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Swim to success: the ultimate guide for becoming a better swimmer
August 15th 2015
Swimming is the full body workout that’s cheap, easy and hugely effective. Dive in with both feet with these expert-approved swimming tips
For many, school swimming lessons conjure up memories of talcum powder, swimming caps, freezing cold pools and verruca socks - it’s enough to put anyone off for life. However as adults, it could prove to be the full package when it comes to fulfilling our fitness goals.
A full body workout that’s low impact but highly impactful on both body and mind, by mastering the right technique and proper form, our relationship with the pool could be set to go to new depths.
We asked a trio of sports experts for their top swimming tips, from the pro tricks to perfecting our swimming technique to perception changing pool facts convincing enough to persuade us to give it another shot. Whether you’re a beginner or training for triathlon, there’s never been a better time than now to dive in with both feet...
The benefits of swimming...
1. It’s low impact, but high yielding
“It is a fantastic way to keep fit while avoiding the risk of injury that higher-impact exercise can give,” says Pat Gillham, Specialist Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at Pure Sports Medicine.
“It is a fantastic source of cardiovascular exercise for anyone, but is particularly useful for us to recommend to patients who are very active but have an injury which may be aggravated by higher-loading exercise such as running, sprinting and jumping,” he adds. “It allows for these types of patients to continue their cardiovascular exercise, but avoid aggravation of their injury in the interim.”
2. It’s a full body workout
“It is also a full body exercise to help get us out of those desk-based postures that we stay in for hours every day,” says Pat. “It involves the movement of all joints from neck to feet. Our body is designed to move, not stay in one position.”
3. It’s great for stiff joints
“For rehab, swimming can be very good for lower back pain as well as stiffness in the ankles, knees and hips,” says Pat. “Generally, it isn’t great for necks or shoulders because of the amount of stress placed on these joints during the swimming mechanics. It is fantastic for movement-based disorders and injuries e.g. joint stiffness. The warmth of the pool and the reduced weight bearing strain of the water is great for pain.”
The starting blocks...
To ensure we get the most out of our time in the pool, patience is key. “Any new exercise done with bad technique can be risky with regards to injury, just because you’re body is not used to those movements if you haven’t been doing them before,” explains Pat. “We see a lot of patients who become so excited by a new form of exercise that they completely overdo it and cause injury.”
For the safest of swimming strategies, follow Pat’s action plan:
- “Firstly, don’t run before you can walk. By this I mean don’t go from doing no exercise to doing it 5 times a week. It is very important to gradually increase your exercise tolerance.”
- “Secondly, consult an instructor about technique or just get a few pointers; nothing too serious.”
- “Thirdly, spend time practicing your breathing technique.”
- “Fourthly, chop and change what stroke you use. Mix it up. Do two lengths breaststroke, then two front crawl, then two backstroke for example. This will optimise the use of all the joints, but also the different directions that they move in.”
Perfecting proper swimming technique...
Mastering proper form early on or highlighting bad habits before they do more harm than good are certain to make the transition from shallow to deep end as smooth a journey as possible. Here are some top swimming tips for fine-tuning your favourite swimming strokes that could make all the difference in the long-term.
1. Front crawl
Tip 1: “Elongate your stroke as much as possible. Most people don't stretch their arm out at the front and back ends of their stroke,” says former professional swimmer, naturopath, nutritionist and CEO of Psycle London Rhian Stephenson. “Aim to hold a glide at the top of your stroke for at least two seconds and then, finish your stroke by your hips. The end of your stroke should feel like a tricep kick back.”
Tip 2: “When you take your arm out of the water, keep your elbow raised as high as possible. This will create a more fluid, smooth stroke, encourage shoulder rolling and also protect your rotator cuff,” says Rhian.
Tip 3: “Breath every 3 strokes and alternate sides so that you don't build strength unevenly.”
Tip 1: “Most people hold their head up quite high, which pushes the upper body up and lower body down and puts a lot of drag on the body through the water,” explains Rhian. “Your head should be back and relaxed, which will allow your body to feel more buoyant.”
Tip 2: “To help get the shoulders rolling and create a smooth stroke, when your hand comes out of the water - the thumb should be up. When it goes into the water, the pinky finger should hit first. This will help immensely.”
Tip 1: “Work on your arms and legs independently in order to build strength,” recommends Rhian.
Tip 2: “A lot of people pull all the way to their hips on a breaststroke pull - the pull is actually quite short and powerful and should always stay out in front of your torso.”
“Start with doing one arm fly drills in order to get the rhythm,” suggests Rhian. “It's one pull to every 2 kicks, so get to a place where that feel comfortable before trying to add in the other arm.”
How to make the most of your swimming sessions
“No matter what level you are, always structure your session into sets,” recommends Rhian. “For beginners, warm up easily and then do a few sets that are dedicated to technical drills only as well as a kick set to build strength in your legs.
“Isolating different parts of your stroke in technical sessions is essential to progressing to longer and harder sessions. I would also recommend doing a speed set at the very end - even if it's just 25m (one length) all out in the beginning. Doing maximum effort sets will boost your strength. Once your technique starts to improve, you can start to change the ratio of technical drills to speed work.”
The most common swimming mistakes
1. Neglecting attention to detail
“A lot of swimmers don't structure their workout or focus on the different elements of swimming,” comments Rhian. “There's a lot going on - every part of your body is moving and you're holding your breath, so trying to improve your stroke without isolating the different elements can feel pretty much impossible.”
2. Bad breath
“It’s also super important to nail your breath,” says Rhian. “If you aren’t breathing properly your muscles will fatigue quickly and you’ll be uncomfortable in the water. It will also impact your ability to do any kind of challenge or maximum effort set.”
Other swimming exercises you can do outside of the pool
“Short, high intensity sets like hill sprints and Tabata are great to help you in the pool because they are efficient ways to quickly increase your maximum aerobic capacity,” explains Rhian. “The TRX is also excellent as you can do a range of exercises that engage the whole body as well as the cardiovascular system, just like in swimming.
“Core strength is important for swimming as well - doing exercises that strengthen the lower back and abs will help enormously, especially if you want to work on butterfly.”
Kicking it up a notch - freestyle swimming and triathlon training...
1. Try open water swimming
“Even if you aren't planning on a triathlon or open water swim event any time soon, getting out into lakes and rivers (either with an instructor, or as part of an organised swim - see www.humanrace.co.uk for starters) can present lots of challenges that will ultimately make you a better swimmer in the long run,” recommends author, writer and triathlete Lucy Fry.
“Open water doesn't include stopping points (e.g. the end of the pool) so it's great for building endurance and it also exposes any imbalances in your stroke; you'll soon know if you're veering left all the time for example. It's also a wonderful chance to swim in a natural environment - and a very freeing experience!” she adds.
“My favourite location that’s relatively near where I live in South London is Shepperton Lake. Failing that there's the Tooting Bec Lido which is 91 metres long and the closest thing to open water you can get in a city pool!”
2. Put your back into it
“Learn to find your back muscles, and use them!” recommends Lucy. “A lot of people do freestyle, primarily using the strength of their arms to pull them along. If you always have achy shoulders and triceps after swimming, then the chances are you've not yet learned to engage your ‘lats’ - the latissimus dorsi muscles that run down the side of your back and are incredibly powerful if you know how to employ them.
“Any good swimming instructor should be able to help with this - but essentially if you concentrate on rotating with your torso and reaching with your outstretched arm before you enter the pulling phase of the stroke, it should be easier to engage those back muscles as you pull.”
3. Slow and steady wins the race
“Slow your stroke down. It's completely natural to assume that swimming faster involves a faster stroke,” says Lucy. “That's not always the case though, particularly with beginners and those who are trying to do longer swims (e.g. beyond 400 metres).
“Try extending each stroke as much as you can, almost such that it feels uncomfortable and you think you must be going really slowly. The chances are you'll have lost a tiny amount of time each length but preserved a lot of energy. It also helps to give you time to really feel what's going on in your stroke.”
4. Allow your stroke to evolve
“This is a really interesting area that was highlighted to me by my friend and swim instructor, Salim Ahmed,” comments Lucy.
“If you've had a previous shoulder injury for example and are weak in that particular shoulder, it's best to work with that (alongside necessary rehab of course) and find ways to make your stroke as fluid as possible while also accepting that it won't be perfectly balanced. For more information, contact Salim at www.swimlab.org.uk.”
How to eat your way to swimming to success and break the mental barrier
What we do out of the pool is just as important as what we do in it. A healthy diet and a strong mental attitude make for the ideal accompaniments to a good training program when it comes to the ultimate recipe for swimming success.
“If you're training for an event like a triathlon, it's important to ensure that you have a great recovery meal that includes good quality protein and carbohydrate to replace your muscle glycogen,” says Rhian. “Consistently training for an event isn't the same as swimming to lose weight - if you skip out on carbs then getting through a session is going to be difficult because you need glycogen to fuel your swim. You'll be able to swim longer and harder, which means you'll improve more quickly and get better physiological benefits, if you have a good balance of healthy carbs.
“Post-swim is the same as other workouts - you want to have something alkalising, some easily absorbable protein and a little bit of simple carbs.”
Breaking through your mental barrier
Just like a marathon, long-distance swimming or moving onto the next step of your swimming training program is as much about mind as it is about matter. “Set your long-term goal but then break it down into smaller weekly or monthly targets,” recommends Rhian. “Also, I find that it is much harder mentally to just get in the water and swim - so many people try to train by just putting the distance in, which is not very motivating (and quite boring!).
“Like I said above, always structure your workouts into sets - the time goes much faster and more importantly your workouts are more effective, so you'll be motivated by how much you're improving.”
Run, Ride, Sink or Swim: a Year in the Exhilarating and Addictive World of Women’s Triathlon, by Lucy Fry, (Faber & Faber, £14.99) is available to buy online from Amazon.