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The Underwater Game

It’s great to streamline like the elites, but is it right for you?

Scott Bay | May 3, 2017

Swimmers and coaches have been intrigued with how much faster streamlined (or submerged) dolphin kicking can be than swimming on the surface since David Berkoff’s performance at the 1988 Olympic Games led to a rule change regarding how far swimmers could go underwater.

Swimmers who are great at SDK, or underwaters, gain a huge advantage, as we’ve seen in many elite and high-level Masters races, but that doesn’t mean following their lead is the best step for you. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before vowing to become an awesome SDKer.

  • Are you a good kicker? It’s a skill and like any other, there’s a range of skill levels. Some swimmers are amazing kickers and some aren’t. If you’re not a great kicker, your time might be better spent working on your kick before developing a killer SDK.
  • Do you have a pressing need for oxygen? It’s unfair—many people who have great underwaters are super-efficient and their bodies don’t seem to require as much oxygen, or they absorb and deliver oxygen to the muscles more efficiently than the rest of us. These attributes make it easier for them to have good underwaters. Your muscles need oxygen for fuel so make sure they get it.
  • How much time are you willing to devote to getting better at underwaters? We’re all adults and if you want to spend more time working on your stroke rather than your SDK, it’s probably a good idea to do so. Don’t let anyone shame you into doing something that’s frustrating or might even be unsafe for you.

After you’ve answered these questions, you can put together a plan for determining your best underwater distance off each wall.

Finding the right distance

During a swim of 100 yards or more, with a push start, your time underwater off the first wall will be longer, with each successive underwater becoming shorter. This is because you get more fatigued as the swim progresses. Here’s how to find a good underwater distance for you:

  • Swim a 100-yard freestyle and use your best SDKs off all the walls. Count your swimming strokes for the two middle 25s. If they’re the same, then the length you traveled underwater on those two 25s might indicate your ideal breakout point—when you should surface and start swimming.
  • Swim another 100-yard freestyle. Only this time, get to that same ideal breakout point when you push off for the first 25 by coming up a little sooner, even though you’re fresh and could stay under longer. And on the last 25, even if you’re fatigued, try to get to that point before breaking out.
  • Repeat this process to get a good feel for your ideal distance. If you’re a distance swimmer, do longer repeats and pay special attention to the middle 50 percent of the swims.
  • Have a friend or coach videotape you. This will help you determine if you’re spearing up through the water and coming to a stop on your breakout or breaking out too far underwater.

Listen to your body. There’s a tendency to emulate those we think do things well. Your body has a way of giving you feedback as to what’s right for you, so don’t try to be somebody else. Challenge yourself but also play to your strengths. Try new things and seek out the advice of a coach or a knowledgeable swimmer to help you on your journey. But always remember: it’s your journey and when it comes to the most advanced swimming techniques, you may be better off defying conventional wisdom.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Scott Bay

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.

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