Happy Valentines Day, if that's your jam. If you don't like the mushy stuff, like me, why not make swimming (specifically freestyle) your Valentine this year? You won't have to buy chocolates or take it out for a nice dinner--just some time together in the pool, and you are all set.
Let me play swimming cupid and set you up with some ideas about how to spend quality time with your freestyle (no guarantees that your partner won't get jealous).
First, let's review some essential concepts often overlooked when someone learns to swim freestyle. These concepts could be applied to any stoke, but we will look at them with tri-specific freestyle in mind.
Swim Connected. Too often, I see athletes trying to kick and rotate and swing their arms and breathe simultaneously. Everything should work together as if a chain reaction started from the core. A swimmer's core should be the driving force that initiates rotation. From there, the hips and shoulders should move together like a puppet string connecting them, and the arms FOLLOW THE CORE. Finally, the kick is there for balance. It should help stabilize the swimmer, but the legs should not do much work. Your core is the boss; the rest of the body follows.
Swim Downhill. This means getting your hips up to the water's surface by pressing on your chest. A swimmer's lungs act as their internal buoy, and when you press down on that buoy, the bottom half of the body rises. When done correctly, this often feels like swimming slightly downhill. You want to see the whole body riding high in a straight line on top of the water.
Ultimate Goal: EFFICIENCY. You can't muscle your way through swimming, especially long-distance swimming. My goal for any swimmer is to continually increase efficiency. For most triathletes, ideally, they will exit the swim feeling as if they were warm and ready to race on the bike and run. I view the swim (in most scenarios) as the setup or warmup to an incredible race. I don't want an athlete leaving the water feeling dead and trying to recover on the bike and hanging on for the run. To accomplish this, we need to find an efficient, comfortable stoke. Once that stroke is achieved, we work on maintaining a faster and faster pace while still being comfortable and efficient.
These are my favorite freestyle progression drills I do each time I touch the water. Usually, I incorporate them into my warmup, but I have paused a set and gone back to these drills when my stroke starts to fall apart. There's no sense in training a lousy, inefficient stroke. I find these drills are best with a snorkel- we will discuss adding the breath later. Check out my YouTube video with these drills shown here.
Front Balance- The swimmer will face the bottom of the pool with their arms at their sides. They will kick head first, focusing on pressing on their chest to get their hips up. A light flutter kick propels them toward the other end of the pool. The swimmer's ears should remain directly above the shoulders, and the neck should stay long. The shoulders should not creep toward the ears. A pull buoy can be added to the swimmer's chest to enhance the feeling of pressing down on the chest. The swimmer should feel their hips at the surface of the water.
SWOA (Swimming Without your Arms)- The swimmer begins this drill similarly to Front Balance. The swimmer should be queued to feel like they are swimming without their arms with the rotation coming from the core. This may take some time for the athlete to feel comfortable. Ensure that the hips and shoulders move together as if a puppet string connects them. When the hips move independently from the core and shoulders, the swimmer will look like they have "dancing hips." The swimmer can think of moving the hips and rib cage so that the side of the body faces the bottom of the pool. The head should remain stable and neutral. Some queues I have used are that the swimmer should feel like a "shish kebab" or "rotisserie chicken" rotating about their spine.
4-5 Rotations into Swim- The swimmer begins with 4-5 rotations of SWOA and then adds in the arms. We are looking for a seamless transition! If the swimmer feels "clunky," they are either letting their arms set the rotation instead of the core, or they add in their arms at the wrong time. The first stroke should start when that same shoulder is facing the ceiling, and the core should always initiate the rotation.
Perfect Technique- Swim with perfect freestyle technique focusing on using the core to drive rotation. Go back to earlier steps as needed.
Okay, so that's all well and good, but what does the swimmer do with their arms? Honestly, the less the swimmer thinks about their arms and lets them naturally follow the rotation set by the core, the better the stroke will be.
Let the arms feel a bit "floppy" on the recovery and land in the same position as if the athlete were to raise their arm straight above the shoulder (think raising your hand in class). Demanding too much precision from the arms during the recovery phase of the stroke causes unnecessary fatigue.
Additionally, I find that a more straight arm recovery allows the swimmer to take advantage of the momentum from the recovering arm- that's a topic for another time.
What about the breath? Once the swimmer understands that the core drives the rotation, the head moves with the body during the rotation to grab the breath. Keep the breath low and ensure that the head follows the core, not the other way around. It should be easy to add the breath when needed and maintain the same rotation on non-breathing cycles.
There are plenty of other great freestyle drills out there; this is by no means the end all be all, but I find myself going back to these drills most often. If you have any questions or are interested in stoke analysis, shoot me an email at sydney@teamMPI.com. I hope this helps you reach a more efficient and comfortable freestyle.
Coach Sydney brings more than 20 years of swimming experience to Team MPI as both a swimmer and coach. As a swimmer, she was a Colorado State Champion, State Record Holder, and All-American. She moved on to compete for the University of North Texas, an NCAA Division I team, qualifying for National Invite and Conference USA Championships. As a coach, Sydney has coaching experience at the NCAA Division I level with UNT.