Backstroke: Rock Your Boat

February is dubbed the fitness month.  It is the month in which you, hopefully, got into the habit of going to the pool on a regular basis.  If you are completely new to swimming or have not been in the pool for a long time, you should at least have assessed your current level of fitness, either thru the Winter Fitness Challenge, the one-hour postal swim or simply on your own.  You still have a little time to do it.  No matter what, it is a pre-requisite to be able to set your SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, reachable and time bound) and start celebrating your improvements and achievements.

Whatever your level, one of the key elements of good swimming and smart training is TECHNIQUE.  It will make you so much more efficient in the water and allow you to experience “effortless swimming”.  You will be able to mix speed and slow swimming to give you a more balanced and efficient training.  Technique will also help you with injuries.  It should relieve the stress on some of your joints, particularly shoulders and knees due to non-natural movements.  Improved technique will make you faster.  For the triathletes, technique and balance in the water will help you tremendously with that first dreaded swim!!!!

In the November/December 2017, issue of Aqua Master, I addressed the basic key points of freestyle technique: horizontal position on top of the water, alignment of the body (no lateral movements or swerving, front quadrant swimming) and the efficiency of your arm movement under water (early 90 degrees catch).

In this issue, we will go over the key elements of efficient backstroke.  As in most of the strokes, your horizontal position on the water is crucial for reducing drag and one of the first element to improve.

In backstroke, you are aiming at a slightly prone position on your back with the head still, the shoulders rotating at the surface, the abs contracted, the feet at the surface but the knees under water (kind of a banana on its back).  The major culprits of a not so good position are

  1. The kick: either no kick or an inefficient kick. Your kick should be initiated by your hips and not by your knees (bicycle kick).  Solution: wear fins and kick with a kickboard over your knees and make sure your feet reach the surface, and use a small steady kick.
  2. Head position: Your head needs to stay in alignment with your body and remain still. If you lift your head, you will immediately find yourself in a sitting position in the water.  If you put you head back, you will arch your back and your feet will sink to the bottom.  In both case, you will create a lot of resistance from the water.  Solution: contract your abs to bring your legs up.  Keep a still and neutral position of your head (as if walking).  Practice that floating position without using your arms.  Trust me.  It will be a core workout just to stay afloat.

Once you can stay on top of the water, the second element to work on is the side to side rotation.  In backstroke, you are like a kayak, constantly moving from one side to the other with your shoulders leading and the arms following, being the paddles.  The only neutral position (flat on top of the water) is when one arm is extended on top of your shoulder like a flagpole.  As soon as you reach that position, it is critical to drop you shoulder down and let your arm follow, slicing the water with your pinky first and the palm facing the side.  Bend your forearm and hand to a 90 degrees position (catch position) and you automatically will be pulling the water while your body turns to the other side.  One of the major mistakes I have noticed is staying flat and entering the water with your palm face up.  In that position, there is no water to pull and you are asking your shoulders to stretch in an unnatural way to catch the water behind (ouch! Beware of injuries). Because your arms are following the rotation of your shoulders and core, it is also important to constantly be opposite with your movements.  You cannot do one arm, stop and do the other arm.  Your arms are the opposite ends of a single kayak paddle.  Backstroke is a tempo stroke.  You can slow down the tempo, but you cannot let it get out of synch.  One last tidbit, the rotation is really a rotation of the trunk.  Keep your head and your feet facing upwards.

A few drills: Kick with your trunk rotated (with flippers to start): One arm leading, shoulder, arm and hand facing the side and being about one foot under water, the other shoulder out of the water with the arm on your side.  Try to keep your feet facing upwards as much as possible (They will be slightly sideways).  Do the whole length, with your right arm leading then with your left arm leading.  It is not easy to keep your balance.  At first you will probably fall back on your back like a poor turtle.  Be conscious where your leading arm is (one foot underwater with your palm facing the side).  Once you get a feel for that position, do 10 to 12 kicks and then quickly switch leading arm by doing one arm stroke at the same time.  Keep going with 12 kicks, 3 arm pulls and so on.  If you do one arm backstroke, always start from the neutral position with both your arms as a flagpole right above your shoulders.  Once you do your arm stroke, the arm staying as the flagpole should go up as the shoulders are moving.

In conclusion, kick and use your abs to stretch on the water, relax and let your core and shoulders rock your boat.  Enjoy!  You do not have to put your head in the water.  Relieve your shoulders after a long freestyle set!!!

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