Small changes can add up to big improvements
We hear it a lot in the realm of nutrition, but it's true in other areas as well: Big improvements can come from the accumulation of little changes. When it comes to making the most of small efficiencies, you might be surprised how much a little focus on small things such as warming up, your entry to the pool, push-offs, breathing, and stretching can amount to big improvement strides in your swimming performance.
Don’t waste your warm-up—get in and use it. Warming up well will improve your whole workout—your performance, your result, and your satisfaction. But you can make even more of this time if you use it to think! This is the absolute best time to really focus and work on your stroke—while your mind is fresh and before your muscles are fatigued.
Do some drills, remember the tips and corrections you’ve been given, focus and swim as perfectly as you can. Do this right from the beginning—before you’re so tired you can’t think straight. What you work on in warm up will carry over as you begin swimming harder through your workout. You’ll begin patterning and creating the stroke habits you want. Don’t waste this time—get in!
You can learn start mechanics pretty easily, but nothing is more important than your entry. You’re never moving faster than when you dive in, and you never encounter greater momentum-sapping resistance than when you break the surface of the water.
Although most workouts typically require a feet-first entry, many programs designate a lane or a block for starts (with proper supervision from a coach). Use this at every opportunity and DIVE IN. Think like a diver—have the prettiest entry you can: streamlined and sexy, toes pointed, and not even the hint of a splash. Slip in through the smallest “donut hole” you can and feel the speed as you spear through the water. Do this every workout until this ultra-clean entry is yours. It’s a habit that will help you maintain your speed on all of your starts, and it feels great.
After your dive, you’re never moving faster than when you push off the wall. And you want to keep this speed as you start swimming. It’s so easy to make this an advantage at every wall if you think about it and make it a habit.
First, always set your feet at the right depth—roughly 20 inches below the surface, knees bent about 90 degrees (don’t tuck up too much). Then be sure your hips and shoulders line up in the correct trajectory—pointing you toward the far wall—before you squeeze and streamline, toes pointed, as you power off the wall. Trajectory, streamline, power. You should be able to keep this speed well beyond the backstroke flags every time before breakout. And remember, you can’t kick as fast as you can push off, so don’t be impatient. Ride your streamline on every push-off.
A word about trajectory: The faster you can get streamlined, the faster you’ll get off the wall and the farther you’ll travel. For flip turns—free and back—this means piking sharply and tightly while using your hands to press down behind you. Then, as your body reverses, continue pressing with your hands, through and up, toward your forehead. For open turns—fly and breast—it means dropping down into trajectory on your side, not on your stomach, to present the least resistance and line up faster.
Breathing is good, right? But beyond stroke mechanics, there are easy things you can do to do a better job with air exchange. To breathe well, you need to exhale well and keep a regular exhale rhythm. Taking a full breath and holding it creates pressure and a feeling that we need to breathe again. We don’t, we just need to relieve some of the pressure. Try taking a good breath then releasing a little of it immediately before gradually exhaling the rest with a regular rhythm. You’ll make better use of your oxygen and reduce the feeling of needing to breathe.
Another simple thing to do, though admittedly not simple to remember, is to get into your pattern immediately on each rep of your set. Get ahead with your oxygen so you don’t end up behind later in your swim. This is an especially good habit to own because you’ll want this to be automatic for any race longer than a 50, no matter how fresh you think you feel on your first lap.
My friend Frank Samoya told me something I would always remember when he shared with me that he regretted having abandoned his regimen of stretching. He knew he would never get back the simple comfort that flexibility afforded him. Our coaches tell us stretching is important to allow us to move with less effort, to speed recovery from frequent workouts, and to prevent injury. Learn to stretch correctly and do it regularly. Do it for the rest of your life.
Now review what you’ve read. Nothing here is difficult to do and each of these ideas will make you better at swimming. It’s almost cheating. You just have to do it.
- Technique and Training