This past week, I started on my four month experiment supplementing my swim training with using the Vasa Ergometer or “Erg“ and measuring its effects on my swim performances. Ever since reviewing the Erg last summer, I have been curious about how it can be used to supplement swim training, improve form, boost strength, and decrease times. Home swim training seems like a dream for many reasons!
Erg 101 (Home Swim Training For Dummies)
For those of you who have never used an Erg think of it as a rowing machine for swimmers. The swimmer lies on bench that slides up and down on a monorail very similar to a rowing machine. The swimmer’s hands are on paddles that are connected to cords which run back into the machine itself and around a fan, allowing you to open and close a hatch at the base to change “resistance/”current.” The fan has a power meter connected to it so it can measures power.
The Erg is ANT+ (similar to Bluetooth the open source communication technology between devices like computers, bike computers, watches, and phones; in essence the same technology that in your Garmin) so can connect to a Garmin (I have a 920xt but it also works with other cycling computers like the Edge ) and allows you to measure cool metrics like overall power and even cooler left/right power balance.
To connect your Garmin to the Erg you have to first create a new bike profile on your watch; it will not work with swim functions at the this time. Label it as an indoor bike to turn GPS off, then scan for a power meter. It should pop right up. Set the wheel size to 100mm and you are already.
As far as metrics that I have set on my watch screen I have overall time, HR, and power. Since the Erg console has all the metrics I need like 100m pace, power, stroke rate, time, and total distance displayed already, I really do not look at my watch until after the workout. I occasionally look at it to see my pace in mph so I can do some mental math and calculate my IM time but beyond that I set it and forget it.
I also hooked up my GoPro to the top of the machine so that I can video tape and monitor my form.
This first week was all about setting a baseline. If I am going to truly measure the benefits, I need to collect some hard numbers. I did an in-pool 1000 yard Time Trial, 5×100 yard sprint fully rested and averaged the times, then did a 1000m TT on the Vasa to get my power average, power balance, and obviously time.
My home swim training will look like this: 3, 75-minute swims a week in the water with 2-3 45min swims on the Erg. I will also use my GoPro on the Vasa so that I can measure and evaluate my form as I swim. I can thus monitor to see where my form falls apart and how that correlates with my wattage and pace. I will track and measure my times and pace both in the pool and out as well as my power on the Vasa.
From the first couple of strokes on the Erg I noticed a big difference between the Erg and swimming in the pool. You don’t realize how much you recover when you do a flip turn until that flip turn is taken away. Even compared to a long course pool the Erg works your shoulders. After 500m, I needed a quick break to stretch out my arms and back. I was feeling a deep burn in my shoulders and back as if I had swam 2000 straight not a 500!
What contributed to this soreness is that you become very aware of your stroke.
This is one of the huge benefits of the Vasa: you begin to really feel your stroke and thus can spot its flaws more easily in particular the high elbow catch. In the water, it is easy to drop your elbow and swim with straighter arms. Not only does this lead to a loss of power but messes up your form and efficiency. As you can see in the above picture by the end of my 1000TT my elbows were dropping significantly.
On the Vasa, however, you can see your catch, pull, and finish thus making you hold that high elbow throughout and fully extend your arm before you exit the water. Many swimmers do not fully engage their triceps at the end of the stroke and begin their recovery prematurely. This is a big mistake because most of your power and propulsion comes from the last part of the pull.
On the Vasa, you become conscious of where you finish your stroke and whether you are engaging your triceps or not both by feel but also by seeing your power drop. Applying this to swimming in the pool, I know now what it feels like to fully engage my triceps and can mimic this when I swim.
Another form flaw that becomes very evident on the Vasa is crossing over. While the monorail makes it impossible for you to cross over too much, you can still become dangerously close to your center axis. When you do this in the water your form deteriorates.
Interestingly, this flaw manifests itself on the Vasa as it does in the water with your legs swaying or “splaying” from side to side. Unlike the water, where it goes unnoticed until a swim video points it out, you can feel this flaw on the Vasa. Once you extend your arm more to side and pull straight back, this rear end wiggle disappears.
Being able to track power and heart rate while swimming is completely novel to me because I cannot do it in the pool but now can on the Vasa.
This is a very cool feature of the Vasa that I am exploring more. Being able to track power also means I can track Left/Right power balance. This last feature allows me to see which arm (if either) I favor while swimming.
My initial workouts show that I have a 48/52 power balance. 2% does not sound like much but it adds up over time especially in open water where that 2% could mean you swim off course and waste energy. In an Olympic or Half distance tri, swimming off course could not only cost you 2-3 minutes to get back on track but also wasted energy to do so.
The first week of the experiment is done and dusted. My arms are incredibly sore, but I am encouraged. I love being able to “swim” at home, and not having to go to the pool those extra three times but nevertheless get some quality swim training in.
I also have the added benefit to home swim training: not smelling like chlorine. 🙂
For more on the ERG and to pick up one of your own, click here to go to the VASA website.