Most swimmers know that swimming fast requires excellent technique. Having good technique requires using your body in the correct manner to minimize drag and maximize propulsion, and to maintain speed off the blocks and walls. But in addition to controlling your body and being technically sound in the water, it is important to engage your mind to be aware of the relationship between your body and the water.
It’s far too easy to get into a routine in swimming. Each day you jump into the water and repeat the same movements. You do them so often that your body can go on autopilot and you don’t even think about each movement anymore. Instead, your mind is somewhere else entirely. When this happens, it’s easy to not even think about your body interacting with the water and how that feels, or how effective your swimming technique is at that moment.
There is a lot to be gained by training your mind to be aware of the position and location of the parts of your body (known as proprioception), and to improve the ability to feel how moving your body parts creates an interaction with the water (known as kinesthesia). Elite-level swimmers have highly developed kinesthetic and proprioceptive abilities. These abilities allow them to better feel how the forces they apply against the resistance in the water allow them to move through the water more quickly and with less effort. Kinesthesia and proprioception account for the smooth and effortless-looking strokes of elite-level swimmers. These two abilities are often described as “having a good feel for the water.”
So how do we develop these abilities in ourselves? Can a “feel for the water” be taught and learned, or is it a genetic gift that only some people have? Some coaches aren’t sure it can be taught, but most coaches do believe that it can be. Developing the “feel” starts with a foundational mind-set of being mentally present and aware while swimming, of bringing your attention to the present moment and getting an overall feel for your body in and with the water. In addition, specifically during your workout, the goal is to intermittently check back in, mindfully notice where your body parts are and what they are doing, adjust as needed, and then notice any resultant changes in speed and effort. Warm-up and cool-down can be especially good times to practice this process.
Examples of swimming technique areas to mindfully check into would include mid-stroke during the pull to ensure that your hand and arm are in the correct position (early vertical forearm) to gain the most power, and with the lower body to ensure that toes are pointed and hips are rotating properly.
Underwater video can also be an immensely useful aid for developing these abilities, especially when shown to a swimmer immediately after a set. It’s often surprising to see what is actually happening with our bodies versus what we think we’re doing with our bodies! Discovering this can sometimes be frustrating, too, so overall it’s helpful to approach this process with open non-judgmental curiosity, and to allow ourselves the time and space for any changes we incorporate to become habit.
If you don’t already, consider adding these mindful check-ins to your workout. Connecting your mind and body during swimming can improve both technique and overall enjoyment of swimming and interacting with the water.