Swimming is a fantastic full-body workout that improves cardiovascular fitness and enhances strength and flexibility. Whether you're a competitive swimmer or using swimming for cross-training, mastering proper swim strokes is essential for efficiency and injury prevention.
Swimming is a very technical sport. It requires time and attention to detail to develop a proper swim stroke. It's very easy to reinforce poor form by repetition. Let's explore some common swim stroke mistakes and provide practical tips on fixing them to become a more efficient and effective swimmer.
As you refine your swimming technique, having a friend or training buddy take regular videos of your swimming is helpful so you can visualize what you're doing. We often believe we're making bigger adjustments than we really are. Seeing our swim stroke on video provides valuable feedback and can help your coach assign targeted drills.
Mistake 1: Overreaching
Overreaching occurs when swimmers extend their arms too far forward during the entry phase of the stroke, causing excessive strain on the shoulders and reducing overall efficiency.
Fix: Focus on a High Elbow Catch
To remedy overreaching, concentrate on a high elbow catch. This means keeping your elbow close to the surface as your hand enters the water, creating a more efficient pulling motion. Imagine reaching over a barrel instead of diving deep into the pool.
Mistake 2: Crossing Over
Crossing over happens when swimmers allow their hands to cross the centerline (often called the midline) of their body during the pull phase. This mistake increases drag and can lead to a zigzagging swim pattern.
Crossing over can also happen when a swimmer allows their hand to cross the centerline as it enters the water above their head. This slows your stroke and can cause shoulder strain.
Fix: Maintain a Straight Pull
To prevent crossing over, concentrate on pulling your hand in a straight line down the side of your body. Your hand should follow a path that stays parallel to your centerline, helping you move forward with less resistance.
To eliminate crossing over during the hand entry phase, add the catch-up drill to your swim sessions using a 12-inch wooden dowel or a kickboard turned sideways. Make sure to keep your hands at the outside edges of the stick or board when you alternate. After a few laps with the dowel or kickboard, do several laps without it, focusing on maintaining the proper form and hand entry.
Mistake 3: Kicking from the Knee
Many swimmers kick primarily from the knee instead of the hips, resulting in inefficient propulsion and tired legs.
Fix: Kick from the Hips
Effective kicking starts from the hips. Keep your legs relatively straight and engage your core, hip flexors, and glutes to generate power. Your knees should be slightly bent, with most of the movement originating from the hips.
Incorporate kicking sets with fins and a kickboard into your regular drill routines. Practice kicking on your side, back, and front, focusing on creating power from your core and hips.
Mistake 4: Poor Body Rotation
Inadequate body rotation is a common mistake among swimmers. It restricts the reach and efficiency of your strokes. It can also slow your movement through the water.
Fix: Incorporate Proper Rotation
Focus on rolling your body from side to side while swimming. For freestyle, for example, as your left arm extends forward, your right hip should rotate upward, and vice versa. This rotation allows for a longer stroke and better alignment in the water.
Mistake 5: Incorrect Breathing
Breathing errors are a significant source of frustration for many swimmers. Raising the head too much or breathing too late can disrupt your stroke rhythm.
Fix: Master Bilateral Breathing
Bilateral breathing (alternating sides) helps balance your stroke and reduces the chances of overusing one side, which can lead to muscle imbalances. Practice breathing on both sides to become a more versatile swimmer.
Have a friend take a video of your swim form so you can see your stroke and breathing.
One drill to improve your overall breathing form is "Arms at the Wall." Start holding onto the wall with both hands and begin kicking. Look straight down. Do one arm stroke with your right arm, and breathe to the right. Place your right arm back on the wall, and repeat on the left side. Focus on keeping one ear and eye in the water each time you take a breath, keeping your neck in a neutral position (not lifting your head up).
Mistake 6: Sinking Legs
Sinking legs create excess drag and require more effort to maintain proper body position.
Fix: Engage Your Core
To keep your legs afloat, engage your core muscles. Imagine keeping your body in a straight line from head to toe, with your hips and legs near the water's surface. This reduces drag and conserves energy.
Mistake 7: Rushing the Recovery
The recovery phase of the swim stroke is often neglected, with swimmers pulling their arms out of the water too quickly. The recovery phase of the swim stroke should get a swimmer's arm back to the front of the body, ready for another "catch." This should be an easy part of your swim stroke, and your arm should move directly forward so the hand enters straight into the water.
Many swimmers are tempted to swing their arms low and more to the side, which can impact how their hand enters the water. It can also cause swimmers to wiggle from side to side.
Fix: Emphasize a Smooth Recovery
A smooth recovery involves a controlled exit of your hand from the water. Extend your arm fully while keeping your hand close to the surface before initiating the next stroke. This minimizes disruption to your forward momentum.
The "Exaggerated Finish" drill is very simple: swimmers exaggerate the end of the underwater phase of their pull on each stroke. When done correctly, swimmers feel like they are "throwing" the water behind them and forcing their arms out of the water for a fast recovery.
Swimming is a skill that takes time and practice to master, but by addressing these common swim stroke mistakes, you can become a more efficient and confident swimmer.
Remember that improvement often comes in small steps, so be patient with yourself and enjoy the process of refining your technique. Regular practice and focusing on proper form will lead to a smoother, faster, more enjoyable, and ultimately more rewarding swim experience. The off-season winter months are ideal for endurance athletes to refine their swim strokes!
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Greg@TeamMPI.com