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Five experiments you can do with your swimming

An Endless Pool is a good place to experiment with your swimming

Usually when we try new things in swimming it’s because we’ve been convinced – by a coach or a magazine article perhaps – that the change will make us faster or more efficient or reduce our risk of injury. The intention is that the change will be an improvement and it will become a permanent feature of our swimming stroke.

But how often do you try new things in swimming just out of curiosity or for fun, without having any intentions to change the way you swim? And how often do we run experiments with our swimming and compare two different ways of doing something, so we can learn what works best for us rather than just doing what we’re told? Possibly not very often, but being open minded about how you swim is a good thing. Experimenting is a way you can test ideas without committing to them. If you watch a YouTube video that suggests a way to swim faster, don’t just believe it and try to change how you swim, but experiment with it. Try to get some objective measures of its impact such as your speed or your stroke count. Get feedback from another swimmer: what does it look like? If you have the opportunity, try things in an Endless Pool, where the feedback is immediate (you shoot forwards if you’ve speed up and drop back if you’ve slowed down).

Don’t judge only on how it feels: any change to the way you swim may feel odd or wrong initially, so your own sense of whether the experiment makes an improvement is not always accurate. Also, try things a number of times before you reject them. Your execution will probably be poor the first time you try something, so you may not see the full benefit.

We’ve come up with five swimming experiments you can try. Keep your eyes and senses open for others. However, it’s important to remember that these are experiments. They might make you faster, but they might not. Just because something works for one person, it doesn’t mean it will work for you. You’re not trying to make a change, you’re testing a new idea and you can reject it any time you like.

1.       Add streamlining and dolphin kicking after a turn

When you’re swimming in a pool, how far do you travel off the wall before you start using your arms? Streamlining and dolphin kicking off the wall are essential skills for elite sprinters, some of which will travel up to 15m before surfacing. It’s not, in itself, a particularly useful skill in open water swimming. Consequently, many recreational open water swimmers don’t bother with it when pool swimming but why not give it a go? You may find it makes your pool swimming more satisfying. It could also help you become more streamlined in your swimming generally and gives your abs a bit of a work out.

Try the following:

·         Push off and glide. Lock your hands above your head (one hand above the other, thumb of the top hand hooked over the bottom one, upper arms pressed against your ears). Push a little deeper than usual, angle your hands to control your depth. Swim normally when you surface.

·         Push off, glide and flutter kick. As above but start kicking your usual front crawl kick just before you surface.

·         Push off, glide, one or more dolphin kicks and flutter kick. As above but insert one or more dolphin kicks before you start the flutter kick. Try different numbers of kicks.

A word of warning: spending time underwater will deplete you of much needed oxygen, which is why you don’t see so many long distance swimmers doing more than one or two dolphin kicks off a turn, so it’s best to try this on sprints or short intervals.

2.       Breathe every stroke

Watch Chinese 1500m world record holder Sun Yang coming into and out of his turns and you’ll see he takes a couple of extra breaths, unusually breathing both sides, every stroke. Breathing is a trade off between getting the oxygen you need for your muscles to function and maintaining the best possible streamline position. Most 50m sprinters will complete a length without a breath, whereas long-distance swimmers tend to breathe every two or sometimes every three strokes. Almost nobody breathes every stroke, except for Sun Yang as he comes into his turns. However, it might be a useful skill for outdoor swimmers, especially if you normally only breathe to one side. Snatching a quick breath to your weaker side can help with your navigation and gives you a chance to see where other swimmers are. You can of course do this by going to a traditional three-stroke bilateral pattern but the single stroke breath means less time holding your breath.

I wouldn’t recommend doing this every stroke, but try it out occasionally to see if you can snatch an extra breath without disrupting your swimming too badly.

Thanks to Tom Kean at Selkie Swim, who reminded us of Sun Yang’s breathing style in a recent guest blog.

3.       Try other breathing patterns

This is related to number 2 above but broader. Traditional breathing patterns are every two or every three strokes. The first has the advantage of supplying you with more air while the second is better for balance in your stroke and being able to see both sides. In the first instance, experiment with these two and perhaps time yourself over various distances to see what difference it makes. But these aren’t the only patterns. You could try 2-2-1-2-2-1 etc. (ie. the single stroke breath as described above), which combines the advantage of lots of air with breathing both sides but with the risk that the single stroke breath disrupts your stroke and breaks your streamline. Alternatively, you could try 2-2-3-2-2-3 or 2-3-2-3, or you could try 50m breathing one side and 50m breathing the other. Make up your own patterns. Keep an eye on the clock and count your strokes. What feels awkward initially may not actually be slowing you down.

4.       Work different stroke rates

If you really want to go to town with this, get a Tempo Trainer, a heart-rate monitor and a stop watch – ideally with someone else timing you swim. Swim a series of 50m repeats and systematically increase your stroke rate after each 50m. Record your time, number of strokes, maximum heart rate and your perception of effort. It would be a good idea to know what your habitual stroke rate is before you start. The question you want to answer is: is your habitual stroke rate the most efficient? You may find that you swim faster for less effort at a faster or slower stroke rate than you normally use.

5.       Vary your leg kick

For a lot of swimmers (I was one of them for years), kicking is something that just happens. In long distance freestyle, your legs provide very little propulsion, so why pay them much attention? The reason is that although your legs can’t do much to increase your speed, they can do a lot to decrease it. A bad kick is worse than no kick. Wetsuits and pull-buoys are both good at disguising the problems caused by poor kick mechanics and give swimmers another opportunity to ignore them.

Step 1 of this experiment is therefore simply to become aware of what your legs are doing while you swim. Without trying to change anything, see if you can understand what your legs are doing by just changing your awareness. Do you kick hard or gently? Do you kick six-times for every two arm strokes or twice (or perhaps four or eight times)? Is there a discernible pattern to your leg kick or is it mostly random? Is your kick co-ordinated with your arm pull? Can you feel your toes brushing against each other? How much do your knees bend?

After you’ve become aware of your leg kick, try changing it. Experiment with lighter and shallower kicks, or heavier deeper ones. What happens if you kick harder or more gently? Can you change the rhythm from two-beat to six beat without changing the intensity? Can you drive your entire stroke timing from your leg kick?

Experimenting with your swimming is different to making deliberate changes. It’s about exploring for yourself what works and what doesn’t. It should also make you a better swimmer. Even if you reject everything you try you will have improved your ability to self-monitor your swimming and hence be better placed to make changes if you wish to in the future.

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.