I don’t write much about swimming even though I probably do more swimming coaching than cycling coaching or running coaching.
That’s partly because I think generic swimming tips, however well intended, tend to be unhelpful.
Swimming is such a difficult thing to do really well because there are so many things happening at the same time. Trying to change (or even think about) one thing tends to result in several other things going haywire. The first few strokes or lengths feel really awkward, and typically the point at which it starts to feel natural is the point at which you stop concentrating explicitly on the change and revert to normal.
This is where drills come in. Drills attempt to isolate a single aspect: a movement pattern, a feeling, a point of focus. Most drills are not easy to do at first. They have to be learned and then it takes practise to do them well. And it is that learning and practising that improves your swimming. Generally swimmers improve their swimming more quickly if they spend more of their pool time learning, practising and refining drills, and less of it swimming with (and thereby re-enforcing) poor technique.
And, with so many factors involved, there’s no overall definition of good technique anyway. Watch two great swimmers side by side and you’ll probably see so many differences between their techniques that you hardly notice the similarities.
But the chances are that there are more similarities than differences – and it is the similarities that are key.
In a nutshell those key similarities are:
- They create very little drag or resistance. They do this by keeping their bodies horizontal, narrow and straight. All of the time.
- Their propulsion is efficient. They propel themselves in the direction that they want to go. Only. Not backwards, not up and down, not sideways.
- They generate their power from their big muscles so they don’t tire quickly.
- They continue to do all of the above while they’re breathing in.
The best swimmers achieve these key similarities with high stroke rates and low stroke rates, high head positions and low head positions, straight arms and bent arms, unilateral and bi-lateral breathing, symmetrical and lop-sided strokes, ‘shoulder driven’ and ‘hip driven’ styles and a variety of kick patterns… …with and without a wetsuit.
Just because a good or great swimmer competes with some non-textbook idiosyncrasy doesn’t mean that it is helping them or that copying it is a good idea. I used the word ‘compete’ in that sentence because we normally only see swimmers in competition. But that’s a tiny, tiny proportion of the swimming that they do. Most of their swimming, in terms of distance and time, is aerobic, symmetrical, bi-lateral, six beat front crawl. And drill.