We get it: running is your first love, and nothing quite beats the rush of hitting the pavements (or trails), bagging new PBs or the thrill of that runner’s high. But let’s face it, running is a high-impact sport, so your muscles, bones and tendons can benefit from some weekly downtime in order to recover from the stress all that mileage can place them under.
Which is where swimming comes in. As far as cross-training and active recovery goes, hitting the pool is pretty much as good as it gets: a low (in fact, make that no) impact sport that gives you a full-body and cardiovascular workout to boot. If you’re looking to maintain (or even improve) your overall fitness, while giving your body a break from pavement pounding, you could do worse than include a swim session into your routine once or twice a week.
Improving your swimming technique
Of course, to reap the full benefits of swimming (which include improved endurance, cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength), it's important to nail that all-important technique. Here, we speak to the experts, to get the lowdown on how to improve your front crawl (or 'freestyle'), breaststroke and backstroke. We also look at how you can improve your stoke rate and swimming endurance...
If you're keen on entering a swim event or trying your hand at triathlon, front crawl is the stroke you're going to want to master. But for beginners, it's often tricky… and it can feel like a lot of hard work if your technique isn't great. We spoke to Loren Ward, co-owner and lead coach at Passion Fit Coaching, to find out how to get it right:
Body position 'Very simply, your body position should be high and straight in the water – this is an essential part of your swim foundation,' explains Ward. 'A nice high body position will ensure you're not creating 'drag' with low legs – this is essentially like trying to swim with the breaks on!'
Head position 'Your head should be in a neutral position,' says Ward. 'If you lift your head – and therefore upper body – a little too high, it could in turn cause the legs to drop, creating drag. If you hold your head too low, it could be difficult to see where you're going. So, we advise a neutral position, looking up and forward with the eyes.'
Arms 'Essentially, all your arms should be doing is propelling you forwards through the water,' says Ward. 'In less experienced swimmers, it's common to see the arms doing a lot of work to balance and stabilise the body, when this should be the role of the core. This means they can't just focus on generating effective forward propulsion. If you can control your balance, control and rotation through your core, you can focus on the arms generating your forward propulsion through the underwater phase of a stroke. In this phase, we want as much surface area across the hand and forearm to be 'holding' the water to drive you forwards. Focusing on the hand and forearm acting as one can be useful here.'
Legs 'For long-distance swimmers or triathletes, simply focusing on the legs remaining high in the water, close to the surface and inside our 'swim shadow' (staying close together and inside the shadow of your body) are the most important elements to focus on, so no drag is created,' explains Ward. 'A gentle kick to aid balance, control and a small amount of forward propulsion is all that's needed. If you try to kick too hard, you'll likely use a disproportionate amount of energy for the amount of forward propulsion created, which could leave you feeling very out of breath! Your kick should be a relaxed 'whipping' action in the water. The kick should come from the hip, with nice relaxed ankles and pointy toes.'
Breathing 'The main aim when taking a breath is to disrupt the stroke as little as possible,' reminds Ward. 'It's common to see triathletes over rotate, turn their head too far to breath or lift their head too high. Any of these could create drag, and a loss of balance, control or timing in the stroke. To help ensure your head remains low, aim to keep one goggle in the water as you turn to breath and ensure your eye line is across the surface of the water, not looking up to the sky.'
It might seem like a gentler stroke in comparison with front crawl, but breaststroke still offers a great all-round cardiovascular and toning workout, and is a great choice for active recovery days. As with front crawl, it's important to get the stroke right to ensure you're moving as efficiently through the water as possible.
'Often the problem people face with breaststroke is that their stroke is too wide,' reveals Chris Stanton, experienced triathlete and sport & performance master coach at Third Space. 'Try to keep the kick and the scull part of the stroke narrower, rather than wide like a frog.'
Check out these top tips to help perfect your breaststroke technique:
Body position Your body position should be fairly horizontal in the water, with just a slight slope downwards, so that the leg kick actions remains below the water.
Head position Keeping your neck and shoulders as relaxed as possible, keep your head in line with your body, looking down, as you glide through the water, to help avoid neck strain.
Arms Following the 'glide' position, where your arms are extended forwards, flip your hands to face outwards, then keep your elbows high as you draw your arms out and around, until they meet in front of the upper chest. You can then push them forwards once more as part of the glide, to complete the stroke.
Legs The main propulsion comes from the 'frog kick' of breaststroke. Make sure you're not kicking too wide, and concentrate on drawing your feet up to your bum, rather than your knees to your chest.
Breathing The breath in breaststroke isn't about lifting your head out of the water; instead, it's about allowing your head to rise naturally with your shoulders, to avoid neck strain, and taking a breath while your chin is still resting on the waterline.
Working on your backstroke offers a great all-round workout, as well as helping to improve posture and opening up the chest muscles. If you're a novice swimmer training for an open-water event, switching to backstroke periodically can offer some respite if you start to tire, giving you the opportunity to get your breath back and even clear your goggles, all while still moving in the right direction!
'When it comes to backstroke, rhythm and timing are key,' says Stanton. 'Focus on improving your coordination of the arms and the rotation to maintain balance and boost propulsion.'
These extra tips will help you master your backstroke technique:
Body position Aim to keep your body flat in the water, with a very slight downward slope to ensure the kick action remains below the water.
Head position Your head should be as still as possible, with your ears below the waterline. Aim to keep your neck relaxed and your eyes looking up and slightly back.
Arms Your arms should be constantly moving: as one is lifting out of the water and up, the other should be pushing back down and through the water. On the lift, your thumb should exit the water first. Flip your hand position, so that your little finger is first to re-enter the water, and your arm should be close enough to brush your ear.
Legs Kick from the hips, rather than the knees, keeping your legs close together with a very slight bend at the knee as you kick down.
Breathing Breathing technique may not seems as important as in other strokes, as your head is out of the water, but it's still important to get into a good rhythm. Keep your breathing as relaxed as possible (try not to hold your breath), aiming to inhale as one arm lifts out of the water and exhaling as the opposite arm lifts.
What is stroke rate?
Stroke rate refers to how fast a swimmer completes a stroke. The stroke can be a single stroke (for example, one arm of front crawl or backstroke, or a single pull of breaststroke) or a stroke cycle (for example, both arms of front crawl or backstroke).
Stroke rate can be measured in a few different ways:
Seconds per stroke
Seconds per stroke cycle
Strokes per minute
Stroke cycles per minute
How to improve your swim stroke rate
Swim drills are a great way of improving your technique and efficiency as you move through the water and can therefore help to improve your stroke rate.
Loren Ward recommends the following drills, all of which will help to improve your positioning and propulsion, and therefore work to increase your overall stroke rate:
Kicking on your front With a central snorkel on, keep your head in the water with your neck neutral, in order to keep your body balanced and your legs up. The back of your head, buttocks and heels should be touching the surface. This will help you feel how a neutral head position should feel, as well as a high body position.
Fists Swim freestyle with closed fists, focusing on a high elbow and engaging lat muscles through the underwater phase. This is a good drill for feeling the water and using your forearm as well as your hand to generate forward propulsion.
Vertical kick If your local pool is deep enough, practising your kick in the vertical position can be very effective. You should be able to keep your head above the surface of the water while staying in the same spot (not moving forwards or backwards). You will likely need to use fins for this.
How to improve endurance when swimming
If you've entered a swimming event or triathlon that's pushing you outside your comfort zone in terms of distance, it's going to be important to boost your endurance in the water.
'Focus on continuous swims, which help you build endurance,' advises Stanton. 'Although drills can make you a more efficient swimmer, when it comes to building endurance, it's important to dedicate time to steady swimming, where your focus should be on breathing and efficiency. Make sure you swim within a comfortable effort, so you don’t burn out too quickly, and adopt a pace you can maintain for a longer period of time. You can then gradually increase your distance or time to improve your endurance.'
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