Ultimate SWIMMING overview

Swim Technique, June 08, 2022

One of my coaching missions is to introduce ALL of my EverFIT athletes to the wellbeing & performance magic of swimming. The following article is a deep dive into what makes up a good swimming stroke, and what to work on.

Swimming is an incredible exercise that has a multitude of wellness and performance benefits. If you are going to swim it’s important to understand the basics. If you haven't had any specific coaching then I suggest looking to join a squad, getting some one on one lessons, or at the very least send me in a video of you swimming (7sec from side and front)  so I can deliver some individual tips. 

The Four phases of the freestyle stroke

1.CATCH

The phase of the freestyle stroke where the hand enters the water.

Common issues - over reaching, elbow dropping below wrist, crossing over midline

When I was taught to swim it was common place to be told to reach long and make an S shape with the underwater phase of the stroke. This can cause over reaching which in turn creates a swaying of the body. The legs kick out breaking your streamline position. This in turn can also create a crossing over the midline when your hand enters the water. It is sometimes better to shorten the stroke at the front and get straight into the pull phase, especially in open water when the conditions are a little rougher. 

Drills to help with this is the single arm working on a quick efficient catch with no hanging around at the front of the stroke. I also wear hand paddles with no strap - if your catch is deviating out or you are dropping your elbow on the catch phase then the paddles come off. They are a great feedback tool. The hand should be relaxed and angled slightly down with the wrist in a flexed position.

2.PULL 

The second part of the stroke with the arm moving through the water as it follows the length of your body. This is where you inhale - try and breath early in the phase so you maximise one deep breath. Make sure you head is neutral, not straining the neck. Keep one side of your goggles in the water. Your ear shoulder be right against the shoulder of the extended arm.

One of the biggest mistakes is the elbow dropping and the hand going too deep.

The purpose of the pull phase is to move you though the water as efficiently as possible. A higher elbow throughout the phase helps maximise the power of the pull. Having a higher elbow (rather than a deeper pull) synced with a body roll gives you powerful forward propulsion. If you think of your arm rolling over a swissball with the elbow bent this will keep the elbow high. It's important to keep tension on between your hand/arm and the water.

3.EXIT

The final part of the pull as it leaves the water - just past the hip

This is the most underutilised phase of the entire freestyle stroke. Most swimmers bring their arm out of the water too soon missing out on the powerful acceleration at the side of the body. This is similiar to the motion of the press up you need to raise your body up and out at pool side. I've been told by Mark Bone (my first swim coach) to flick the water out as the thumb hits the upper side of the thigh on the way through. Aim past the hip as you exit the water and don't miss out on free power.

4.RECOVERY

The arm is in the air on the way back to restart the stroke.

Get the arm back quickly and messy rather than with a beautiful high elbow slow technique.

Energy on perfect technique while the arm is recovering is wasted. It's just hanging in the air. Move like a windmill, throw the arms over so they get back to work pushing water. Having too bent an elbow can be detrimental in open water swimming as the hand can hit choppy water increasing drag.

You can work on a more effective recovery phase with straight arm drills, and don't overthink getting the arm back to the water. 
I'm very keen on my athletes getting proficient at all the swim strokes - not JUST freestyle. Many triathletes focus exclusively on freestyle as this is what is used during races. Mastering all the strokes  (Backstroke - look straight up so your hips don't sink, Butterfly- A great stroke to work on full body strength/core/co-ordination, and Breaststroke- a great stroke to work on a streamline position off the wall. All together the strokes + freestyle are know as individual medley or IM for short) helps build complementary muscles, boost CV fitness, hone technique, and improve the feel of the water. I also believe it helps decrease swimming injuries like swimmers shoulder, and it increases fun and variety in a swim session. 
Quick tips for improving your freestyle kick
  • Improve ankle flexibility either with quad and ankle stretch or the sitting kneeling position.
  • Improve your ankle strength which is also very important for run efficiency. Look at weighted calf rasies, and/or sled push work 
  • Kick from the hip and not just the knee
  • Kick with a high cadence 
  • At least 5% of your swimming should be kicking. Use fins for extra ankle mobility. 

 

Breathing

The foundation of any cardiovascular exercise is breathing. It's important you are able to relax during swimming so breathing isn't forced. You should be able to find your rhythm with any stroke and swim it easily without getting short of breath (the exception is butterfly which takes more work, strength, and technique to get into a flow state compared to other strokes). As I've mentioned above inhale during the pull phase, and exhale when your face down. Don't hold your breath (unless doing hypoxic work e.g for 5 stroke breathing I'll hold my breath for 2 strokes than exhale for 3) Blow a steady stream of bubbles. Always have 3 stroke breathing as part of your session as you should be comfortable breathing to both sides, this helps prevent overuse injuries of the shoulder/neck and is integral for open water swimming.

One drill I enjoy to work on breathing, streamlining, and feeling comfortable with body rotation is the side kick drill. 6-12 kicks on each side with the bottom arm out straight, then swap to the other side. Have the ear on the shoulder and get used to breathing in a controlled relaxed manner.

 

Streamline

Your swim body should follow perfect alignment from the top of the head - looking down rather than forward - to your plantar flexed ankles pointing your toes. There should be no space between your feet when you are kicking. Everything should rotate around your midline. You get to test this position everytime you push off the wall on a glide. This is the fastest moment in the pool.

Following is 5 steps to follow to put yourself in a streamline and get faster.

1.One hand on top of the other and hook your thumbs over to keep secure
2.Tuck your chin in to your chest and squeeze your ears with your biceps
3.Allow your body to skim under the surface of the water - don't angle too deep
4.Push off with intent - I like to use this as squat power training. Quickly apply force.

5.When you feel yourself slowing either throw in a butterfly kick (this is for short pool races under 100m) or a flutter freestyle kick, come up take 1-2 strokes with your head down then get back into your breathing rhythm. 

Swimming is simply the greatest exercise in the world. It is non-impact, strengthens your CV system, improves full body strength, and general mobility. There are several studies showing that swimming, especially in the ocean increases wellness, longevity, and decreases feelings of anxiety . Find time to put swimming in your training plan.

 

Brad Dixon is a sports physio, coach, and wellness evangelist based at EVERFIT Physio & Coaching. His passion is promoting enhancing daily habits that nudge people towards potential and save the planet. His book ‘Holistic Human’ is available here - https://everfit.co.nz/Store/Category/Book . The power is in our daily habits! Connect with Brad at www.everfit.co.nz, Facebook, Strava, Instagram (@everfitcoach), and YOU TUBE https://youtube.com/c/EverFITcoach

 

Diving into my No Wetsuit Wednesday swim - Photo credit Ang Wallace