Unless you were a swimmer as a child, chances are that at some point you have experienced the frustrations of trying to improve your swim. Watching people smoothly ‘gliding’ up and down the pool while you impersonate an epileptic octopus is sadly a common occurrence.
Everyone has a unique journey when learning to improve their swim as an adult. Different sports backgrounds, physical ability and mental faculties all come into play making progress harder or easier for us all.
There is an abundance of reading material, video resource and a plethora of experts on hand to tell you how to do it and some of the information is contradictory so it can be hard to know what to do.
One coach uttered the words ‘if you want to get good at swimming, do lots of swimming, then do some more’. There is merit in this as we look at people training for triathlons every day and one common factor with lack of progress is lack of practice. Our experience says that to make any headway you have to regularly swim AT LEAST 3 times a week. Acquiring skills takes time and effort so the first thing to do is touch the water regularly.
Practice makes perfect? Well no, practice makes permanent so simply getting in and bashing up and down without altering what you do will give you a good workout but it more often than not will produce limited or no change.
Over the years we have looked at hundreds of swimmers and there are some common issues that pop up that can be addressed.
Being tense physically or anxious mentally when swimming will mean you swim badly – every time. Being determined, trying harder, chasing the clock are all likely to make you less relaxed and fluid and as such you will swim like a lump of wood. Learn to enjoy the experience and don’t allow frustration to creep in. Remember you chose to be in the water.
90% of people who we see looking to improve their swim have issues with breathing in the water. This isn’t a huge surprise as the breathing process while swimming crawl is fundamentally different to the breathing process on dry land. Dry land it is basically, in/out. In the water we have different timing getting the spent gas cleared and new air in so it needs practice. There is always debate about when to breathe – how many strokes between each in breath.
The answer is what works for you but the key is that you have to exhale as soon as your mouth goes into the water. On a 2 stroke pattern you then have to breath out faster than with a 3 or a 4 stroke pattern in order to clear the lungs before you then breathe in again. It is a good idea to ‘play’ with your breathing during the warm up. One of our favourite exercises is 4 lengths choosing a different pattern each length – every 2,3,4,5 and working out what feels best for you. It is highly unlikely but not impossible it will be 4 or 5!
Ah you have sinky legs! We hear this all the time and it is a topic in its own right. The truth of the matter is that everyone has sinky legs naturally but good swimmers have mastered the art of aligning their body position. The question here is…how? This isn’t easy for many so working on the feel of the kick is part of it but the most important thing is to make sure you can switch the core and fire the glutes. Practice engaging the core on dry land – how do you hold yourself to have great posture to hold yourself tall and long? Work out how it feels to be switched on and take it into the water.
This also provides a challenge for people. The two most common things we see are firstly the over glide. We want a long reach and extension at the front of the stroke but many people take it too far and either create a pause or drop the elbow. What happens next is either a wait to get the arm to sink or a push down with the whole arm. Neither allows for an effective catch. The opposite of the over glide is the short stroke – pulling too early without making a catch on the water. This can manifest in different ways but the obvious one is the arm ‘slipping’ the water or the elbow moving backwards without having the hand and forearm vertical.
You can try watching your hands as you swim and think about a soft hold with the hand on an imaginary tennis ball. Initiate that hold as soon as you get fully extended and think about pushing it towards the opposite hip. Allow the unwind of the body rotation to then bring the arm into position…then start the pull phase.
A great many people swim easy all the time with no hard or top end efforts. If you want to swim fast you have to do some fast swimming. That leisurely 58 strokes per minute isn’t going to cut it. Many top class open water swimmers have stroke rates in the high 70’s up into the 80’s so up your stroke rate while holding good form.
Training Peaks is full of people with a low stroke rate, low heart rate and slow speed. To up your rate do it a couple of strokes at a time and do it by increasing your rotation speed not by pulling frantically on the arms.
Finally, do one thing at a time. You can practice while you swim rather than drilling yourself to death. Some drills are useful, many are a load of tosh so if you do deploy drills, pick the good ones and make sure you execute them properly.
Written by Alan Cardwell
Running & Swimming Coach