When it comes to the best activities for overall fitness, swimming invariably floats to the top of the list. It’s an aerobic exercise without the jarring shock to the body that comes from jogging. It’s a strength-building exercise that uses the body’s natural motions, creating long lean muscles and functional strength, as opposed to the compact, movement-specific muscle gains achieved in weight lifting. And it’s an exercise that develops flexibility as well, because of the fact that the best way to swim is “tall and long.”
The king of swimming strokes is the freestyle, as it uses the largest number of muscles. Although athletes like Michael Phelps (recently voted “Fittest Man of All Time by “Men’s Health” magazine) make it look almost effortless, the freestyle is actually a complicated maneuver with several different key components—any of which could hamper or hasten your speed in the water.
Here are five tips to making your watery workout the best it can be.
One of the cardinal rules in swimming well is to reduce drag. Yet many swimmers can’t get their head around that idea—especially when it comes to their, um, head. Perhaps that’s because it simply feels unnatural to look at the bottom of the pool while swimming straight toward a concrete wall. But if you look forward with your head up while swimming, you simply create a barrier in the water, guaranteed to slow you down and make your strokes less efficient. Instead, lower your head so that it is mostly submerged in the water and aligned with your neck and back. When you need to take a breath, rotate your head slightly out of the water along with your natural stroke, then return smoothly to a down-facing position. Don’t worry, most pools have a line on the bottom that will tell you when you’re getting close to the wall and it’s OK to peek at the end of each length.
So now that you’re more level headed, take a few strokes to think about what else might be causing drag in the water. Oftentimes, it’s the legs. Instead of having them inline with the spine and submerged just below the surface of the water, many swimmers’ legs fall to an approximate 10-20 degree angle. To solve this, arch your back slightly and focus on fluttering your feet just at the surface of the water. This streamlines your posture and your legs will help you move forward rather than holding you back. If this is difficult at first, you could try using a pair of swimming flippers or a float held between the legs.
The best place for your hand to reenter the water on each stroke is as far as you can reach in front of your body, directly inline with your shoulder. You’ll also want to think of aiming your thumbs in the direction you want to go when your hand enters the water. The principle at work here is similar to that of the first two tips: you are trying to make your body as streamlined as possible. Flailing out to the sides with your strokes not only creates drag, but it wastes your effort; instead of propelling you forward, it sends your energy off course. To stay as aquadynamic as possible, it might help to think of swimming through the smallest possible hole you can make in the water.
Once your arm is under the water, the way in which you move it can impact the force you get. You actually want to keep the arm under the water as long as possible before the next stroke to maximize your thrust. A good way to do this is to think of creating an hourglass-type sweep with your arm. After it enters the water, pull your arm towards your bellybutton, then move it out again towards your hip as it gets ready to exit the water. Before you pull it out of the water for the next stroke, try to extend your arm as long as possible by your side.
When you swim, think about a rod going through the center of your body from the crown of your head to the place where your heels meet. Your job is to rotate along this axis as you swim. When your right arm enters the water, the right side of your body should be completely submerged in the water. Same holds true for the left side. This pivoting action will actually give you more power and keep your in-water profile as slim as possible. Rotating also gives you a chance to breathe. When the right side is submerged, rotate your head 90 degrees to the left and take a breath, blowing it out when you return your face under water. You can experiment with different breathing patterns, lifting your face out on every stroke, every second or third stroke or, as you get to be a more accomplished swimmer, every forth stroke or more.