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The Evolving Swimmer: Smooth Strokes

It's much easier to master basic stroke technique in the beginning than try to correct bad habits later on.

Welcome to Part II of “The Evolving Swimmer” series. Missed Part I? Click here.

I learned to swim as a toddler. The younger you are when you first venture into water, the more comfortable you’ll be swimming as an adult. If you swam as a child but haven’t been in the water in years, have no fear as you’ll be at ease again quickly. Remember getting comfortable comes first!

Today I will reveal the number one best instructional swim site. It won’t replace one-on-one swim coaching but it comes close. Seeing is believing and this site is very visual!

I originally learned American Red Cross swimming techniques, methods I think are outdated now. I engaged in a 6 hour one-on-one private lesson with a top British swim coach of the Total Immersion school of swimming (in one day) which I will review later in this series. My stroke has been evaluated by 7 different swim coaches. Let’s just say I’ve been around the pool a few times and am here to share a few universal habits of good freestyle technique.

Here are 8 basics that deserve your attention as you swim for fitness.

Never hold your breath.

Sounds simple. The execution is not as easy as it sounds. Every time your face is in the water you should be exhaling (blowing bubbles out your nose). The longer your face is in the water, the slower you exhale so you never stop. Instinct causes us to hold our breath when our face is immersed. Fight that urge.

This is the number one way to control your heart rate and to prevent panic in the water. If you ever participate in an open water triathlon, remember this tip above all else. Exhaling constantly keeps your bodily gases flowing in and out for maximum energy while helping you maintain a rhythm.

Keep high elbows.

Under and out of the water, make sure your elbows are kept high. This helps propel you through the water automatically giving you a better “catch” as you push the water behind you. When you lead with a high elbow out of the water, you protect your shoulders and position your arm for better re-entry into the water.

Don’t cross the center line when hands enter the water.

Pretend there is a center line coming straight out from the top of your head. A very common mistake is to enter the water with your hand on or over that center line. Watching a black line at the bottom of the pool can subconsciously influence your hand placement. Pretend you’re swimming on a railroad track. Your right hand enters on the right side of the track and your left hand on the left side of the track. When you cross over the midline, you’ll swim more like a sperm than a fish!

Turn rather than lift to breathe.

Lifting your head is the number one way to cause severe drag in the water and fatigue. The more you lift your head, the more your legs sink. Great effort is required per stroke to get your body level again. Fifty percent of your lap is spent dragging your body back horizontal with the water’s surface. To do that, you must kick more and shorten your arm stroke causing you to spend energy.

Remember the air isn’t going anywhere. It’s all yours. Simply turn your head and find that channel of air right at the water’s surface as your high elbow exits behind you. If you struggle with this, try rolling your body a little more while still keeping your body and head level.

Think hips instead of feet.

While kicking is a component of swimming, it’s not as important as you think for most fitness swimmers. If you propel yourself by hard kicking lap after lap, you’ll raise your heart rate and wear yourself out quickly. Instead focus on your hips and rotating (or rolling) them as you progress down the lane. Our hips are full of power most swimmers don’t utilize. This is one of my biggest weaknesses. It takes awareness and practice. If you’re doing it right, you’ll feel your core muscles engaged.

Keep your knees together.

Simple instruction. Hard to execute. Have someone watch you swim. You will swear you’re keeping your knees close together when you’re not. Our legs have large muscles and it’s natural to want to use that lower body strength to take on the water resistance. What really happens? Those large muscle groups create serious drag by dropping deeper into the water causing misalignment. This is why a skinny little 12 year old girl can swim faster than a super strong guy. It’s all about streamlining the body and slipping through like a fish creating little resistance in the water.

Learn to bi-lateral breath.

There is one main reason this is so important and it has nothing to do with breathing. By learning to breath from both sides you will balance out your stroke. Balance and streamlining the body helps to lengthen your stroke and improves speed. If you can’t breathe from both sides, you know your stroke is imbalanced. Without good balance, you will zig zag through the water, create drag, and veer off course.

Focus on one improvement at a time.

My Total Immersion coach gave me this tip and it really helps. When working on any stroke improvement, don’t tackle all at once. Devote laps to working on just one skill. Ignore everything else. Try and master that skill so you don’t have to think about it so hard. Then tackle the next skill. Your stroke will come together eventually but you have to break it down first. Otherwise you’ll end up confused and frustrated and quickly resort to familiar bad habits.

Warning: Coaches are quick to recommend group training. Masters swimming and instructional classes are great IF and ONLY IF you are in a lane appropriate for your level. There is no better way to reinforce horrible swim habits than to be in a lane where you are desperately trying to keep up.

My favorite instructional swim site (drum roll please……..)

Check out these great videos to see Mr. Smooth in action.

Until next time, take the plunge!

"You are entirely up to you. Make your body. Make yourself. Make your life." Nike fitness inspiration


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