Over the years, I've watched countless numbers of swimmers train and compete and I've come to a conclusion. I believe that people who are musical make better swimmers. I think of swimming as a dance. When done right, it can look beautiful and effortless. When done wrong, it looks chopping and out of sync. Swimming is about rhythm and understanding how your body moves. It's about control but at the same time about letting go. Knowing how your legs relate torso while relating to your arms and head as well is crucial to fast swimming. By learning what your rhythm is in swimming, you'll be able to go faster for longer periods of time without fatigue. It's the inefficiencies in our swimming that cause us to tire and add seconds to our times.
Learning out to maintain that momentum is something that takes time and needs to be a formed habit. Think of it like a car, if you are driving consistently at a 100 km/h for a long period of time, then your car will use less fuel to get you there, but if you are slowing down and then speeding up, you are going to use more fuel that way. Your body is the same way during a race. If you can find a consistent rhythm and pace that works for you, you'll use less fuel meaning you have more to give at the end of a race for that potential touch out or record breaking touch.
Taking the right breath
As I mentioned swimming is about rhythm. Every swimmer is different on this front. We all swim just slightly differently than our teammates or competitors. Understanding the basics of this rhythm can help you learn what your unique rhythm actually is. So what do I mean by all of this? Well it's common for coaches to tell young athletes to breathe every 3 strokes in Freestyle, but this doesn't work for every swimmer. Finding out what breathing pattern works best for you can help keep your efficiency level up. For example, when I breathe every 3 strokes, I tend to pause my stroke on the left side because I can't rotate as well that way so I use more of a breathe of every 4 to 6 breathing pattern.
This is also true when it comes to Butterfly. Most coaches that I grew up with always taught the importance of breathing every 2 strokes. This works for some swimmers but not all. If you look at some of the best in the world over the past decade, they all breathe every one. Some don't even breathe facing forward. They actually breathe to the side like in Freestyle. Now I don't recommend this to most swimmers as it's a very difficult skill to learn and as far as I know there's no proof saying this is faster.
DON'T HIT PAUSE
One of the biggest mistakes I see swimmers make a lot that throws off their rhythm is having a pause at the front of their strokes. In particular, I see this in Fly, Back and Free. By taking this momentary pause, you are essentially slowing yourself down, then speeding yourself back up. You lose the water that you grabbed when your hand first entered meaning you'll pull back far less during your actual stroke. This is terribly inefficient. One drill I like to use with my swimmers on this is called "No recovery Freestyle". What you do is you only utilize the pull portion of your stroke. Think of it as very long doggy paddle. Make sure you still rotate your hips to get a long catch then pull the water all the way through your stroke to the finish. Then move your arm back through the water back to the catch. This should be a continuous motion without pausing at any point of your stroke. If you do pause, you'll find your body starts to sink in the water. The goal is not to sink or feel like sinking.
The 1-2 count
Many swimmers have trouble with the timing of Breaststroke. Their legs are either too early or too late. Usually too late in younger swimmers. A coach once told me to think in 1-2 timing. This is great for drummers as they are constantly having to keep a consistent beat. If you count 1 as you pull while bringing your legs up and apart, then 2 to drive your hips forward which then pushes your hands out into a glide and your legs to come back together, you will manage to fix your timing. For racing, you can increase the pacing of this so that you reduce the 1 count to eliminate the glide. If you are in a 200 maybe you slow it down to a 1 - and - 2 - and count. This allows you to take advantage of the glide between strokes which helps you conserve a bit of energy for the longer distance.
If you aren't used to doing Breaststroke this way, it will feel very weird at first. It will feel like you're actually making your timing worse, but I promise you that it's actually right. I once had a coach tell me "If you change something in your stroke and it doesn't feel weird at first then you aren't doing it properly." I always thought this was incredible and very sound advice. I've passed this sentiment on to more than one swimmer during my coaching career.
Slow it down
Since all musicians have to know how to keep time, have rhythm and know how to move their bodies in multiple ways at the same time, they have the advantage of muscle memory to help them on this path to efficient swimming. Musicians also understand how to slow something down to achieve perfection before they speed it up and do it quickly. This translate well to training. Understanding how to do each motion in the pool slowly before you take it into a race will train your mind and body in the art of muscle memory. Speed in the water is not just a part of physical fitness, but rather perfection in technique. This has allowed swimmers to continue to improve and get faster over the years. One thing I always have to tell swimmers is that I would rather them not make the pace time that I've set for them if they are doing a drill perfectly, rather than rushing the drill to make the time.
By slowing everything down, you learn about your own personal rhythm, timing and inefficiencies in the water, that you can convert into goals and speed later on during races. Executing your strokes perfectly and efficiently allow you to elevate your racing potential and use that as an asset against any opponent.
While slowing it down, count your strokes. A good rule of thumb when doing this is that 12 strokes in Free and Back per 25 meters is a very efficient stroke. For Fly and Breast, try to make it in 8. When aiming to get these stroke counts, you shouldn't be taking long pauses in-between each stroke. It should be continuous motion, but it also means that you need to be striving for that perfect technique. Use the concept of Distance Per Stroke (DPS) as part of your set. This means doing something like a set of 16 x 25s (4 of each stroke) where you try to get your stroke count down as low as you can. Once you can't get it as low as possible, try to maintain that as long as you can.
There are a lot of other ways to learn how to be more efficient and use less energy in your swimming by finding your rhythm but that would make for an extremely long reading experience. If you have any questions about some ways you can learn to conquer your rhythm in swimming, head over to the ask me anything form on the front page and send me a note.
Otherwise, the next time you are in the water, take a few moments and think of a song that you don't mind repeating over and over again. Something with a nice constant beat and beautiful melody. Use it as a guide to work on slowing things down so you can focus on perfection of every element in your stroke. As with anything in swimming, constant repetition will help you form a habit that you can use when you get into a racing situation. I leave you with a video about the benefits of forming habits.
I would love to know how this concept helps improve your swimming or heck, even if it doesn't work for you. Leave a comment below.