Have you ever watched a fish swim, it’s effortless with minimum effort for maximum propulsion and speed. They make swimming look so fluid, smooth, and graceful. Have you ever watched most people swim? Thrashing, splashing, and just plain struggling down the lane. Why do most of us thrash so much and waste so much effort in this fluid environment? It’s simple—most of us were taught to work at swimming and pull ourselves through the water with our arms. That’s not the way to teach swimming. You can learn to swim like a fish through three simple but profound skills.
The skills you need to swim effortlessly are balance, glide, and roll. Once these skills are mastered you will be able to glide down the lane with minimal effort, and if you’re a triathlete, you will finish the swim portion without even breaking a sweat. Sound impossible? It’s not. It usually takes about five hours of instruction to take five strokes per length off any swimmer and turn them into a fish. After that it’s merely practice.
First, forget everything you currently know about stroking and moving your arms forward. Be open to embracing how you feel in the water. The key is to learn to feel how your body moves through the water and forget about where to place you hands and legs. Taking away all the elements that slow you down is easier than building up your fitness with a poor stroke.
Below are three simple modifications that you can practice on your own stroke that will improve your balance, glide, and roll. Try them and see if you can’t cut your stroke count down and progress from guppy to shark.
Your first step is to learn to relax in the water and allow the water to support you. Everyone has some buoyancy, and learning to use your lungs to help your body float and lift your legs is the most important skill in learning to swim with less effort. If you’re horizontal, you’ll swim faster; it’s a simple as that. Most of us believe that we need to kick more to raise our legs. Wrong. More kicking will only leave you practicing more bad habits and lead to further thrashing about. All you’ll end up with is strong legs that kick below the surface.
So how do you learn proper balance? By dropping your head further into the water. Most of us were taught to swim with our heads up or with the water line at our forehead. If your head is up your feet are down making you resemble a human barge, and barges don’t go very fast. Want to become a torpedo? Then act like one and drop your head. Immediately you will find that your feet will pop to the surface and you’ll go faster without any more effort. I try to keep just a skiff of water going over the back of my head when swimming. That way I know that I’m perfectly balanced. When I have it right I can feel my bum cresting the water as I glide along and roll to each side.
In fact, any object will travel faster under water than on top of the water because surface tension acts as drag. Backstroker’s know this and will push the rules of staying under water dolphin kicking before they come up, because they will pop up farther ahead of their competition if they stay submerged. In freestyle, if you drop your head and look at the bottom and not forward, your feet will pop to the surface, and you’ll become a torpedo.
Once you have mastered balance, it’s time to learn how to make yourself taller. The longer or taller you are in the water the faster you will go. So how do you make yourself longer and taller, by always leaving one arm out in front of you all of the time. Learning to leave your hand extended will enable you to glide between strokes longer and will dramatically cut down on the number of strokes you need to swim a length.
To learn this skill simply pay attention to your stroking next time you swim and wait until your recovering arm is piercing the water beside your head before you start to stroke with the other arm. Do this for each arm and let yourself relax and glide. This is classically called ‘catch-up’ because your recovery arm almost catches the arm that is still extended above your head. By waiting this extra time between each stroke, and not swimming like a churning windmill, you are forced to slow down your turnover and glide. Your glide is enhanced since you are leaving your arm extended, and since you are as fast as you are long you now have seven to nine feet of length cruising through the water instead of the typical six feet.
The last skill, roll, relates to the second skill. Most people think that the freestyle stroke is swum on their fronts, hence the alternate name front crawl. Actually, the most efficient freestylers in the world swim on their sides most of the time. They are only on their fronts for a brief period of time as they are rolling over to their other side. By spending more time on your side you carve through the water like a fish rather than plowing through the water like a barge.
To learn this skill is simple. Allow yourself to roll as far as possible over to your side as you stroke and stay there as you recover with your other arm. Don’t initiate your stoke on the other side until your recovery is complete and you are piercing the water above your head with your recovery arm. This will feel like you are pausing to glide on each stoke on your side. This will enable you to glide farther and carve through the water. If you leave your arm extended and pointing at the end of the pool you will find that you will glide forward effortlessly, and this then becomes the core of efficient swimming.
Easier said than done? Well you’re right, I spend eight months out of every year working with my triathletes on swimming skills. I don’t give them any interval training until a month before they are set to compete. Why, because swimming is ninety per cent skill and ten per cent fitness. One of my rules for my swim group is, no splashing. It is very comforting to watch six people in each lane cruising up and down and not a splash to be seen—nothing but a calm pool. All of their effort goes into propulsion and none is wasted.
You can practice a poor stroke all day and you will become very fit, but you will still have a poor stroke and go nowhere! I’ve seen countless triathletes do nothing but skills drills and slow deliberate swimming all year and set a personal best. They wonder how they did it. My answer, you’ve become a better swimmer, more graceful, and a whole lot more efficient.
If you want more information on how to learn to swim like a fish, check out www.totalimmersion.net. Terry Laughlin, one of the world’s leading swim coaches, has pioneered a new system of teaching swimming and has videos and books that will give you more background and illustrated drills to help you on your quest.