Winded and Weary? It’s Time To Update Your Stroke
By Ruth Kassinger
When the whistle blows on Memorial Day for the first adult swim of the season, I’m in the pool. All the pleasures of a summer swim — the near-weightless slip through cool water, the wavering patterns of sunlight on the pool floor, the calming silence below the surface — return.
For a few lengths. Then I recall an unfortunate defect in this pool: There seems to be a peculiar shortage of oxygen in its vicinity. I keep swimming, but the lovely silence under water is now punctuated by my gasps above it. Then I remember that this pool is filled with particularly dense water (could it be all that lead in the Washington water supply?), which surely explains why my arm muscles ache and my kick is tapering to nothing. Then the final problem emerges: The distance from one end to other gets greater with every length. I decide I’d better get out before I find myself trying to swim to infinity.
The story would be the same this year, except, inspired by yet another article about how good swimming is for you, this winter I decided to look a little further into my swimming problems.
What I find is that I’m not alone in having trouble swimming easily. A flurry of books and videotapes aimed at adults who want to learn to swim better has recently been released. This spring, for the first time in 12 years, the American Red Cross revised what has been the bible of swimming instruction, its swimming and diving manual, along with its instructional video.
The fault, I now learn, lies not in the pool, but in the fact that many of us learned to swim too long ago. Swimming techniques and instruction methods have changed dramatically in recent years. So, if you would rather be swimming in the pool than lounging by the side of it, take heart. Updating your technique can make swimming not only easier, but, I can attest, downright pleasant.
The Water’s Fine There is no better fitness activity than swimming, said Steve Jordan, educator for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. It is one of the best cardiovascular activities and it conditions most of the large muscle groups. Best of all, it puts almost no pressure on the joints, making it a sport for life. Because the water supports most of a swimmer’s weight, it’s a particularly good activity for overweight people. And since water is dense, moving through it takes a lot of energy, which means burning calories at a high rate.
It’s also difficult to injure yourself swimming. Katie Moore, president-elect of the American Physical Therapy Association, said muscle strains resulting from swimming are almost unheard of. The resistance of water — in essence, its weight — is a function of how hard you push or pull it. You simply can’t move more water faster than you have strength for.
Shoulder rotator cuff injuries occur occasionally, noted Jeff Berg, an orthopedist in Reston and team physician for the Washington Redskins. But these are the result of poor technique. Berg frequently sends players with knee injuries to the pool to maintain conditioning while resting the damaged joint.
Of course, these benefits accrue only if you swim regularly. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, to get the aerobic benefits you need to swim at least three times a week for about 30 minutes at a time.
So, how do you get good enough to swim comfortably for that long, instead of clinging to the wall, sucking air after five minutes?
If you learned to swim before 1980, you were probably taught to swim by an instructor certified in the 1938 American Red Cross method. The group’s manual for swimming instruction, which was not significantly revised for four decades, taught beginning freestyle swimmers to “thrash” their legs up and down and to move their arms in a “windmill type of two-beat stroke.”
More-advanced swimmers were instructed to kick like “pedaling a bicycle of very low gear” and to “fling the forearm beyond the head” to prepare to take a stroke.
Body roll was anathema. The pulling hand was cupped and pulled under water to a vertical position. Swimmers were advised to keep the waterline just above the eyebrows.
Instruction began to change in the 1960s, starting at the competitive level, when James “Doc” Counsilman introduced the study of biomechanics to swimming.
Counsilman, who coached Indiana University swimmers and the U.S. Olympic men’s teams in 1964 and 1976, pioneered the use of an underwater motion camera, strain gauge devices to measure a swimmer’s propulsion and other tools to collect efficiency and effectiveness data.
Counsilman, who died this year, discovered that the freestyle kick is not propulsive. Use it gently and with as few as two beats per arm cycle, he advised, simply to keep the hips from sinking and for balance. Body roll, from the hips through the shoulders and head, makes breathing easier and is essential for avoiding rotator cuff strains.
After the arm finishes a stroke, it should be lifted out of the water with the elbow held high and close to the body. (No forearm-flinging, please!) The pulling hand is most effective in a relaxed position with fingers close to each other but not glued together. The pulling arm should be bent and pass under, not straight alongside, the body.
Counsilman’s 1968 book, “The Science of Swimming,” brought these and other concepts to a more general audience. In 1979 the Red Cross began to modify the techniques it taught to instructors.
Over the next 10 years, successive versions of the Red Cross manual gradually incorporated the changes swimming coaches were using. The current manual, videos and DVDs — have been prepared with the help of USA Swimming, the governing body for competitive swimming in the United States. The YMCA teaches similar techniques; its materials have been vetted by the American Swimming Coaches Association. Many of today’s instructors have been trained through Red Cross or the YMCA.
The changes, such as slowing your kick or recovering your arm elbow-up and close to your body, may seem small, but incorporating them into your swimming can make an enormous difference. That’s because swimming, like golf and skiing, is a technique sport.
On land, people expend about the same amount of energy whether they run or walk a mile. But exercise in the water is different, said Joel Stager, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University and director of the university’s Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming. Because water is a thousand times denser than air, “a swimmer with poor technique expends three or four times the energy to cover the same distance. That means that a slight woman with a well-honed stroke that barely ripples the surface can outdistance the muscular fellow kicking and beating the water to a froth.”
Technique also trumps a lack of natural buoyancy, in case you’re a “sinker” who thinks you’re fated by your build to struggle in the water. While it is true that some people naturally float more easily than others (it’s one benefit of a little extra body fat), many lean-bodied competitive swimmers do not float well.
The bottom line is that if you learned to swim before 1980 and haven’t had a lesson since then, it’s a good bet your technique needs a tuneup — or a revamping.
There are three major approaches to improving your swimming technique: lessons (either group or private), stroke clinics and Masters swimming.
If you are uneasy in the water and struggle to swim more than a length or two, group or private lessons may be the best approach. Donnie Shaw, aquatics director at the National Capital YMCA in Washington, reports that for many adults, “overcoming fear and learning to relax in the water is a real challenge. That can take some time.”
One common swimming error that is easy to fix and makes a world of difference, he adds, is remembering to always exhale completely while your face is under water.
If you can swim several consecutive laps without a sense of panic, a stroke clinic can fine-tune your technique be a good solution. Typically, such clinics meet once a week for six to eight weeks.
If you can swim about 30 laps, even if slowly and with rests, and want to refine your skills, a Masters swimming club may be for you. United States Masters Swimming is a national organization whose 43,000 members are associated with more than 450 clubs. Lap swimmers with a wide range of abilities join in order to swim with others at a set time and place. Some have highly structured workouts and active poolside coaching; others are informal and camaraderie is the most important draw.
I stumbled across a fourth option, a choice for do-it-yourselfers, offered by a company called Total Immersion.
Total Immersion, founded in 1989 by Terry Laughlin, who has been coaching swimming professionally for 32 years, is aimed primarily at adults who already swim but want to do it more easily. Rather than fine-tuning a swimmer’s strokes, the method develops an entirely new swimming technique.
The program is taught in two ways: through two-day clinics, several of which are held most weekends across the country, or via a video/DVD. Laughlin reports that in 2003 about 2,000 people took Total Immersion clinics and more than 30,000 bought instructional books, videos and DVDs. I opted for the DVD and joined an indoor swim club.
According to Laughlin, the first step adult swimmers need to take is to forget everything they have learned about swimming. Swimming “is not about using your hands to push water toward your feet,” but about slipping through the water with as little drag as possible.
To achieve streamlining, Total Immersion swimmers keep the head just below the surface of the water, which lifts the hips and legs and ensures that the swimmer stays parallel to the surface, offering as narrow a profile as possible to water in front of the swimmer.
Swimmers also reduce drag by performing most of the stroke cycle on their sides, switching quickly from one side to the other as the recovering hand enters the water. The switch, Laughlin asserts, also produces torque for additional propulsion.
In addition, Total Immersion-trained swimmers keep one arm extended in front of them all the time to lengthen the body’s profile, which, like a sleek sailboat hull, encounters less water resistance. That constant arm extension leads to what is called front-quadrant swimming, in which the extended arm doesn’t start to pull until the recovering arm is in front of the head and about to enter the water.
Laughlin’s method relies on a series of 14 drills. Each one adds a small, incremental skill until all the elements of the stroke are in place. The emphasis is on balance, fluidity and careful perfection of motions rather than on building strength by powering through laps.
The method worked beautifully for me: I can now swim freestyle for 30 minutes, and with pleasure. The drills were easy to do, and I enjoyed mastering the progression. The sequential nature of the method motivated me to get back to the pool day after day. But it took me several weeks to get a complete stroke again. Total Immersion is not a quick tune-up.
Although I’ve become a fan of the method, I have no doubt I would have improved with a stroke clinic or by getting coaching at a Masters club.
Many of Total Immersion’s techniques — as opposed to its instruction method — are similar to those of the YMCA and the Red Cross. Some of the differences are merely matters of degree: how far to roll the body or how deep to hold the head.
The feedback of an instructor has great value. In fact, at the end of the tutorial I found a Total Immersion-trained instructor to give me some one-on-one coaching.
One thing that all the experts agree on is that you need patience to make a new technique your own. Steve Jordan explained: “To create a new habit on a clean slate takes a few repetitions. To replace an old habit with a new one sometimes takes many hundreds of repetitions.”
But if you’d like to do more than sit by the side of the pool this summer, it’s worth it.
Ruth Kassinger is a Washington area freelance writer.