We’re usually taught to swim either by a parent or at school when we’re fairly young. This brings most swimmers up to a level where they can be safe in the water, and for many of us that’s where the training stops.
It shouldn’t. Swimming is one of the perfect sports: it supports the entire body, is non-impact, great for cardiovascular fitness and builds muscle. By training and perfecting your swimming technique, you get more out of the sport and are far more likely to keep going back for more.
WideWorld was invited by Speedo to spend a training session with Bill Furniss, an Olympic trainer and coach to double gold Olympic medal winner Rebecca Adlington. Once in the water, Bill observed our technique and took us through the basic elements of creating the perfect freestyle.
You have to think about the two planes along which your body is travelling. One is the direction of travel – straight along the pool. The other plane is the vertical one: your body has to keep itself parallel with the water’s surface. The legs are kicking to hold your less buoyant end up in the water, while the arms are helping to propel you along forwards.
There’s a temptation to let your legs perform deep, slow kicks, but the way professionals do it is to keep their kicks short and fast. Kicking isn’t just about propelling you forward; it’s also got a lot to do with keeping the body level. Small, fast kicks keep the body lying flat in the water much better.
Some people think that when they swim, they create movement by pushing water, but that’s an illusion. You’re actually dragging yourself through the water, as if you were pulling yourself along the floor with your hands. With the entry stroke, you’re looking to make long, slow extensions of the arms each time, straightening each arm to increase the length as much as you can. The hand should hit the water nearly flat, and as you push down let your shoulder rotate. You’re not using your arm muscles as much as your back and chest muscles, which can better take the strain and add endurance.
A common problem with freestyle swimmers is letting the arm come all the way back, windmilling in the water. This is inefficient. As the arm comes back under the water, pull it in halfway with the palm facing your body slightly, tucking the elbow in and keeping the whole arm relaxed, just as the other arm lunges forward in a deep entry. If you observe professionals, you’ll see that their strokes appear longer than you think, and this is why – the important part of propelling yourself forward is the first half of the stroke. Leaving your arm in the water too long only slows you down.
A good way to remedy your strokes is to try out some training paddles. These are thin plastic sheets that strap to your hands with rubber bands, and are moulded to amplify the feedback that your strokes are sending you. You simply strap them over your wrist, tucking your middle finger through a second band, and swim as normal. What you find is that any mistakes in your style becomes more apparent when wearing them: they encourage your hands and arms to find the most natural style for you. Swimming is a sport where finding the most effortless and natural style is the key to success, and paddles can help you achieve that by telling you quickly where you’re going wrong.
PullBuoys are another training aid that professionals use. An hourglass-shaped piece of foam, you hold it between your thighs above the knee and swim only using your arms. They remove the need to kick, because the lower half you of is being made buoyant. People find that by using these they can focus on the important arm movements instead.
Professional swimmers usually have an alternate breathing system, where they vary the side from which they breathe. For training purposes, breathing every four strokes is fine on short distances until you develop a good breathing action. Breathing properly is one of the more challenging parts of training for freestyle. The basic idea is that you should not disrupt the flat line your body makes in the water by lifting your head. When you have your head down, you should be breathing out constantly. When you inhale, simply twist your head slightly to the side and you’ll create a wake just at water level, where there is an airspace you can breathe in. You’ll be surprised just how little you can actually move your head and find this space! If you look at photographs of professional swimmers, they’re using their facial muscles to reach into this airspace, reducing the need to twist their heads even further.
Training is progression. You can’t just get in the pool and do as much as you can, every time – it just doesn’t work like that. Instead of going in the pool and doing twenty lengths, try to create a variation in your pattern: try six lengths of warm-up, then ten sets of two lengths with twenty seconds rest between each timed set. It’s more stimulating and keeps you focused on your technique. You can create your own training programme at www.swimfit.com – get on there and try it out.