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  Swimming: Not a One-Size-Fits-All Sport

Article courtesy of...

By Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen
Friday, November 17, 2006 9:43 AM HST

What is "good technique" in swimming? This is a toughie. For instance, on any given day at the pool there may be 20 swimmers using 20 different styles. Of those swimmers, some are efficient and some are not.

In addition, there is a wealth of information available (internet, online coaches, books, instructional DVDs, etc.) that can be confusing and often contradictory. One coach may recommend you try to emulate a fish and swim on your side, while a DVD may suggest you swim with wider pull; like paddling a surfboard.

Which one is right? Both!

How can this be? Well, swimming is not a one-size-fits-all sport. There are as many body types as there are swimming styles. No one method of swimming works for everyone. We all have different abilities, strengths and limitations that will often determine the technique or style that works best for us.

Picture a really good swimmer and what do you see? A relaxed and efficient stroke, minimal splash and they appear to be moving effortlessly through the water.

With that mental image of a good swimmer in mind, here are some simple concepts that that are easy to apply and that you can try the next time you go for a swim.

- Look down: Swimmers used to be taught to look forward with the water line just above the goggles. The idea was to "plane" like a speedboat. Unfortunately, no one noticed that when the head was up, the hips sank and the lower back arched, both of which added a great deal of drag (a swimmers No. 1 enemy).

To maintain good body position, look down. The neck is relaxed and the head is not buried beneath the surface. If you are in the pool, make eye contact with the tiles on the bottom. In the ocean, check out the fish and reef below (do look up and sight occasionally). Looking down will take some practice, but you will notice right away that without all that extra drag, you are swimming faster with less effort.

- Shoulder-width hand placement: The next time you get out of the pool, look down at your hands. I bet you placed them about shoulder width apart. Why? Because you intuitively knew that to exit the pool you needed power and leverage. Apply this same principle to swimming. At the start of the pull, the hands are placed about shoulder width apart. This wider hand position allows for more power and stability.

Is stability important in swimming? Yes, because swimming is really one big balancing act. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If the arm crosses over at the start of the pull, the hand/arm will slide sideways before connecting with the pulling action. At the same time the hips shift in the opposite direction and the legs may splay to prevent you from flipping over! This one action (crossing over) starts a chain reaction causing you to wiggle down the pool, wastes energy, and may add stress to the shoulder.

- Pull alongside the body: When paddling a canoe or kayak, have you ever considered putting the paddle directly in front or under the boat? Probably not. This is not an efficient way to paddle. It is similar in swimming. An efficient stroke "catches" or "holds" the water located alongside the body, and then uses that "hold" to move the body forward. In a solid pull, the hand enters and exits the water at about the same place; it is the body that moves forward.

When an inefficient swimmer pulls under the body (by sweeping under, crossing over the centerline or collapsing the arm), they may lose their "hold" and as a result, the pull is not very strong or efficient.

- Minimize shoulder rotation: A smooth stroke is the result of a swimmer gracefully keeping the body in balance while applying power to move forward. The body rotates as one unit, with the core and hips generating some of the power.

Too much rotation in the shoulders or the hips can throw the body out of balance, make you zigzag down the pool, drain your energy and can make the stroke look awkward and not relaxed.

Try minimizing shoulder rotation by "quieting" the shoulders. This may feel stiff or "mechanical" at first, but gradually the stroke will feel better (and faster) with time. Please know that it is impossible to swim totally "flat." You are just removing the extra rotation that is tiring you out and slowing you down.

To review:
  • Good body position starts with the head: look down.
  • Stay away from the middle when starting the pull (slightly wider than shoulder is good).
  • Try not to cross over the centerline or pull under the body.
  • Mellow out those shoulders and minimize extra rotation
Keep in mind that when you are working on technique, less is always more. Slow down, practice one thing at a time and keep it simple. Your stroke may feel weird at first, but that's OK! Weird is good a thing when you are trying to make a change.

Remember, your swimming stroke will always be a work in progress. Seek progress, not perfection and don't forget: Have fun!