Swim Bits – January 2022


According to Field and Stream magazine, the fundamentals of survival boil down to the Rule of Three.  You can live three minutes without breathing, three hours when exposed to freezing temperatures, and three days without water.  I want to focus on the first rule for swimmers.

Swimmers in general do not hold their breath long enough.  I’m not talking about apoxic drills that used to be a fashion for coaches, but about how long we can stay underwater on a turn.

Generally speaking, swimmers should stay underwater on every turn until their feet pass the backstroke flags, five yards, 15 feet from the wall.  Why?  You are faster underwater on your push-off from the wall than you can swim.

Swimmers then say: I can’t hold my breath that long.  Yes, you can, with practice.

As above with the Rule of Three, if you have to, you can hold your breath for at least three minutes.  That’s, of course, if you are not exerting much.

The Rule of Three saved my life on a raft trip on the Rogue River one day.  I was dumped out of my individual pontoon boat just before the basalt pillars called the Jaws of Mule Creek Canyon. I was swept by the quick river current into the left Jaw.  I hit feet first and was immediately pulled under water by the hydraulic action of the water in front of the tall rock.

Because of the turbulent action of the water in front of the rock with lots of bubbles in all sorts of directions, I did not know which way was up.  No thoughts of my life went through my brain.  All I could think of was my wife on another raft.  “She’ll really be pissed if I don’t get out of this.”

Then I noticed white sand at the foot of the basalt pillar, and I pushed off from the bottom up through the turbulence to air and safety on a nearby gravel bank.  A minute later my wife floated by on the other raft.  I waved.

Later I went to the North Bend Pool, 12 feet deep, and tried to re-enact what had happened.  After going down to the bottom and holding my breath as long as was comfortable, I figured I had been at least 15 feet down and underwater about a minute and a half.

So holding your breath as you push off from the wall on a turn should be no problem.  I did 90 seconds submerged in the Rogue River.  You should be able to hold your breath for the five or ten seconds of a turn.

If you watched swimming in the Olympics from Beijing on, you should have noticed by now a huge change in how long swimmers are staying underwater on turns.

Michael Phelps, on his way to eight wins, trounced competitors with his turns in Beijing.  Being a natural butterflier, he was dolphin kicking off each turn while the rest of the swimmers were simply gliding as far as they could.  Phelps’ advantage was most evident in the 200 free when he destroyed everyone on every turn.  It was fun to watch.

Now all world class swimmers are dolphin kicking on turns, even breaststrokers who are limited to one, supposedly.  I’ve counted as many as five dolphin kicks on a turn by swimmers before they start using their arms.  Watch Caeleb Dressel underwater for superb use of dolphin kicking underwater to get ahead.

Why is staying underwater on a turn so beneficial, you may ask.  Simple: you avoid water’s surface tension which slows you down.  It is no accident that nuclear submarines are faster than any other Navy ship.  They move underwater.

You must do the same on all turns.  Don’t forget to be streamlined like those submarines.  Keep your head down, your arms on your ears.  Do not look ahead until you have taken your first arm strokes.  You should know where everyone is in your lane anyway if you are swimming circles.

Start with just one dolphin kick after holding your breath for at least a count of two: one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.  Eventually you will find a comfort zone of two to five dolphin kicks that will accelerate you underwater with little effort.  Even one will do, but you must extend the push-off underwater first, holding your breath, and then dolphin kick to the surface on every turn in practice.  Then do the same in a meet.

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