Swim 101: Five Things No One Ever Told You About Swimming
One of the benefits of living in Central Texas is training with and learning from some of the best triathletes in the sport. This article will (hopefully) explain some of the more confusing aspects of freestyle swim technique. I will focus on pool swims this time. Open water/ocean swims next time. Try to do these drills on dry land first and visualize what is happening.
Contrary to popular opinion, sculling is not what you do to clean your bathroom; it is what you do to swim faster. Most new swimmers believe that to swim faster they need to move their arms faster. This is only partially true. You need to move them faster CORRECTLY. Without the latter, many people end up looking like a riverboat paddle wheel, a lot of thrashing and very little forward progress.
Let's start at the beginning. THE ENTRY. Your head should rest comfortably in the water. No lifeguard rubberneck and no looking for pennies at the bottom of the pool. The surface of the water should hit right on the top of your head. You should be looking down and slightly ahead of you. Your lead hand should reach out as far as possible in front of you. It should enter the water at an angle between flat and 45 degrees thumb down. Any more than that and you'll tend to overreach and cross over the centerline of your body. Any less than that and you'll end up slapping the water and slowing down. (If your thumb is down the back of your hand is facing toward your centerline)
When you reach out, your shoulder will want to roll over to that side, let it. Shoulder roll, like a chocolate Powerbar, is good. It should be a small gentle roll. Just before your arm reaches maximum extension it should slide into the water just below the surface. I've seen some guys' hand entry and it looked like they were spearing one of those ugly bottom dwelling sea creatures. This is also where you get to glide. If your other arm is doing its job you should be able to get a one or two beat glide before you start your pull.
When your hand enters the water it should begin to rotate back to horizontal. This is where the sculling starts to happen. Up to this point your whole arm has been one straight piece, from your fingertips to your shoulder. Now we start to break your arm into little pieces. Begin by flicking your wrist towards the outside of your body and cupping your palm just a little. This is the beginning of the scull. When your whole arm entered the water it was mostly horizontal, now rotate your hand down at the wrist and begin to pull (more sculling). As you begin the pull, turn your hand in towards your body and start a slight bend at the elbow. Try to picture scrapping the last lump of ice cream from the bottom of that picnic 5-gallon tub-o-chocolate.
Your palm should be facing back towards your toes now. Your shoulder should roll below the plane of the water. This will allow you to use your strong lat and back muscles in the pull instead of just your shoulder and forearm. Your arm should be bent at the elbow a little less than 90 degrees. This will allow your hand to pass beneath your chest at about your centerline. Picture pulling yourself along the pool by a rope during this phase.
As your hand reaches your waist, your wrist should rotate so that you fingers are pointing towards the bottom (more sculling). Your shoulders will want to roll back to horizontal at this point, because of what your other arm should be doing at this point. (remember the other one?) Unless you were doing one arm drills, the other on should be about ready to enter the water. More on the other one a little later.
This is often the least used and most beneficial part of the stroke. Most swimmers
quit their stroke at the hand reaches the waist and pull it out, exiting prematurely. Never a good thing. Keep your fingers pointed at the bottom as your arm reaches full extension. You may find that very difficult if your flexibility isn't very good. That's OK, it's something you can work on. You may also discover that parts of your arm and shoulder are a little sore after trying this. That's good. It means you're using muscles now that up to now were just along for the ride before.
As when putting anything new and different into your training program, it's best to start out slow. If this really hurts you're doing something wrong or you have some structural or muscular dysfunction. Ask a your coach or a fellow swimmer to watch a few lengths to see if there are any glaring mistakes.
The key here is to use water that is not already moving, to propel you forward. You get a better push off water that is stationary than water that is moving behind you. (i.e. it's harder to move calm water.) That's what sculling is, moving your hand around to eliminate air bubbles and find still water.
After you've pushed past your hips you can pull your hand out of the water. It's done its work, give it a rest. Yes I know that's a four letter word to triathletes but your arm needs a break to get ready for the next entry. If you don't relax your arm it will tire much quicker and you'll slow down. Your elbow should lead the pull out and ride pretty high in the air. Your fingers should just barely touch the surface of the water. This will require your shoulder to roll high out of the water. That's good because your other hand is about midway through its' pull at this point.
On the bike you keep a smooth, steady rhythm. Swimming is not much different. Watch the very fast swimmers. One arm seems to enter the water just before the other one comes out. At the proper pace you should visualize the hand making the hole that the shoulder enters. Their arms are not turning like a propeller, one in, one out; but a quick cycle of enter, pull, exit; each arm about a half step ahead of the other. Practice these steps slowly, one at a time, before putting them together. As you build up, increase your cadence but pay attention to your form. Each arm should be doing the same things at all points in the stroke. It may be hard to think about each arm at the same time but give it a try.
Coach Chris is a Certified Triathlon coach and Personal Trainer in Austin TX and has been coaching athletes for more than 18 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org