The freestyle swimming skill ladder

I found a great article on the Triathlete website by Sara McLarty which breaks down the freestyle swimming stoke in to rungs on a ‘skill ladder’.

Using this ladder you can measure your progress, moving up one rung after another until eventually you reach the top. It’s quite an interesting way to review your technique and ensure you don’t miss out a rung. I would guess that a lot of people want to move on to the more complex technical aspects and often take for granted some of the simpler basics – this is something I also find with learning digital skills.

Have a look at the ladder below.

Freestyle skill ladder - start at the bottom and work up

PullDo fingertips point down and elbow stays high?
CatchDoes the wrist stay unbent?
ReachDo hands extend forward and slightly down?
EntryDoes the arm drop into the water without pause?
RecoveryIs your arm relaxed with a high elbow?
FinishDoes your hand exit the water past your hip?
Centre lineDo you avoid crossing the centre line with your hands?
RotationDoes your torso rotate with your stroke?
Bilateral breathingCan you breathe to both sides?
Head positionIs your head in a neutral position?
BalanceAre your hips near the surface when you swim?
KickingAre you using your kick to get across the pool?
BreathingAre you exhaling under the water?
Floating & relaxingCan you float on your stomach?

What does it look like when you put all this together?

When I want to review some textbook freestlye action I look at this multi angle camera view of 1500m Olympic champion and world record holder Sun Yang of China.

Although like many professional athletes he seems unable to keep himself away from doping allegations there is no doubt that his technique is formidable.

More about Sun Yang’s technique


Can this Weblinks manager open badge finally crush CLICK HERE?

Seeing web pages with links called things like ‘here‘ and ‘click here‘ makes me want to weep. I’m hoping this open badge I’ve created will encourage people to give these awful generic link names the boot.

A while back I wrote a blog post explaining why these generic link names harm user experience and search engine optimisation on a website whilst also wet fish slapping anyone interested in web accessibility.

In what is fast becoming a personal crusade I’ve created a Weblinks Manager open badge for people wanting to show they understand and reject using ‘click here’ in their web content.

Why create the badge?

Open badges are a great way to show evidence of non-formal learning and skills. Because the evidence of what you had to do is attached to the bagde you can demonstrate clearly that you met criteria to earn the spoils. Most of the things we know and learn are not part of a formal accreditation processes or qualifications and I think open badges present a great way of showing potential employers some extra strings on your bow. It’s also fun to earn badges and then stick the bling on your LinkedIn profile or website.

Here are some articles talking about the benefits of open badges:

My hope with this particular badge is to encourage people to think more about generic link names next time they are writing on their website and also offer a way to show potential employers that they know some useful stuff.

How do I get the badge?

Go to the badge page on P2PU read the criteria and submit a project for a badge. The ‘expert’ will provide feedback and issue you with the badge if you’ve met the criteria.

What do I do with the badge once I have it?

Here are some suggestions for making the most of this and other open badges:

Peer to Peer University

I’ve created this badge on a great website called Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU). Part of the site allows you to set up your own badges as well as earn badges from other people. A while back I got myself a Web Literacy Ninja badge for knowing all about the 15 strands of the Mozilla Web Literacy Map.

There are a number of different open badge platforms but I like P2PU as it shows very clearly what people had to do to get each badge (here is my Web Literacy Ninja project page) with feedback from the badge expert. The site works in a bottom-up decentralised way with users teaching and supporting each other to learn new things.

Once you earn the badge you also become an expert and can approve applications from other people. I’m hoping if I can get a few people to earn my new badge they will become experts and then try to get others to have a go.

Credit where it’s due

Thanks a lot to the following people who provided me with feedback on this badge:

@dijitalstuff@missmariesaid, @CuriousScutter, @louduffs, @Helen_Ridgway and @Collette_Marie.

To say thanks I gave them a badge for helping me out.


Usability Testing course – part of Usability Week London 2015

Summary: The Nielsen Norman usability testing course I went to as part of Usability Week 2015 was worth the effort and cash.

I was lucky enough to attend a training course on usability testing from Nielsen Norman which was part of London Usability Week. This one day course with Kara Penrice gave us a whistle stop tour of a range of different techniques including in-person, remote and online testing methods.

There were loads of useful practical tips about how to structure the tests, if you should pay participants and how much green you should send their way if you choose to do so. There seems to be some people who take part in usability testing as a career – you can get $100 for 90 minutes work. The problem with these ‘professional testers’ is they are too versed in how tests work, too eager and please and arguably not objective and detached enough to give you impartial feedback.

Me in the London keynote audience

Keynote speech from Jakob Nielsen

Having done the course on Sunday (the only down side) I went back to HQ on Wednesday to see ‘father of usability’ Jakob Nielsen deliver his keynote speech ‘Whos’ winning us or the enemy‘. Rather than use a flashy power point with whiz bang graphics Uncle J used 18th century paintings to demonstrate his thinking on several common usability problems.

Amongst the things that got slated by Nielsen were:

  • Apple – using flat design on their icons has taken usability backwards 20 years focusing too much on aesthetics
  • Agile principles – can be used to design well but often used to focus too much on an individual design aspect without considering an overall finished design
  • Responsive layouts – they don’t really work that well as they create a ‘one size fits all’ except it doesn’t as you need to test a design for each device to make sure it works

I was pretty happy with his honesty and there was some uncomfortable people in the room especially when he battered Apple.

It was great experience and I hope to be getting involved again the next time the NNG bandwagon comes to town.

Resources from the session

We were given a great set of resources many of which were copywritten and not for sharing. I’m including the links to the resources which can be bought from NNG or are free on their website.

A mathematical model of the finding of usability problems

Links to other resources:

Great day learning about usability testing from @nngroup Jedi @karaann #nnguw pic.twitter.com/SORZMkZspw


Why your links should never say ‘here’ or ‘click here’

Across the web ‘click here‘ or ‘here‘ have become common terms used for links on web pages – you can find them on BBC, Guardian, Mozilla, and even the mighty Government Digital Service as well as many others. These lazy generic link titles suck in so many ways.

Lots of ‘digital thought leaders’™ use them, usually as part of a blog post designed to convince you of their greatness. Before moving on to the complex stuff I’m calling for a back to basics approach. There is absolutely no point advocating high end digital marketing techniques if you then write ‘click here’ for the links all over your blog post. It’s definitely a credibility loser.

my tombstone

There are quite a few reasons why people should be taking greater care over how they use links.

Tell the user where you’re sending them

If you use sensibly named links you give users the option of clicking or not on the links that might be of interest. You can use a link to reference a handy source which explains something in more detail then you want to add to your page. Sometimes you’re reader will know what you’re driving at and so can forgo the link, other users might find a bit of background helpful and will click on the link.

If you use just the generic term for the link you’re forcing users to read all the surrounding text to understand the context. This makes scanning the page much more difficult.

Unhelpful: Click these links to see all my holiday photos here, here and here.


Better: I took lots of photos while I was holiday in Krakow, Lviv and Kiev.

Help screen readers users

Non descriptive links are also confusing and probably quite annoying for anyone using a screen reader. Screen readers are a piece of software that allows people with severe visual impairments to use a computer. A common first step for a screen reader user is to look at the links on the web page to help them understand the options available.

The YouTube video web design and screen readers demonstrates what a screen reader will tell a visual impaired person if they look at a webpage full of nondescriptive links.

Better SEO for your website

If this isn’t enough search engines will also penalise sites that don’t have descriptive links.

Google SEO Starter Guide (PDF) from 2010 states that links should be descriptive, concise and easy to spot. Search engines like it when you do helpful things for users and penalise you if you do things which don’t help them. Logic suggests that generic links will bite you in the SEO ass sooner or later if you persist with them.

Write a sentence that makes sense

If we follow the advice from W3C we need to stay away from talking about the mechanics of mouse clicks, taking attention of users away from the web page they’re being offered with the link. But is this enough?

Why shouldn’t every sentence make sense as if it was read from a paperback book? If you wrote every sentence as if was to be printed out then read you wouldn’t use generic links like ‘here’ and ‘click here’ as it would make the sentence bonkers.

Consider this as if you’re reading from a book:

Bonkers: Rough Guide to Korea is now available to buy on Amazon. You can buy it here.


Better: One of the best travel guides I’ve ever read Rough Guide to Korea is available to buy from Amazon.

I imagine someone looking through the pages of the book for wherever ‘here’ might be so they can find out where to buy the Rough Guide.

If we work together we can kill off CLICK HERE for good

The web content basics are super important and we need to remember them. If everyone decides that condemning generic links to the idea bin should come before the next new shiny thing then everyone will have better search optimised websites that are easier to use. Simple as that really.


Head position in freestyle swimming

In recent weeks since Bridge to Bridge I’ve been working a lot on my freestyle head position. The two main things I’ve been trying to do are:

  • Get my head in the right position
  • Keep it still

Get the head at the right level in the water

Back in June when I was practicising on holiday I got someone to film me and  it’s clear there is a lot of my bonce sticking out of the water. Having the head high in the water can cause your hips to lower in the water and create drag.

A lower tucked in head position is going to reduce drag and give me a more streamlined shape in the water and should make me faster.

This video (below) from Gary Hall Sr shows swimming with different head positions and what this does to body alignment.

The second part of the video shows underwater shots of some top open water swimmers. Despite all using different stroke techniques they all share a common very effective head position with the chin tucked in.

In open water you do need to look up to sight but also in the pool you might need to look forward to avoid crashing in to people. It’s important to get the transition from the ‘look up’ position back to the normal head position right so that you limit drag.

Once you get your head in the right place keep it there

The other problem I’ve been having is with my head moving around too much. There is a bit of a side to side wobble going on which I had no idea I was doing. I’ve been working hard to keep my head as still as possible. I’ve been swimming using a snorkel but also cutting down my breaths when practising so I there is less need to move my head.

I saw this video (below) on Goswim.tv which showed some interesting drills for keeping your head still. Members of the Aquajets Club in Minnesota stick hand paddles to their heads. If you keep your head in the right position the paddle should stay in place even when you breathe.

I’ve tried this and it works although I was using TYR Catalyst medium paddles which are quite big and they are using tiny ones in the video so maybe I might be cheating?!


Bridge to Bridge 2015

I’d been building up to the swimming marathon Bridge to Bridge ever since I barely completed Swimathon back in April. I’d even worked out that the 14.1 km is equivalent to 564 lengths of a 25 metre pool.

The weather in Henley-on-Thames was sunny and warn and the water a balmy 17 degrees when I arrived at the Leander Club for the start. I was in the slowest green hatted wave setting off at 8am.

Getting in to the water

Me on the left looking down wondering if I should go home

Henley to Hambledon Lock 4km

The start was a bit stressful. There were three pace groups and I decided to go in the slowest group which was planning to average 22 minute kilometres. I had no idea if that was the right pace for me and even thought it might be a bit quick over the full distance but thought I would give it a go. A lot of people seemed quite nervous as there was the usual mix of awkward jokes (my method) and talking a bit too loud which are obvious signs of the fear factor.

Everyone started off like the clappers or so it seemed but there were quite a few people together in the group so it was hard to know if I was at the front or the back.

I was regretting not buying a tow float as this would have allowed me to swim on my own. Its main function is to make you more visible so you don’t get squashed by boats and the organisers are more relaxed about you swimming solo if you have one. I was worried if I dropped back on my own without one they might ask me to stop.

This was the longest leg of the swim so I knew it would be hard. It seemed to take a long time but I got to the lock in 1 hour 20 minutes which judging by recent swims is quite fast by my standards.

Start of Bridge 2 Bridge

The start of the green wave at 8am

Getting out at the lock there was some sports drinks, bananas and malt loaf to nibble on before walking to the other side of the lock and starting again.

Hambledon Lock to Medmenham 7.1 km

It turns out that some of the pace group were slightly behind me so I decided to start off ahead of them so if I dropped back I wouldn’t be on my own. During this leg a lot of blue hatted medium wave of swimmer passed me – they would have started half an hour behind me!

I had more space over this 3 km stretch and enjoyed it a lot more. There was a lot of dodgy sighting going on at the start with lots of people crossing over my path but now I had more space and started to relax and get in to a rhythm. I was definitely slower than the first leg here and got to the lock at the same time as the pace group who had caught up.

Medmenham to Hurley Lock 10 km

By Medmenham I was only half distance but I was trying not to think about it that much. I found this the hardest of all the legs as I was starting to feel a bit tired but also this had been the third long leg in a row and a lot of time to have your head under the water. I seemed to be a bit more on my own for parts of this leg but there were enough people around to follow so I couldn’t get lost.

It felt good to make it to Hurley Lock as I knew by now that the longest legs were all out of the way and I had 10 km in the bag with only 4 km to go.

Me swimming on the left of the photo

Me on the left

Hurley Lock to Temple Lock 11.8 km

This leg was probably the most fun. We had to negotiate the lock by swimming across part of the river on to a small island, walking through some woods and then getting back in the river on the other side. We then swam this leg hugging the bank to our left with boats tied up on the shore and some of their inhabitants looking down at us in bemusement. There were boats passing to the right of us creating a fair bit of wash but luckily our friendly kayaks were stopping them from running us over.

I enjoyed this leg as the pace group stayed together the most. Everyone seemed to be tired and so I wasn’t getting left behind and we started and finished the leg in a chain gang.

People swimming

The pods soon became more like chain gangs

Temple Lock to Marlow Bridge 14.1 km

While refuelling at the last stop our pacer commented “This next one is the worst leg”. Having swim 11.8 km and having only 2.3 km to go I certainly didn’t understand why. It seems this was because the river is quite wide and featureless on the way in to Marlow and tends to make it drag.

It felt a lot longer than 2.3 km and I never thought I would see Marlow Bridge. Every time I thought the bridge would be round the next bend it wasn’t. Eventually I saw it and reached the rowing club where I could finally get out of the water.

I was pretty pleased with myself at the finish with a time of 05:38:52. Considering how long it was taking me to swim 5 km just a few months ago this represents quite a bit of progress.

I would estimate the five food stops were between 15-25 minutes which could be taken off this. The smarter man would have timed the stops to get a more accurate time.

This was a fabulous event though which I really enjoyed and I hope I can do it again if I manage to improve my swimming a bit more. I was 02:35:08 behind 1st place so if I do this event again I want to get at least an hour off this finish time.

Thanks a lot to those people who came to cheer me on in Marlow and everyone who sponsored me.

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Great Newham London Swim 2015

With a shortage of open water swims in London I signed up for the London version of the Great Swim series.

Earlier in the year I had swum in Lake Windermere at the Great North Swim and this was a similar affair but in the big smoke. The event is at the Royal Victoria Dock which I’ve swam in as part of the London Triathlon a few times.

Great London Swim 2015

I swam it in 38:40  - chip time was 39:47 but I used my watch as it took a long time to get in and out of the water so I’m going with that instead.

Despite thinking I was pushing it harder than last week at the West Reservoir I was a little bit slower. The main difference I think was that last week I was swimming with swimmers who were mostly better than me and didn’t get in my way. These Great Swims have swimmers of all abilities and very large waves so there was a lot of traffic to deal with.

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Capital Tri Splash Race 2 2015

Ahead of Bridge to Bridge I needed some open water swimming practice so I headed to the West Reservoir in Stoke Newington for an early morning 3 km swim as part of the Capital Tri series.

West Reservoir Stoke Newington

The 3km swim was made up four 750 metre laps around the reservoir. On part of the lap there is a lot of green follage just below the water line. This can be slightly disconcerting as your hand touches ‘stuff’ on every stroke and when I turned to breathe there was the same gunk all over my face in scenes not unlike the face huggers from the Alien films.

I was quite pleased to swim the 3 km in 1:14:55. I did notice I was second to last though and the winner did it in an impressive 40 minutes.


Great North Swim, Windermere 2015

After almost drowning in Windermere two years ago I felt like I had unfinished business at the Great North Swim.

In a similar fashion to the last time the weather was unseasonably cold, 10 degrees colder than in London which was a shock to the system. The lake itself was warm though and thankfully flat.

Lake Windemere - Great North Swim 2015

I also felt a lot better prepared this time as I’d actually done some training and was taking a bit of time to learn how to swim properly. I was using this as a build up for Bridge to Bridge later in the year.

Finish of the Great North Swim 2015

It was a useful learning exercise as it was the first time I was using my ‘new’ stroke in open water. I’ve got to do some work on my sighting now I’ve changed things as it started to fall apart when got tired. I swam it in 41:22 which I was disappointed with initially but I think this is a tough event compared to some others. My sister-in-law was only a couple of minutes behind me so I’m in danger of getting beat next time!

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Eliminating crossover in a freestyle swimming stroke

One of the biggest problems I’ve had in swimming is crossover in my freestyle stroke. It’s probably been the biggest contributor to me being slower than I would like.

Crossover is when the hand and arm crosses your central plane during the stroke. This makes it hard to swim in a straight line leading to a weird snaking in the water.

Here is a rather extreme example of a chap from YouTube to give you an idea.

Coach Robb (whoever he is) explains in more detail about this and how to avoid it.

I’ve been doing this for years without really understanding it or knowing what to do about it. Now I know to keep my hand entry and bit wider and make sure my hand isn’t crossing over my centre line at any point – keeping my tracks wide like I’m ‘hugging a tree’ as demonstrated below.