By Scott Bay, United States Masters Swimming
Congratulations on finishing a year of swimming and starting another. The flip of the calendar gives you a perfect opportunity for some introspection, specifically for you to decide what you’re going to spend your time paying attention to.
Every year, many swimmers focus on how many yards or meters they swim and the clock. But if you’re looking to make some improvements over last year, it may be worth your while to forget the clock and the yardage and focus on improving your technique.
Start with a Strong Base
When it comes to fixing your stroke, you should always start with the foundational elements: balance, posture, and line. You need to find yourself, so to speak, so you have something to build upon. This applies to all strokes, but we’ll first focus on the long-axis strokes and particularly freestyle.
Balance: Are you plowing through the water or moving through it? If your feet are dragging the bottom, you may have a problem.
Posture: Does your body give you stress feedback in the lower back or upper back and neck or somewhere else?
Line: This is simple. When you’re swimming, does the axis of your body stay in a line or do you wiggle?
Finding the Fix
After you’re aware of the problem with your stroke, the next step is fixing it. Here are some tips, drills, and cues to help you make those small adjustments that add up to big results.
The best way to think about your balance, regardless of stroke, is to think not about your center of gravity as you do on land but rather your center of buoyancy. For most of us, it’s in the center of our chests, which makes sense because that’s where our lungs are. They’re full of air, so they help us float.
Think of that as the center of a seesaw. If one end goes up, the other goes down. To find that center, lay face-down in the water with your arms stretched out almost to a streamline position. Your hands, the back of your head, hips, and heels should all be at the top of the water with good balance.
If you sink, first look straight down and make your neck nice and long. Next, press the center of your chest down and rotate your pelvis back to bring your feet up. This may take several tries, and you’ll have to experiment with manipulating parts of your body. To find that true balance, you shouldn’t have to kick or scull to make it happen.
Once you find your balance, you’ll need to apply some propulsive force to it. Begin slowly stroking freestyle while not kicking, so you can be sure you can maintain your balance. Slowly add the kick, which is propulsive and not just helping to hold you up.
If you find yourself looking at your hands entering the water, your head is probably too high, and your body has a way of letting you know that. You’ll feel a lot of tension in your upper back and neck and possibly even your lower back. Experiment with your head position to not only prevent this from happening but also to enhance your ability to rotate for long-axis strokes.
Keeping everything in line is fundamental for good swimming.
Some swimmers move with snaky hips seem and seem like they’re doing the twist more than swimming. To fix this, you need to have balance and posture, of course, but also think about where your head is, especially when you go to breathe and how much you rotate through the water.
There’s nothing to push against in the water, so even subtle movements on the front end of your body will affect what happens in your lower half. Lifting or throwing your head up for air will make those hips wiggle and sink. Being flat and wide on your arm recovery will do the same thing.
To fix it, let your core do the work of twisting and keep that spine in line. A lot of Masters Swimmers don’t have the torso length or flexibility in their spines to just use the torso, so let the hip turn over if it feels like you stay on that same line better, especially when breathing.
Clearly, fitting all of this in during a structured session at practice would be difficult, if not impossible. This may make you cringe, but it’s OK to skip one of those sessions and go back to work on these foundational concepts, so that as you start to progress through the rest of the year, all your work will have a solid foundation to build upon.
Better still, just see if you can invest some extra time at the pool by yourself outside of your normal schedule. You won’t be adding a lot of yardage to your log book, but this will pay huge dividends as your swimming improves this year.
Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.