I once had a coach tell me that the best way to swim is to imagine yourself as twice the size you are. Over my career as both an athlete and coach, I've seen a lot of swimmers who swim like individuals only half their size. What I mean by all this is that they shorten their strokes, especially in Freestyle or, as some call it, Front Crawl, which causes them to lose out on some much efficiency and power in the water. One big idea that I try to get swimmers to understand is the notion of swimming like someone twice their size.
I remember one particular race that I was in during my college days that shows how much difference swimming like a giant can make. It was the finals of the 200 meter Freestyle. I was going in first by half a second. I should mention that I'm only 5'11", which is pretty short in swimming standards. The guy next to me was a good 6 inches taller than me. He was a beast of a man. Muscular and tall. Essentially had that perfect swimmer's physique. Right before the race one of my buddies who was also in the heat came over to my lane and asked if I was nervous about going up against this huge guy. I remember giving the guy a once over, turned to my buddy and said "Nah. I've got this". My buddy didn't seemed convinced, but I was confident that I could beat this huge guy. Little did my buddy know, I had watched all the preliminary races of the 200 in the morning and remembered watching how this swimmer swam. He was a hard guy to forget. We stepped up for the race and began to swim. Not only did I beat him and win the race, but I was able to keep a 3 second distance between him and I. The win didn't come from his lack of effort either. In my peripheral vision, I could see this guy turning his wheels in an attempt to catch me.
How did I manage to beat this guy and the rest of the heat?
It wasn't because I was any more in shape than this rest of the field or more confident than anyone else. It came down to my technique. I took half as many strokes as he did. I swam as if I was his size if not larger. I kept my strokes long from start to finish. Each component of my pull was calculated to optimize efficiency. So how can you change your strokes to help greater efficiency?
Extend your entry
Often, swimmers make the mistake of coming in too close to their heads when they enter the water. They think that by getting their hand back into the water quickly from their recovery that they can be more efficient and faster. All this really does is make you fatigue faster. You are also missing out on a significant amount of water and power in your pull. When I'm discussing this with young swimmers, I want them to think that every time they are taking a pull they are trying to reach for the far wall. This idea can also help swimmer learn to rotate their bodies as well. By reaching with each stroke, a swimmer should be reducing their stroke count across the pool while making their strokes more efficient.
Your hand entry should be well ahead of your head. The optimal place to enter is about half the distance between where your hand and your elbow are if you extended your arm out. This isn't where you start your pull because you should include then roll your shoulder to get the full extension of your stroke.
If you feel your hand brush past your ear during your entry then you are cutting your stroke short. Your arm should be fully extended while still keeping your elbows up and high. This creates a scoop with your arm that you then can use to grab the water for your stroke. By shortening this by either entering next to your head or dropping your elbow you are losing that scooping motion and a significant amount of power in your stroke. More on this later on.
One word of caution here for longer forward entry is don't over extend. Find an entry point that rotates your shoulders for a longer catch, has your hand entering in front of your head , not next to and keeps your elbow high. If you over extend, then your elbow will automatically drops which can cause your hand to turn upwards meaning your palm will be facing the far wall. Your hand, especially your fingertips, should be angled slightly down. If you find your fingertips are pointed up towards the sky then you've over extended. This will essentially stop you dead in the water because you are creating a larger surface area with your hand. Here is a way to think about the right entry position - Fingertips below the wrist, wrist below the elbow.
A common drill for this is Distance per stroke (DPS). The goal during DPS is to only take 12 strokes per 25 meters. One thing to watch for when doing DPS is to not pause between strokes. It is good to work on your kick but don't glide for a long period of time. You should be training your body to understand how long strokes would feel in a race. Put a bit of effort into each lap so that you teach your body what efficient strokes feel like.
Don't leave anything behind
Swimmers not only cut off the top of their stroke, but also cut off the end of their stroke as well. When you finish your pull you don't want to end pull at your hips. You should pull past your hips instead. This extends your stroke and helps you push the water back behind your body while shooting your forward.
I like to use pull or scull to work on this technique. If you are using a pull buoy, I have athletes over emphasize the finish. I tell them to flick the water high and away from their bodies. This can't be done if your hand is only finishing next to your hips. Extending past the hips allows your hand to move into the proper position for that finishing motion. If you are attempting this will sculling, just scull with your arms by your side extended past your hips making the same small motions.
High elbow catches
Using a high elbow in your stroke can make not only make your more efficient in your stroke but help prevent shoulder injuries as well. By keeping your elbow high, you are creating that scooping motion which pulls the water back behind you rather than down towards the bottom of the pool. If you drop your elbow, you will be using your shoulders to move the water down, but with the scooping motion of a high elbow, you are pushing the water back using your chest and back muscles. This makes your stroke significantly stronger.
Keeping your elbow high throughout your entire stroke will help you have a better recovery and prepare your body for the next catch. It helps to rotate your body to the proper 45 degree angle as your roll your body to engage in your stroke with your opposite arm.
A great drill for this is fingertip drag. By keeping your elbows high, you then allow your fingertips to drag across the surface of the water bring you to the next catch.
To work on having longer strokes, you don't need to be in a pool. If you have a broom handle or long straight stick, then you can practice your long stroke in front of a mirror. This was a technique that Alexander Popov used to use for training. To do this, position your hands slightly further than shoulder width apart and bend at the waist. You'll need lots of room to practice this technique. Then begin swimming Freestyle. Watch as your elbows remain high throughout the entire exercise. Remember don't practice short strokes. Think long strokes.
Remember it doesn't matter how big you are outside the water, it's how big you can be in the water. The bigger you pretend to be, the more efficient your strokes will be in getting your across the pool. Train these longer strokes slowly at first so you truly understand how it feels and convert the technique to muscle memory before using it within a race situation.