Now you are back in the pool, committed to at least three times a week and you are thinking: “this is hard!!!.” You are out of breath, fighting with the water and not moving very fast. What is wrong? Swimming is supposed to be easy and relaxing. Now trust me, if you improve your technique, it will be.
In that respect, OMS is organizing some stroke clinics for the fitness swimmers in October which I strongly recommend. However, as it might not be possible for everybody to attend, I will try, in this article, to give you some basic pointers about freestyle. It is not easy on paper! If you can take some swim lessons with an experienced swim instructor at your local pool or join a Masters swim team with coached swim practices, it will be a good investment.
First and foremost, we all know and certainly have experienced that the resistance of water is way stronger than the resistance of air. Secondly, our center of buoyancy is in our lungs but most of the weight of our body is below our chest. Based on those two facts, here are the three most critical areas you need to be working on and address in this order:
- Horizontal position of your body on top of the water. This is critical and is the first thing to improve. The three major mistakes of the novice swimmers are
- Sinking legs due to an inefficient kick, or no kick at all. If this is your case, don’t be afraid to wear fins (I personally recommend the longer fins as it will also help with the ankle flexibility which often is the problem. Use your whole leg with a small narrow motion starting from the hip (not the knee) to the ankle whip.
- Head position: you are lifting your head to breathe, or you are just looking ahead instead of down toward the bottom of the pool. Your head must remain in alignment with your body at all times, and rotate to the side while breathing (one goggle breath). The crown of your head should remain the leading point.
- Not keeping an extended arm in front of your body to keep your balance on the front end, and to compensate for the heavy weight you are carrying on the back end. You need to learn “front quadrant” swimming, keeping your front arm extended in alignment with your shoulder and close to the surface until your recovery arm passes your shoulder.Here are a few drills to work on these issues:Single arm freestyle (with or without a kickboard, with or without fins). To start, have both arms extended in front of your shoulders or hold the end of the kickboard. Kick with a steady narrow kick using your whole leg, and your face in the water looking towards the bottom of the pool. When you need to breathe, position your fingers towards the bottom of the pool, then get your forearm in alignment at a 90 degree angle with your elbow (keep your elbow close to the surface of the water) and accelerate your movement to push the water towards the back. Start breathing early (as soon as you start stroking). Breathe by rotating your head to the side (no lifting) and try to have your head back in the water when your hand is getting out of the water to recover.
hark (with or without fins). Instead of having your two arms extended in front of your shoulders before stroking, you keep one arm extended ready to stroke and the other one forming a shark fin (bent arm with the elbow way up) and the hand at the level of your shoulder. Your shoulder should be out of the water, for your body (hip and shoulder) should be rotated between 30 and 45 degrees to that side. You should pose in that position for about eight kicks. Make sure you are looking down towards the bottom of the pool, and the extended arm on the other side remains in front of your shoulder, palms down, fingers slightly down, ready to stroke. It is essential to feel that position, for when you are swimming it is your clue to when your extended arm can start moving. When you stroke, make sure you immediately start putting your arm at a 90 degree angle with your elbow remaining close to the surface, and at the same time start turning your head to the side to breathe. You need to breathe early so you can turn your head back down towards the bottom when you are finished pulling, and therefore you do not lose the momentum of your pull.
- Lateral movements of the body: remain within the box. Once you are able to keep a horizontal position, you need to fine-tune to avoid any lateral movements. If you picture a rectangle formed by your arms extended in front of your shoulders down to your toes you have a long box, and all your movements should remain within the outline of that box. No hips, arms or feet sticking out of the box at any time. Your anchor arm should remain at the front corner of the box and your recovery arm should recover within the box, which means you would have to slightly rotate your body (from shoulder to hip) and have that shoulder out of the water for the arm to stay within the box. Your arm should land at the corner of the box and extend forward. If you enter towards the middle, your body will move sideways and your hips will automatically stick out of the box. Your kick should remain small and up and down. Make sure you are not crossing your legs, especially when breathing, or your feet will also escape from the box.
- Efficiency of your arm movement under water. If you are able to master the horizontal position and maintain a minimum of lateral movements, you are ready to have a very efficient freestyle pull since the stroke is very straightforward. From your anchor arm at the front corner of the rectangle, start putting your fingers towards the bottom of the pool and positioning your forearm at 90 degrees of your elbow while keeping it close to the surface (early catch), push the water straight down the outside line of your box as far as your arm allows you (usually somewhere at your thigh). Keep your palm facing the end of the pool until the end and accelerate your movement once you have passed your shoulder to increase your speed and your momentum and to be able to glide while recovering your arm above water. Breathe early, which means turn your head towards the side as soon as your start stroking and have it back facing the bottom of the pool once you finish your pull which will help you keep the momentum forward.
Wow, it is hard to explain on paper. If you are completely a novice swimmer, you probably didn’t understand much. In a nutshell, you first need to work on your horizontal position: Kick (small and steady and invest in a pair of fins), Head (look towards the bottom of the pool and do not lift your head to breathe). Keep an arm in front of your body at all times, for stability.
Those are the three hardest things to master and it will not happen in a day. Work on it every time you are at the pool, and get help from a swim instructor or a local Master swim team if needed. Those will bring you the most rewards and feeling of improvements. Once you can maintain your horizontal balance in the water, everything will fall in place.
Congratulations! You are now officially a swimmer. You can now fine-tune your stroke to avoid lateral movements (staying within the box), and to have an efficient stroke (early breathing and early 90 degrees catch).