Sensory Mitts - Feel the Water

Feel for water is an essential component of fast swimming. It is also the least understood and least practiced focus area. We frequently hear that elite swimmers are born with natural feel for water, one of the reasons why they swim so fast. Although this might be true, it doesn't mean that those of us who were not born with “it” cannot develop the same acute feel for water. We can—and it’s easier than you might think.

“Feel for water” refers to the sensation of feeling and handling the water during the swim. Some days, that feeling is acute and an athlete can swim their best almost effortlessly. It feels as if they are swimming with the flow of water. More often, though, most swimmers feel the opposite; they have to work so much harder to achieve the speed that felt so easy just the other day when the sense of water was effortless. On days like these, the illusive feel for water is missing and the athlete will not swim their best.

The Sensory Homunculus[1] shows what a person’s body would look like if it were in proportion to the area of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception. The hands are one of the most sensitive regions of human body. Fingers alone have “hundred-to-one ratio of touch receptors compared to your torso“[2]. The more sensory receptors, the more information reaches the brain, the more acute sense of touch the brain will provide for us.

During the swim, as hands touch water, the sensory receptors “translate mechanical pressure into long-distance electrical signals”[3] and send them to the brain. The brain then analyzes this information and provides the swimmer with a sense of touch. This sense of touch is what we call “feel for water.”

Stimulating sensory receptors to the flow of water during a particular swim stroke will increase the amount of information received by the brain concerning that particular stroke. The more information reaches the brain, the more acute is the feel for water. The important point to understand is that in order to increase the feel for water it is not enough to simply stimulate more sensory receptors, they must be stimulated relative to a particular stroke.

We can stimulate sensory receptors in many ways. Over two decades ago, Cecil Colwin[4] described an interesting method that he developed for his swimmers to increase sensitivity of sensory receptors. He came up with many clever ideas, one of which was to use a loofah as a sensitizing device. “Although these techniques quickly stimulate the sensory nerve endings,” Colwin pointed out that “this is of little value unless the swimmer makes an association between the feel of the moving water and the particular phase of the swimming stroke.”[5]

To help swimmers associate the feel of moving water with a particular phase of the stroke, we created a new product that we call Sensory Mitts. Sensory Mitts are an incredibly effective tool at stimulating sensory receptors during the swim. Through the increased sensory stimulation during the swim, the swimmer makes an association between the flow of the water and a particular stroke, resulting in an acute feel for water.

We made Sensory Mitts from mesh material, so when you swim with them on, you can still feel the water as it comes through the holes. As you swim or do drills, the material waves slightly to and fro across the hand in absolute accord with each phase of the stroke, sensitizing the sensory receptors as it touches the skin. It feels as if your hands are getting a soothing massage.

When you take Sensory Mitts off, your receptors are highly stimulated and you feel the water more acutely than ever before. You can keenly feel the flow of water with your hands and individual fingers, which allows you to make tiny adjustments to gradually increase the pressure between the hand and the water, resulting in faster speed. It’s an amazing sensation.

Another benefit of Sensory Mitts is that you don’t need to use them for a long time to gain the benefits. Frequently, a hundred yards of swim or drills is all that’s needed to stimulate the sensory receptors on your hands, although each person is different. We have incorporated Sensory Mitts into our existing training routine without making any significant changes.

Feel for water is a crucial component of fast swimming, but you don’t have to be born with this ability. You can ignite your senses with Sensory Mitts and feel the water like you never have before. It’s an awesome tool that makes swimming even more fun!

  1. ↩︎

  2. The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (2007) ↩︎

  3. What's Going On In There. Lise Eliot (2000) ↩︎

  4. ↩︎

  5. Swimming Into the 21st Century. Cecil M. Colwin. (1991) ↩︎