Identifying and correcting the challenges encountered with swim-specific adaptations
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
—Author Will Durant paraphrasing Aristotle
Are you principally a runner or a cyclist and getting the feeling that maybe your body just doesn’t work for swimming? Do you get frustrated and discouraged when you see swimmers who seem to have invisible and effortless proficiency? There are very specific adaptations that go into swimming efficiently, but they can be learned. If you’re from a different athletic background, you need to take the time to analyze them and try to apply them retroactively.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are biomechanical, physiological, and even anatomical limitations for achieving efficiency in swimming. These are mostly the adaptations resulting from repeated bouts of training for running or cycling. It’s not that there are incompatibilities in conditioning for more than one type of exercise or that they’re necessarily irreversible. If it’s possible to condition your body for one type of exercise, then it’s also entirely possible for you to condition your body for swimming.
People who have spent years training for swimming tend to be limber, especially in their ankles. For most runners and cyclists, ankle flexibility is particularly limited for swimming because the opposite flexion is required: dorsiflexion versus plantar flexion. In other words, the position of the foot in running and cycling frequently is with the toes up. In swimming, toes are pointed so that the top of the foot contacts the water in downward motions to create propulsion. Kicking in swimming with ankles in dorsiflexion is like driving with the brakes on.
How to increase your ankle flexibility:
- Sit on the floor from a kneeling position with the tops of your feet flat on the floor and slowly lean backward. Don’t do this until pain results. You’re looking for gradual improvements from the stretch reflex, not injury.
- In a standing position, raise and lower yourself on your tip-toes.
- Do kicking sets with fins. It’s even better if you can do dolphin kick.
Fluid Core Stability
Body position in the water is incredibly important for the ability to create meaningful propulsion. Because it’s not possible to hydroplane over the surface like a hovercraft, the next best thing is keeping your body aligned with the surface at all times when you’re swimming freestyle. Everything about the water is continuously changing, so you need to do your best with the one variable you can control: your body position. The objective is to hold a linear and stable position utilizing the muscles in your abdomen and back.
How to improve your core stability for swimming:
- On land, add isometric exercises to your workout regimen. Isometric exercises include planks, wall sits, and glute bridges. Hold these positions as long as you can and do several repeats per day.
- In the pool, do kick sets on your side without a board, and work your way up to maintaining stability with your hand on your hip (your arm should look like a shark fin).
- Practice floating. It sounds elementary, but it’s like walking is to running. Try floating motionless on your back until you can easily hold the position without any part of your body sinking below the surface.
Comfortable Breath Control
So much of your success in swimming depends on your ability to control your breathing, and it goes far beyond the urge to breathe when your face is submerged. Breath control is a necessary factor in other forms of exercise too, but in swimming breaths are quick and sporadic. And you’re in water. Even when you achieve a rhythm with which you’re comfortable, you need to adjust for the volume of air you maintain in your lungs (for buoyancy) while ensuring a steady exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to keep from going into metabolic acidosis (commonly lamented as “lactic acid buildup”). This only begins to underscore the beautiful and fascinating complexity of respiration in physiology.
Breathing in swimming is multitasking. Now that you know that, you can devote to it the specialized practice it deserves:
- For buoyancy, learn to comfortably retain what feels like 30 to 40 percent of your lungs’ maximal air capacity at all times. Beware of shallow breathing at an accelerated rate (hyperventilating).
- Always, always, always make sure to exhale when your face is in the water between inhalations (it’s actually easy to forget). Exhaling is not simply making room for another breath—it’s ridding the body of carbon dioxide and helping your body maintain its acid-base balance (staving off acidosis). When you don’t exhale enough, your respiratory rate will increase to compensate and try to force you to get rid of that CO2.
- Don’t try to hold your breath while swimming. Aim for a natural breathing rhythm similar to what you do on land. If your stroke doesn’t allow for that, see about getting coaching to get it corrected.
These modalities constitute much of the essential foundation of swimming well and working on them will make you a more confident swimmer who loves going to the pool.