortable and I would never do it out of choice. I quickly find that 11 years on it has got even harder and I struggle to find a breathing pattern and work very hard to stay afloat. After that, Brunner lets me do two lengths of breaststroke (at “spa rate” as she calls it) to put me at ease before we move on to the serious business.

She gives me fins to put on my feet so that some of the work is taken out of the movement and breaks down front crawl into three simple elements — swimming on my left side, right side and front. I do five different drills using a kickboard float and a pull buoy to practise the moves that form the basic formula for front crawl while she films me doing the movements.

During the extension drill — in which I swim on my side, belly button facing the wall with my head in the water (obviously I’m allowed to come up for breaths) — Brunner instructs me to put one hand on my buttocks to encourage me to use my whole leg to kick. This immediately increases my speed.

Gradually I feel my breathing ease and moving through the water becomes much easier. At the end Brunner takes away the floats and instructs me to put all the moves together and I am startled and delighted to find I am happily doing front crawl.

Afterwards we look through the footage and I see how, although I am disastrous at the start, I quickly improve throughout the session. When I get home there’s an email in my inbox with links to my videos which I watch on the app, complete with comments and “homework” for next time.

Will there be a next time? I hope so. Not only is it incredibly fulfilling to re-learn such an essential skill but swimming properly is also good for physique. In Brunner’s words, “we love to have our legs and bums looking good” — and with the help of technology it can also be fun too.

Miranda Bryant


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