The approach to swimming described in this text has been developed by the staff of Magic, Incorporated. Swim instruction is a component of Magic’s Personal Awareness program, the purpose of which is to provide information for healthful, happy living.
This method has evolved over more than a decade of teaching in Costa Rica, in Chile, and in the Palo Alto, California area. We have tested it with young and old, rich and poor, exceptional athlete and severely handicapped.
For the past four years, a large fraction of our students have been participants in the Health Improvement Program sponsored by the Center for Disease Prevention at Stanford University. Since 1981, almost four hundred Stanford faculty, staff, and graduate students have learned to swim in these classes. Enrollees have varied in age from early twenties to late sixties. Many have been foreign nationals with limited English language fluency and little prior exposure to a culture in which swimming was a popular, or even a generally accepted, activity. Their occupational and educational backgrounds, and their prior athletic experiences have been diverse.
We have been gratified by the rapidity and ease with which virtually all of the people we have instructed have learned to swim well enough to dispel most of their fears of the water, and to enjoy the many benefits of aerobic training. We are at least equally pleased with the many collateral positive changes in the quality of their everyday experience which many of them report.
If you find the methods outlined here useful in your own teaching, we will be grateful for any evaluation you offer, and will appreciate any acknowledgment you think appropriate.
Palo Alto, California D.A.S.,Jr. October, 1984
Purpose of this Writing
We think learning to swim can be a joyful experience, even for someone who begins terrified of the water. Our intention is to encourage you, to steer you clear of attitudes and practices we have observed to be obstacles, and to guide you towards those we perceive to be a sound basis for enjoyable swimming. We intend what we say here to be valuable both to people learning to swim and to those who teach them.
Generalized concepts and specific techniques are useful to each of us in different ways. Please read with openness and skepticism. Experiment with the suggestions we make to discover which of them you can apply in a satisfying way.
We write from our own experience in learning to swim, and in teaching adults who come to us able to swim freestyle only with difficulty, if they swim at all. We perceive fear to be the major impediment to competence for most of those whom we teach. While respect for water hazards is important, blind fear is debilitating. Much that we write here is aimed at providing understanding of how we swim, and insight to the benefits reaped by those who swim well. With a better intellectual grasp of a subject and sufficient motivation, many of us more readily abandon irrational fear.
Most people we teach learn to move easily in deep water, swimming a comfortable crawl stroke without fatigue or shortness of breath for as long as they want to continue. If you seek this ability personally, or if you teach to this objective, we are writing for you.
Know-how and Know-why
We present many ideas pertinent to technique. The reader who learns only technique, however, will miss our kernel message. In learning to swim, as in any experience, we may find partial answers to questions like: “Who am I?” and “To what purpose do I live?” More accurate perception of how we are, and why we are this way, is both a benefit of, and a prerequisite to many kinds of change, including those by which we become better swimmers.
To learn to swim in the same way that many of us have acquired other technical skills is to learn only at the most mundane level. Beyond this lies what may be termed meta-learning, a process for challenging and overthrowing the habits of a lifetime to produce radical change. For those engaged in meta-learning, the mastery of technique is perhaps better seen as an inevitable consequent, rather than as a primary objective.
We swim to become more adaptive, healthier in the largest sense. We perceive that by doing so, we enhance our capacity both for personal survival and for service to others. We aim to thoroughly integrate our swimming practices with the rest of our lives, and we encourage you to do similarly.
We are Animals
Swimming is one way of affirming that we are alive. The internal processes by which we move, and which we actuate by self-propelled motion, are essential to our well-being. Despite a few millenia of increasingly sedentary human lifestyles,we remain genetically programmed to behave much like our nearest relatives of other species. Regular, varied movement is central to all their lives.
Ironically, in the past half century we have steadily and dramatically eroded our capability for independent movement, the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution, by unrestrained application of our technological mastery. People and cargos of all descriptions are now transported by converting fossil hydrocarbons to mechanical energy. Tasks performed directly by humans for countless generations we today accomplish with power tools and machinery. Thus subsidized by stored energy representing millions of years of sunlight, we have become abysmally ignorant of bioenergetics, the ordered flows of energy by which all life is sustained.
Those of us living in industrial societies have largely abandoned physical work, the application of force through distance. In doing so, we have restructured human existence so thoroughly that ours now bears little resemblance to that of our ancestors. This change has been far too rapid to be fully accommodated by genetic adaptation. By refusing to behave more like other animals, we are in effect denying our very genes. The epidemic of degenerative disease now occurring is perhaps only a small part of the price we pay for our folly. For the less stubborn, an obvious alternative exists: move.
Return to Water
Paleobiologists, physiologists, and other scientific researchers have gathered substantial evidence to support the theory that all life on this planet began in an aqueous medium not too different from the contemporary oceans. Human blood shares many electrolytic properties with the sea, and four-fifths of our mass is water, making most of us very close to the same density as water. For our first nine months we live immersed in fluid. Only after birth do we draw our first breath.
During our early development, while still in the womb, we pass through stages in which our anatomical structures bear striking similarity to parallel elements in both fish and amphibians. Even as adults, portions of our brain are analogous to the amphibian brain, and purportedly perform many of the same functions in us as they do in our less recently-evolved relatives. These factors all corroborate the claim that only a short time, evolutionarily speaking, has passed since life first ventured onto dry land. Swimming is an activity for which humans remain well-adapted. We might even consider it more to be remembered than learned anew.
A Different Consciousness
Habit and World-View
By our collective belief in the dominant values of this culture, we create a kind of social inertia. Since everyone apparently shares a similar world view, we have little incentive to see the arbitrariness of our common myths, or to search for alternatives. Like the majority of people in almost every society, we see ourselves as “The People” and our vision as “The Truth”. By accepting without question many of the beliefs which we have held since childhood, we impede successful adaptation. Thus handicapped, we scramble through life, like animals fleeing the beaters’ drums only to confront the hunters’ guns.
Many of us who live in the United States center our current world-view on the notion of steady progress through increasing manipulation and domination of the earth. This is a fragmented outlook, pitting humans against the rest of nature, and against each other in a mad rush to exploit our external environment. With this philosophy, we emphasize our distinctness from all other life, camouflaging and concealing much animal nature behind clothing, cosmetics, and closed doors. We celebrate brain over muscle, and many of us only reluctantly admit that movement is necessary to health. We need only contrast the pained ungainliness of the average jogger with the grace of a randomly selected dog or cat to perceive how horribly mutilated we have become.
In many societies where sedentary living has become common, people are now recognizing that luxury and ease are different from health. Throughout the industrialized world, ever larger numbers of humans are by choice living more simply, and eschewing the dubious conveniences of the petroleum age to mesh more harmoniously with the rest of the environment. Swimming is for some of us a part of the transition to a life of greater vitality, in which we also consciously protect those qualities of the environment on which all life depends.
Adopting a regular practice of vigorous and self-propelled movement can imply enormous change for someone who has passed many years occupying a seat of one kind or another for most of the day. As we replace patterns of behavior deeply embedded after decades of constant repetition, with unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable actions, we may become unsettled in other aspects of living as well. Ideas we previously embraced uncritically may begin to appear more questionable. Personality traits we considered immutable may seem easier to reshape. More than a few people have reported feeling completely transformed after a few weeks of regular aerobic exercise.
Swimming for Pleasure
The joys of swimming are many. Immersed in water, we are isolated from the sights, the sounds, and the tactile stimuli which characterize life on land. Some discover that in such an environment, a new concentration is possible. Buoyed against the pull of gravity, we become weightless, and are able to more fully relax muscles which remain in tension almost constantly when we sit or stand.
The physiological benefits which generally accompany a regular swimming practice are well-documented. When we swim continuously at a moderate pace, breathing becomes deep and rhythmic. Heartbeat accelerates and increases in power. Over time, arteries and veins expand, proliferate, and gain elasticity. Muscles and joints from face to feet strengthen and stretch into smooth mobility. We develop endurance, strength, and coordination.
Practiced with common sense, swimming is gentle and relatively hazard-free. The jarring and pounding inherent to running, and the falls, blows, and collisions common in other land-based sports are eliminated.
Beyond such easily described rewards lie more subtle pleasures. Ideas about consciousness and awareness are now propagating rapidly in our society. Spiritual traditions drawn from diverse cultures are being embraced by those who see in them a path to greater joy. Millions have adopted meditative practices emphasizing stillness or concentration; millions more now approach sport, dance, and other forms of movement with the purpose of developing awareness.
Interestingly, those who teach such disciplines very frequently use water metaphorically. Its properties are quite extraordinary, yet it is so much a part of our lives that we have become all but oblivious to it. Water penetrates, dissolves, erodes, carries, presses, flows, evaporates, tempers, even freezes. A swimmer comes to know water intimately. Evolution from the rigidity and stiffness which frequently characterize novice swimmers to the sensitivity and easy precision which are marks of those who have become more at one with the water can contribute to, and be facilitated by, important shifts in consciousness.
Writing this, we coined the phrase “swimming zen” to convey a sense of total immersion in the “now”, of surrender to the experience of the moment, of being “in the flow.” These are ideas only recently popularized in America, yet they are fundamental to philosophical and religious traditions shared by many millions. An interlude in a pool, focusing upon the sensations of swimming and leaving all else behind, can be a marvelous way to regain the feelings of calm and tranquility that are becoming ever rarer in modern life.
Preoccupied with progress as we are, we are almost constantly future oriented, less intent upon enjoying today, or this instant, than upon using it as a steppingstone to a better tomorrow. We are commonly full of ambition, and many feel so compelled that the days seem too short. We push and shove to somehow pack a little more living into each one, all the time feeling that we leave countless “should’s” unfulfilled. The foolishness of these attitudes is evident to anyone who pauses long enough to reflect on the fact that the earth’s period of rotation, which determines our day, is very unlikely to change perceptibly for the remainder of human history.
We can make swimming a transcendent state, and discard, if only temporarily, the cumbersome cultural baggage of notimehurryhurryrushabout. Some days we may swim to experience a feeling of relaxed concentration. Others we may focus on a single aspect of beingbreath, for exampleand imagine that we are entirely that, neither more nor less, as we move along. Swimming like this can be completely engrossing. When we swim with full attention, all else can apparently cease to exist. To learn to swim more meditatively, with greater awareness, is to move closer to seeing the potential for living more this way at other times.
Integration of Self
With flourishing interest in consciousness has come re-examination of the distinctions traditionally drawn among mind, brain, body, and soul. We balk at even repeating the vocabulary, wary lest doing so reinforce a fragmented and misleading concept of self. We intend to describe a swimming practice in which the whole person, subsuming all anyone ever imagined to lie in the amorphous categories labeled physical, mental, and spiritual, is engaged.
Limits to Number
As we have celebrated science and technology above all other elements of Westen Culture, so have we legitimized the very heavy reliance upon measurement which is characteristic of these disciplines. Quantification seems one of the most pervasive elements of modern American life. Even if we “hate math” we attach numbers to human experience so enthusiastically that we are rarely without them. In learning to swim, most people begin quite early to quantify: how many laps, how much time, how fast. Having learned to live with numerical, externally-established standards in myriad other situations, we doubt our ability to swim far, fast, or hard enough by simply relying upon how we feel.
Some use swimming as a path to liberation from such notions, and as a means by which to discover the freedom born of confidence in purely subjective, personal standards. That many of us are afraid to trust such a method is perhaps a persuasive reason for learning to do so. You may find a certain balance in a practice which includes occasions for lap-counting and clock-watching, as well as for ignoring these things.
Even those whose purpose is to swim a certain distance as quickly as possible often discover that excessive concern for quantification interferes with optimal performance. We can easily compromise the awareness essential to swimming by giving too much attention to externalities. Furthermore, speed depends upon both energy conversion per unit time and efficiency of technique. When relying exclusively upon the clock, we are without means to distinguish that portion of our speed attributable to conditioning from that which results from technical skill.
There are quantitative methods by which some claim to distinguish these. Counting the strokes taken in swimming one length can be a helpful indicator of how much slippage is occurring between hands and water; however, it is also dependent upon arm length, and strength, and the swimmer’s velocity over the time during which the count is made. Even where we use expensive scientific apparatus to monitor the air inhaled and exhaled by the swimmer, and to compute oxygen uptake (and implicitly, energy conversion) per unit body mass, as a function of velocity, variables like differences in basal metabolism, or interference of equipment with ordinary swimming motion, prevent perfect isolation of effects due to technique.
An alternative to the methods of quantification is to learn to feel effectiveness. By looking for the general principles applicable to swimming and conscientiously remembering them, we can discover new economies of motion, new consonances of living person and moving water. For many, this is one of the greatest joys of swimming.
Consideration for Others
Experienced swimmers have developed an etiquette designed to insure that all of the people sharing a facility enjoy it in safety and comfort. Each of us contributes to the maintenance of such an atmosphere by being courteous and by encouraging others to do so. Many will appreciate us if we are steadfast in remembering and in reminding others to be aware of the following:
- We may reduce our own risks and those of our fellow swimmers by recognizing, advertising, and avoiding the hazards of swimming alone.
- Even where a regular lifeguard is on duty, we can contribute to the welfare of all by learning the emergency procedures at the site, and by mastering skills like life-saving, first-aid, and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.
- We can improve the quality of pool water by showering before we swim, especially if we are wearing cosmetics or other skin preparations, or if we have been perspiring.
- Diving or jumping into the water within a body length of someone unaware of our impending entry is dangerous.
- We can increase the number of people who can comfortably share a limited space by circle swimming in a lane where others are moving at the pace we swim. Only two swimmers can safely split a lane; many more can circle swim in one. If everyone is passing us or if we are passing everyone else, we may improve the situation by looking for another lane.
- Goggles protect eyes from chemicals, contaminants, and small objects in the water and improve the clarity of underwater vision, enabling us to avoid collisions.
- If we are about to leave a pool wall as another swimmer is beginning a closed turn, waiting a few seconds until that person is clear reduces the chance of collision.
- If we swim with wide-ranging arm or leg motion, being aware of people passing, and narrowing our movement or pausing to let them by reduces the possibility that we will kick or hit them.
- Slowing a bit if someone is passing us, and accelerating if we are passing another person, helps maintain a safe distance between swimmers traveling in opposite directions.
- If we stop to rest at a wall, staying clear of the lane marks allows swimmers who rely upon them to turn unhindered.
- If we accidentally kick or hit someone, stopping to apologize and make certain that she or he is uninjured is a way to maintain an atmosphere of congeniality.
- When a facility is crowded, we may improve the situation for all by refraining from activities which demand more space per swimmer: swimming butterfly or breast stroke, diving and jumping, playing tag or water polo, using flotation devices, exercising along a wall, and practicing snorkeling techniques may all fit into this category, depending upon circumstances.
- By supervising children at all times we can aid them in learning water safety and respect for others.
Most people swim to relax and enjoy. Consideration for each other facilitates this. To anyone who swims regularly, the value of the guidelines enumerated here is evident.
People come to swimming thinking that it is just another sport, to be learned as a series of ever more carefully honed techniques. This is only a part of the story. When we enter the water, we change environments quite dramatically. Much normal behavior will be completely ineffectual in the liquid medium. Furthermore, even behaviors as routine and automatic as breathing, though easily accessible in the familiarity of the air/land environment, will be quickly forgotten by the disoriented adult novice in deep water.
Rather than feeling frustrated by the apparent difficulty of learning to swim well, we might remember how few people ever do this. Happily, the path to becoming at home in the water often includes conquest of many of the attitudes and beliefs by which we limit our satisfaction in other aspects of living.
The Pivotal Role of Breath
For most adults learning to swim, breathing is the sticking point. Children often take to the water almost instinctively, handling a few drops in the nose or an unexpected gulp playfully. They are perhaps less aware of the risk of drowning, or less thoroughly conditioned to be polite in things like nose-blowing, spitting, and breathing. For whatever reason, most youngsters soon learn to breathe out with face submerged, and to expel unwanted water from airways without difficulty. Perhaps you find this easy as well. If so, you may want to skim the next section, or to read it more with an eye to better appreciating your skill and to developing a capability to teach others.
A Gentle Warning
To think we know what we have yet to learn is to be treading a path to frustration. Please be cautious in judging your ability to breathe. Test your competence by beginning to swim freestyle at the easiest pace you can imagine. We can swim at a level of exertion approximately equivalent to walking at a moderate speed. After a bit of conditioning to strengthen the muscles of arms and torso, people who breathe fully and swim relaxedly are usually able to continue for at least five or ten minutes without stopping, even if their technique is otherwise quite poor. To feel winded after a shorter period is to very likely have something to learn about breathing.
Many swimmers refuse to practice breathing, feeling bored or embarassed when they do. When we are bored, we are precluded from swimming our best. We are likely repeating habitual behavior without conscious attention. Steady change is a confirmation of vitality. By practicing breathing we may become more aware of how we move and think and feel, both in and out of the water.
If, while practicing breathing, we imagine that we are an observer standing at water’s edge, what do we see? Is this person relaxed? Can we see enjoyment? What else do we notice? Are there pauses in rhythm? How does the mouth move? Is the facial expression gentle? Are the eyes open and seeing? If we are shown a film of people who are in the water practicing breathing, will we be able to describe the ways in which each of them is similar to, or different from, us?
Embarassment also is incompatible with joyful swimming. We are embarassed when we perceive disparity between how we claim to be and how others see us. To be embarassed is to implicitly reject and deny what we are. Swimming well demands that we perceive clearly and accept. By admitting ignorance, we can shed embarassment, and become more open to learning.
The water is without the ability to be influenced by pretense. When we swim, the water behaves in a manner both definite and predictable, and quite independent of any impression of competence we seek to create. The integrity of this interaction is a potential source of very accurate information. As we become less concerned with pretending, and more attentive to how we feel in the water, we can methodically relax each superfluous tension. In so doing we may become ever more efficient, and ever better able to sense what motion will produce the result we intend.
Many of us have learned to be extremely competitive. We feel almost constantly on trial, needing to justify our existence, or at least our status. Only with difficulty do we relax. Already ubiquitous and apparently still growing reliance upon psychoactive substances like alcohol, coffee, tranquilizers, and “recreational” drugs is evidence of our quandary. Adult non-swimmers often enter the water with a sense of failure, thinking, “I should have learned to swim as a child.” Like adult beginners in many fields, we set our sights high: “I can learn to swim. This won’t take long.” We compare our own ineptitude with others’ skill and imagine “catching up” or “being like them soon” without the slightest inkling of the nature of the path from where we are to where they are!
All such thinking is diversion. To learn to swim, we will first learn how we are in the water today. Thoughts of others, or of our own past or future, are rarely of much value to this process. Of course we are likely to be to some extent motivated by imagined future triumphs, but such dreams may be reserved for the moments when we contemplate skipping a swim because we are feeling lazy or the weather is inclement. We may also take opportunities out of the water to visualize the kind of swimming to which we aspire, but this technique, practiced with diligence and concentration, is a far cry from undisciplined daydreaming and wishful thinking.
When we are in the water with the intention of learning, we will benefit most by being completely present, and content with how we are. To be inventing different realities tied to how we “should”, “could”, or even “will” can be a way of detracting from our ability to focus on what we are right now. If we are to swim joyfully and efficiently, we will cultivate substantial skill. Only after much practice do we gain the capacity for easy automaticity which is so obvious in accomplished swimmers. Rather than feel dissatisfied and impatient with our incompetence, we might better focus on each small triumph in awareness, knowing that by such an attitude we may enhance our learning ability, and put more joy both into swimming, and into the rest of life.
Life and Breath
Although we live thirty-eight weeks in the womb without drawing a single breath, we are from birth dependent upon a steady supply of gaseous oxygen. Recognition of this appears to be a universal element of human consciousness; virtually all of us recognize the threat of suffocation. By adulthood, those of us who have yet to learn to swim have often developed a real aversion to water.
Swimming, like most skills, is best learned in a state of relaxed attention. We are able to remain calm in the water only when we are confident in our ability to breathe at will. In the absence of such assurance, we are so preoccupied with very real and immediate questions of survival that we are without the capacity to focus attention on developing an effective stroke and moving in harmony with the water.
I started swimming as a child. I became comfortable swimming freestyle in the second quarter-century of my life. Only after devoting many hours to breathing practice did I learn to: (1) exhale and inhale sufficient quantities of air to support the work of swimming, (2) always remain close to fully submerged, even during inhalation, and (3) synchronize breathing with other movement. Like many swimmers, I failed for many years to recognize the discomfort and fear I felt when face-down in the water. In my eagerness to swim, I neglected the kind of concentrated breathing practice by which we may lay a foundation for later development of efficient stroke technique. Despite a level of strength and endurance which left me able to run, cycle, or row for hours, I was exhausted and breathless after a few lengths of freestyle swimming in a twenty-five yard pool.
This emphasis upon breath may seem exaggerated, but fear is inimical to joy, as well as to concentration. To avoid struggle in the water, and to keep our swimming joyful, we learn to breathe. This is a prerequisite to a swimming practice in which we are each day a little more aware of how we move, and each day moving a little more fluidly and in oneness with the water. Swimming this way can be restful, rather than laborious. By remaining always within the limits of comfort, we are able to direct attention to the discovery of more effective stroke technique, rather than to survival. Calm and focused, we may continue indefinitely to refine our swimming. Before you press onward, learn to breathe!
Frequency and Volume of Breath
Humans use oxygen to convert chemical energy from food to kinetic energy of muscle. The oxygen required for this process, and the carbon dioxide produced as a result, enter and leave us through the lungs. Frequent breathing is essential to sustain the energy conversion process necessary to swimming.
Most distance swimmers breathe fully every second or third arm pull (i.e. — left, right, breathe…or right, left, breathe…;left, right, left, breathe, right left, right, breathe…) Beginning swimmers often breathe less frequently, despite the fact that their shallow, fear-constricted breath and the inefficiency of their stroke technique make rapid breathing essential. In fact, breathing with every single arm pull can be a useful way to overcome the imbalance between work output and oxygen availability that leaves us gasping after only a few strokes.
To develop a cycle of breath holding, anoxia, fear, rigidity, inability to feel the water, inefficiency in swimming, difficulty in breathing, breath holding, etc. is to be swimming into a dead end. Learn to breathe often from the outset. Avoid ever feeling desperate for that next breath.
Total oxygen available to the swimmer depends upon volume, as well as frequency of breath. Refusal to exhale fully with face in water is perhaps the greatest impediment to learning to swim joyfully. Exhalation is prerequisite to inhalation. If you intend to take a really deep breath, you will begin by exhaling fully. Otherwise, a substantial volume of the gas which fills you after you inhale will be stale air, left over from a previous breath, and already oxygen-depleted. Since oxygen is absorbed across the membranous surface of the lungs at a rate which declines with reductions in the concentration of oxygen in the breath, there will be less oxygen available in a breath which incorporates excessive residual air.
Swimmers who exhale any amount of air less than the maximum they can forcefully expel suffer this handicap. Yet even after many miles and many hours of swimming, most of us are reluctant to exhale fully. The idea of being face-down in the water and out Vision
A pair of well-fitted goggles, adjusted so that they exclude water without applying excessive pressure, is invaluable. Under normal circumstances, much sensory input is visual. We are justifiably apprehensive about moving while unable to see. Without goggles, underwater vision is severely impaired, and relaxed attention to swimming may be much more difficult to achieve.
There are several types of goggles, varying widely in shape and construction. By experimenting carefully you can likely find some comfortable for you. What feels good to a person with an angular face may allow water to pour in around anothers full cheeks or wide-set eyes. If you see better with corrective lenses, consider wearing your contacts under your goggles, or purchasing a pair of prescription goggles which will enable you to see clearly. Hair long enough to interfere with vision can be tied back or covered with a cap, which will also improve streamlining, and conserve warmth.
The following exercises, designed to develop confidence in ability to breathe adequately, are based on the ideas that fear can be overcome if confronted gradually, and that complicated motor skills are frequently best mastered by small increments.
Begin by finding a comfortable place to sit quietly, and become aware of the rhythm and depth of your breathing. At the outset, observe without interference. How do you move to breathe? What do you feel? Place a hand over the abdomen and feel the outward pressure as breath enters and the lungs expand downward, and the inward movement as lungs collapse and breath is exhaled.
Next, begin to consciously alter your pattern, breathing in and out quickly and shallowly a few times, then quickly and deeply, then slowly and shallowly, and finally slowly and deeply. Set up different rhythms, counting either silently or aloud, and altering both the total number of beats per breath cycle and the ratio of inhalation to exhalation. Practice breathing through the mouth alone (gently pinch the nostrils closed with two fingers), and through the nose alone. Then change the pattern to inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose. Invent your own different combinations of rhythm and volume using nose, mouth, and both. Hold the breath for a second or two between inhalation and exhalation. Then interrupt each of these with stops, breathing first in, then out, in several segments with brief holds between.
Go slowly. Be patient. Breathing too rapidly and deeply can result in unusually high blood oxygen levels, which leave us dizzy or faint. If you experience difficulty in managing the breath as outlined here, be assured that you are one of many. A very small percentage of adults, aside from those who have devoted conscious attention to breathing, can easily shift among such diverse patterns. Many people learn to swim without attaining this capability; however, some degree of breath control is essential to swimming, and lack thereof is very commonly the weakest part of a novice’s technique.
After becoming more aware of breath in the safety of the land environment, we are better prepared to breathe effectively in the water. Enter the water gently at a place where you can stand comfortably with at least head and shoulders above the surface. If a wall or some other immovable object is available, hold onto it with both hands, so that you feel as secure and comfortable as you can. Remaining stationary, repeat the exercises which you performed on land. Be aware of tension and anxiety. If you feel uneasy, move to shallower water, or even sit at poolside with just feet and ankles wet.
You are developing a new set of habits. Have fun! See if you can find the point where you shift from ease to discomfort, and practice just to the calm side of it. Most of us discover that by persistently approaching situations in which we are uneasy, without actually stepping over the boundary between clear-headedness and fear-dominated thinking, we expand the limits of what we can do with pleasure and confidence. Continue the practices outlined here, gradually moving to shoulder deep water as you become more comfortable and relaxed.
Stop controlling the breath, and fall into whatever breathing pattern is most natural for you. Imagine that you are standing on a hill, overlooking some pleasant pastoral scene, feeling serene and at peace. Become aware of inhalation and exhalation, without taking any action to alter them. Flex each leg a few times; then shake each arm then; swivel the head from side to side. Tense the shoulders; and release them. Tighten the stomach; and then loosen it. Do whatever else seems appropriate to discover and abandon superfluous tension.
Now, keeping rhythm and volume as they are, begin breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose. Be certain to close the mouth quickly and tightly at the end of each inhalation, almost as though the lips were cutting off the tail of the incoming stream of air. Exhale steadily through the nose.
Once you have made this pattern automatic, start bending, then straightening, the knees a little with each exhalation, so that the water level rises around the neck, then falls again. Gradually increase the amount of knee-bending until the water covers first the chin, then the mouth, as you exhale. Feel how the air leaving the nose disturbs the surface of the water as you sink deeper. Practice blowing a few bubbles with each exhalation, being careful to begin exhaling before the nose drops through the surface, and to continue breathing out until it is well clear of the water again.
As you become adept at keeping water out of the nose, bend the knees more fully. Continue to increase the depth to which you submerge until head is completely underwater. Face forward and keep feet under you and firmly on the bottom. Increase the volume of each breath, and be conscious of exhaling fully. Stop with head above surface, and check to be sure that you exhaled fully, by breathing out further if you can. Repeat this sequence until you are consistently exhaling completely, that is, until you arrive above the surface without the ability to exhale further.
Although the few drops of water which occasionally roll into the mouth during inhalation may seem disconcerting at first, most people soon learn to expel them easily with the next exhalation. After awhile, you will be able to establish a rhythm which you can continue indefinitely. The ability to swim easily will come only after you reject the strategy of breath-holding. Now, while you are safe and comfortable, standing on the bottom and moving in a way which requires little energy, is an ideal opportunity to learn to breathe.
We can become more aware of what we are doing by keeping eyes open at all times and looking around us. Perhaps surprisingly, this is for many an aid to breathing consciously and easily. Practice by allowing awareness of breathing to displace all other sensation. Listen to breath. See it by watching bubbles. We can taste the difference in the air, “flavored” as it is by water. Become engrossed with breathing. When you feel that you can continue forever, do a hundred or so, counting. If you find this easy, you’re probably ready to learn something else.
Many novice swimmers find easiest a rhythm in which breath is always mobile. Exhalation and inhalation are connected elements of a continuous cycle, and the boundary between them is all-but-imperceptible. Accomplished freestylers often adopt a pattern of inhalation, pause, and explosive exhalation. Since the ability to remain submerged without exhaling, and without taking water through the nose, is a skill useful in a variety of contexts, you will probably benefit by beginning to learn it early.
Most of us are familiar with the way in which an inverted drinking glass can be submerged without filling with water. The explanation for this phenomenon is that the air within the glass fills the space and prevents water from entering. We may think of the nostrils of a person performing the breathing exercises outlined above as the mouth of the drinking glass. So long as the air pressure at the nostril is sufficient, water stays out. If we remain vertical in the water, we can maintain adequate pressure without exhaling.
To learn this, inhale deeply above the surface, then settle down into the water while exhaling gently and steadily. Once beneath the surface, slow exhalation to the barest trickle of air, marked by a narrow column of tiny bubbles moving upward past the eyes. Then, stop exhaling altogether for a few seconds. Finally, resuming exhalation, move upwards into the air. With practice, we can learn to stop and start the exhalation repeatedly during a single submersion. Once we have accomplished this, we can move to holding the breath as we enter the water and for a time thereafter, and expelling it forcefully as we rise through the surface.
Rotating to Inhale
Accomplished freestyle swimmers rotate the head, rather than lift it, in order to inhale. To begin to learn this motion, stand in water a bit more than waist deep, with feet about shoulder width apart, knees flexed slightly and hands on thighs, so that upper body is close, and more or less parallel, to the surface. Begin as before, with a full exhalation and a deep inhalation. Then bend forward with hips and knees until upper body and face are in the water, and start a cycle of exhalation in the water, and inhalation facing to the side and slightly to the rear.
Pull mouth to the high side of face and shape it to allow you to remain low in the water. With care you can keep one eye underwater, even while inhaling. Turn head first, following with shoulders, and bending knee and elbow on the “down” side to facilitate this rotation. If, in comparing the motions of breathing to each side, you discover discrepancy, choose the more direct and comfortable movement and use it to both left and right. Once again, practice until you can continue indefinitely.
While breathing this way, you may learn to recognize the visual pattern which accompanies efficient head-turning motion. Gazing in the direction you are facing, mostly forward though slightly downward, without actually focusing on anything in particular, identify the approximate center of visual field, and observe how you direct it with each breath cycle. As you turn to inhale, this point arcs sidewards and backwards along the bottom, then upwards and backwards through the surface to a point behind you and to the side. After inhalation it returns along a similar trajectory.
If you cause the center of visual field to jump through the surface as you begin to turn, you are lifting the head, rather than pivoting it, to find breath. If you plunge it downwards to a point nearly beneath you when you return to the water, you are carrying it too deeply, and looking ahead too little. To trace the pattern outlined here, rotate the head so that chin approaches shoulder, allowing you to look rearward as you inhale. To face forward with head above water while swimming freestyle is difficult and inefficient.
In some ways, breathing to the side while standing in shallow water is more difficult than doing so while swimming. When we are moving relative to water, we are actually bending the surface. Like the bow of a boat, the head pushes up a wave as we move through the water. Following close behind is a depression in which we may breathe. Because the surface here is lower than that of the surrounding water, we can expose mouth and nose to air with less turning. Furthermore, in our bent-over position, few of us can open chest and arch upper back as we do when swimming freestyle. We face more to the pool bottom and are less able to rotate freely, and we are constrained in using all the muscles by which we expand the chest cavity to breathe deeply.
Symmetry Alternate sides with each breath. This may well be essential to the development of a symmetrical freestyle. At first almost everyone feels more comfortable breathing to one side or the other. Learning to breathe to the opposite side will only become more difficult if you neglect to practice from the outset. Swimmers who breathe to either side can analyze each stroke element in terms of bilateral symmetry. Anyone who breathes to only one side sacrifices this mode of learning, and reduces swimming from a balanced movement to one which promotes asymmetrical development.
Lest this seem of little importance, reflect upon the growing asymmetry evident as humans age, and upon the frequency with which aches and pains are unilateral. By overusing one side and underutilizing the other, we may accelerate the rate at which we weaken and wear out, and increase the likelihood of a wide variety of somatic complaints. Swimming provides a gentle way to regain a little balance in our motor competence. Why squander the opportunity?
There are ways of simulating some aspects of the freestyle breathing motion while standing on dry land. Begin by standing with feet shoulder width apart, about two feet from the wall of some room with an eight to ten foot ceiling. Facing upwards towards the line where wall and ceiling meet and reaching as high as you comfortably can with both arms, you are oriented as though swimming directly away from the ground, towards the ceiling. By exhaling, dropping one arm, arching backwards slightly, and rotating head, shoulders, and hips until you can look over the shoulder of the dropped arm and see calves and heels, you approximate in an exaggerated way the rolling and turning by which to prepare for inhalation. By inhaling, and turning to look at the juncture of wall and ceiling while swinging the dropped arm back overhead, you imitate the return to face-in-water swimming position.
Lay the foundation for a relaxed “recovery” of the pulling arm to a position of extension before you, by learning to use shoulder motion to swing the arm back to the overhead position, rather than using contracted biceps to carry it tensely. By repeating this exercise to each side many times, you can ingrain a pattern of movement by which to remain low in the water and streamlined, even while inhaling. While lacking the interaction with water of bent-over, shallow water breathing, this practice can be an excellent way to become acquainted with the many turning movements necessary to efficient breathing.
There is a simple technique for remaining at the surface which requires little skill or strength. During the 1940’s it was used by the United States Navy to “drownproof” thousands of sailors. Before you move out of water where you can comfortably stand, be certain that you can stay afloat easily for an indefinite period. If you go into deep water feeling apprehensive, you likely will be impeded in further learning.
Virtually everyone floats with lungs inflated. Even those of us who are mostly muscle and bone, and are therefore relatively dense compared with water, will usually remain at the surface if we take a deep breath and lie face-down and motionless in the water. Legs and arms may hang down, but with upper torso full of air, shoulders and chest are buoyant. Waves or currents may bounce us or carry us along, but in all but extreme circumstances we are effortlessly stable in this position. You can confirm this by personal experiment.
Stand in chest-deep water, take a deep breath, and bend forward until you face the bottom with head and torso completely submerged. You will likely sense weight being lifted off legs, and feet rising from the bottom. By doing this slowly and gradually, you can feel the added buoyancy which comes with each increment of submersion. As you become more confident, you can learn to allow arms, legs, and head to just dangle, supported by the water, rather than by muscular work. When you are ready for another breath, you can easily enough find the bottom, exhale with face still in water, stand, and inhale.
If you have already practiced breathing in shallow water, exhaling below the surface and inhaling above it, you will likely be able to repeat the actions outlined above many times in succession. To refine this practice, and bring it closer to what you will eventually do in deep water, you can put feet on the bottom, exhale forcefully, as if blowing the nose with head still submerged, lift head directly, inhale once, and drop back into the water relaxed, holding the breath until ready to repeat the cycle. Practicing this, you will discover that you sink slightly as you enter the water, then float back to the surface and remain there, buoyed by the air in full lungs.
Next, learn to move arms and legs in a manner which lets you inhale above the surface without relying upon the bottom. The arm action most people consider easiest begins with upper arms pressed to ears, and forarms folded across top of head. In a single broad sweep with palms angled outwards and downwards, bring the hands across in front and out to the sides, pressing steadily downward.
Many people instinctively know how to “scull” with hands and arms in order to rise from the water. If you prefer this movement, or if you have mastered the single sweep motion and want further challenge, practice to discover an outward-inward-outward tilt of palms synchronized with an out-in-out arm motion to increase the effectiveness of downward pressure.
Different kinds of kicking, from flutter, to scissors, to bicycling, to “frog” can augment the lift from hands and arms. The best of these for any of us will be that from which we feel greatest lift with least energy expended. As you become more experienced and confident, hone these motions until you do only the minimum work necessary.
Careful breathing is crucial to your success. Only by holding breath until you are floating stably, then exhaling rapidly while employing arms and legs to lift head for a quick inhalation, can you minimize the energy necessary to continue the sequence. To wait to exhale until already above the surface is to linger too long with head out of water, supported by muscular work of arms and legs rather than by buoyancy.
The inhalation actually comes after arm and leg motion is complete, while you still have upward momentum. As soon as you have inhaled, relax all but the breath-holding muscles and fall back into the water. The less you rise from the water, the easier your task. The pattern is one of: brief bursts of arm and leg action accompanying exhalation, quick inhalation, and longer periods of loose inaction and breath holding.
At this point, your major objective is confidence. Repeat the cycle again and again, avoiding touching the bottom even though you know you can do so if necessary. After you have continued for perhaps a hundred repetitions, recovering from an occasional gulp of water without panicking or putting feet down, you are ready to move to water too deep for you to stand with head above surface. There, under the watchful eye of a friend who is strong enough and well-enough trained to stand between you and drowning, you can test your competence until you are assured of your ability to remain afloat indefinitely.
One of the keys to joyful swimming is to be always alert for ways to change by small increments. In this manner we can maintain a sense of calm even as we experiment with new skills. Many people find the transition to freestyle swimming from exercises where we stand with feet on bottom in shallow water, or from a simple technique like drownproofing, too large to be made in a single leap. Bobbing is an extension of easier practices by which we may further develop our ability to coordinate arm and leg motion with breathing patterns similar to those used in freestyle swimming.
As adults, we often approach freestyle swimming with very definite ideas about the movements we will use and the order in which we will learn them. With such attitudes we can impose severe obstacles to swimming competence. First, the picture-perfect freestyle many of us seek is accessible only to those who are exceptionally relaxed, strong, flexible, coordinated, and somatically aware. Few of us will ever swim to Olympic gold, or even come close. Secondly, each element of stoke technique is affected by the others. To devote too much attention to any particular one is to risk ignoring the weak link. Finally, like walking, swimming is a trial and error process, even when we learn as adults. Just as we now walk far differently from the way we did as children, so will we someday swim far differently from the way we now do. In the interim, we can gain much by staying open to new ways of doing things, and by developing the kind of awareness that lets us change easily from one technique to another as we become more adept.
Begin with Breath
To begin bobbing, find someone competent to supervise you in water at least seven feet deep, where you are without the ability to touch bottom, even when hanging by hands from the gutter along the pool wall. Establish a regular breathing pattern, this time holding onto the wall and using arms to rise and fall as you exhale below the surface and inhale above it. Remain in a vertical position, facing the wall. As in shallow water breathing practices, pause occasionally out of the water to see whether you can possibly exhale more fully. Even though you may feel you can sustain this motion with partial breaths, breathe out completely and forcefully. To carry a habit of incomplete exhalation away from the wall is to impose a severe handicap on later practices.
Be attentive to any signs of superfluous tension, and focus upon being loose from head to toe. Do only that work which is necessary to lift head from water and breathe. Those who are mostly muscle and bone with little fat will sink more slowly and less deeply if we wait to exhale, just as we did when practicing drownproofing, until we are ready to bring face above surface and inhale. If you adopt this method, be especially careful to breathe out rapidly as you press arms downward to rise, so that you may inhale immediately upon entering the air, and avoid lingering out of the water.
The Arm Pull
After becoming comfortable in this breathing pattern release one hand, and turn so that you face parallel to, rather than into, the wall. Float the free hand and arm near the surface and to the side as you submerge, then press downward, flapping the arm like a wing until hand meets thigh, to rise into the air and inhale. If you experiment with sculling, angling palm and forearm alternately outward and inward, and sweeping back and forth in the direction they are angled as you press downward, you may discover greater resistance to downward motion, and more easily rise to breathe. Come up only so far as is necessary to inhale without taking in water, for the less you rise from the water, the more gently you return to it. As in drownproofing, the inhalation comes with hand resting at thigh, as you continue rising with the momentum from the downward pull.
Working with the Water
When you sink downwards again, let buoyancy and the resistance of the water aid in moving arm and hand away from side and upwards towards the surface. The feeling of water pushing arm out and up as you descend is similar to that of air pushing backwards on an arm extended from the window of a moving car. Be careful to keep hand and arm submerged at all times, and to begin the pull gradually so that you avoid creating an efficiency-reducing air pocket behind the hand. If you hear any splashing or plopping sounds from the pulling hand, you are likely reaching above the surface or beginning the powerstroke too abruptly.
By becoming attuned to the gravitational and buoyant forces pulling you downward and upward respectively, find a rhythm that enables you to act in synchrony with the water and to use your own energy efficiently. Varying the amount of time you wait before exhaling and pulling to the surface, discover a natural rhythm of upward and downward motion largely determined by the alternate domination of gravity and buoyancy as you rise from and sink into the water. Like the spring of a clock which gives just a small impulse to the mechanism with each swing of the pendulum, you pull to add just enough energy to keep oscillating steadily. By imagining the lungs to be an inflated bellows, and the downward sweep of the pulling arm to be what empties them, you can coordinate exhalation with downward arm movement.
The pull is a single continuous motion, always with a downward component though rarely directly downwards. Follow it with relaxation and rest. If you are moving the arm in other ways, for example, in a series of short, quick pulls, you are likely doing so to prolong your time above the surface. This will only be necessary if you have failed to master an easy, rhythmic breathing pattern, or are yet to become confident of your bouyancy. Either shortcoming can be remedied by additional breathing practice.
Refining the Pull
After awhile, experiment with relying almost entirely upon the free arm, rather than the wall-holding arm, to bring you above the surface. The feel for the water you develop here, as you focus on the movement of a single arm while retaining the security of the wall, is a foundation for subsequent development of an effective freestyle armstroke. Now is the time to shift from flapping or indiscriminate sculling to three distinct sweeps of arm motion, for you will use something quite similar as you swim.
First, rotate palm and forearm to face about 45 degrees to the outside, and press downward and outward; next, smoothly rotate palm to face about 45 degrees inward, and sweep arm across in front of torso, bending elbow to bring hand inward towards torso until it is about a foot from navel; finally, extend the wrist and angle palms slightly outwards as you press downward and to the outside again. After mastering these movements with one arm, repeat them with the other. Freestyle swimming can be kept bilaterally symmetrical, and even with exercises like these, we benefit by giving equal attention to right and left.
Two Arms off the Wall
When this practice is easy, release your hold on the wall, and remain close to it. Inhaling deeply, allow arms to float upwards in front of you, hands close together, as you descend into the water. Waiting until buoyancy has arrested your descent, and brought you back close to the surface, sweep both arms downward as before. The overall effect is to trace with fingertips something akin to the silhouette of a large, narrow-necked vase inverted before you. Angle palms partially, though less than exactly, in the direction of motion. Most people, even those who are relatively weak, relatively dense, or both, discover that they can come above the surface and breathe at will, so long as they inhale deeply, hold breath until buoyancy brings them near the surface, and sweep the arms effectively.
By learning to execute a single broad scissors kick simultaneously with the arm pull, you can rise more easily above the surface to inhale. Facing parallel to the wall and holding on with one hand, bend one knee to about a right angle, drawing foot of that leg up along the other calf. Then reach out, forward and downward with the heel of the bent leg, as though you are stepping up over an object about a foot high and then down onto the ground behind it. While reaching, extend the leg fully, even rotating the hip forward. Finally pull backwards from the hip, swinging the straightened leg downward until it is again directly underneath you and alongside the other.
To visualize this differently, imagine that you are beneath the water, to the side of, and looking towards, a person performing this motion. The path traced by the heel of the stepping leg will be an uneven lozenge shape. Going forward, the curve is quite rounded, approximating a semi-circle of one to two foot radius; coming back it is a sixth or eighth of a circle with radius equal to the distance from hip to heel.
If you make this motion smooth and and are attentive to reaching out gently and pulling downward forcefully, you feel the upward thrust generated each time you bring the legs together. With practice, you learn to inhale above the surface with legs together beneath you, pick up foot and reach out with leg as you settle back into the water, wait patiently for buoyancy to arrest your descent and lift you upwards, and then exhale forcefully as you approach the surface and again kick downward to rise above it and inhale.
When you are able to do this equally well with either leg, go on to the next step, reaching backwards. This time, after bending knee and drawing foot up along opposite calf, reach to the rear with the toe of the foot until leg is again fully extended, hip rotated backwards. From this position rotate hip to the front, kicking downward and forward until both legs are together below you. As before, if you perform the kick properly you feel a little upward boost with each downswing, and can use the subsequent descent as an aid in positioning the leg for the next application of power. The path traced by the toe of the foot moving to the rear and swinging downward is similar to the path of the heel of the forward-reaching foot, described above.
In both the forward and rearward leg motions, you can sense the greater effectiveness of reaching, rather than swinging the legs, as you prepare to apply power. Swinging legs open exerts down ward force; drawing up and stepping out brakes downward motion. Whether moving to front or to rear, step outwards. To the front, be careful to avoid feeling the pressure of water on shin that indicates swinging forward or upward. To the rear, be sensitive to water pressure on the calf that signifies swinging in that direction.
Two Legs Together
Once you have mastered the use of each leg separately, both to front and to rear, you are ready to use both legs together. Bending knees at the same time, and bringing feet up together, reach out simultaneously to front and rear, extending legs and rotating hips. With a single motion, twist hips to face forward, and swing legs downward to meet beneath you. Performed correctly, this kick is powerful enough that you rise sharply and rapidly for some distance.
Here, even more than with the single-leg kicks, you can feel the advantages of using the pressure of water you meet as you descend to aid in lifting feet and in extending legs fully. In addition to facilitating the motions by which you prepare for the next power kick, separating the legs as you descend dissipates the gravitational forces pulling you downwards, and reduces the depth to which you sink.
Most people at first prefer to reach forward repeatedly with one leg, rotating hips to the same side perhaps ten or twenty times before reversing the motion and reaching forward with the other leg while rotating to the opposite side for an equal number of kicks. This can be valuable at the outset, but eventually we want to be able to feel comfortable with any pattern of alternation. If movement to one side seems more difficult or less powerful, we can become more balanced by emphasizing this side in our practice.
Arms and Legs Together
Now that you have learned to use arms alone or legs alone, you are ready to coordinate one arm with both legs. Since we apply power with arm and legs simultaneously, this is a relatively easy step. Begin holding the wall with one hand and facing parallel to it, and practice using one arm and both legs. After several dozen repetitions with left arm pulling, left leg reaching forward, move to left arm pulling, right leg reaching forward, then to right arm pulling with right leg forward, and finally to right arm pulling with left leg forward. The more difficult you find any one of these, the more likely you will benefit by practicing it. The sensitivity to subtle torques and imbalances you develop here will be invaluable as you tackle the more challenging motions of freestyle swimming.
Soon enough most of us discover that we are hardly holding onto the wall at all. Letting go, we begin bobbing easily, using both arms as we did before, and employing legs as we learned along the wall. To become even more confident, we may continue by crossing ankles, and pulling with arms alone to power the ascent, or by emphasizing leg movement, and kicking to the surface with arms at sides.
Patience and Ease
Bobbing is an activity with long rests and firm, single pull/kick combinations. If you feel tempted to clamber with arms or to kick repeatedly to reach the surface, you are likely attempting to compensate for premature exhalation which leaves you sinking too deeply, for lack of confidence which results in failure to wait for buoyancy to bring you back close to the surface, or for inefficient arm and leg motions. The remedy for all of these is the same: more practice on the wall until you become better aware of what you are doing and how you are feeling, and thus better able to change.
At virtually every level of swimming, we learn best when relaxed. If you discover you have lost the easy, confident relaxation you felt at a prior stage, you are almost certain to be better off returning to what you do comfortably. To press forward in anxiety is to dramatically reduce our chances of learning well.
Movement in the Plane of the Surface
Once we can bob in place indefinitely, we are well on the way to swimming competence. We can breathe; we can move both arms and legs in a useful way; and we can synchronize breath with other movement. All that remains is to travel in the horizontal plane.
Begin by reaching forward slightly as arms float upwards and pulling backwards as well as downwards to rise from the water. Keep the torso vertical! If you flex at the hips, you will slide backwards each time you return to the water. Merely by altering the path of the arms so that they begin, extended forward at shoulder height or above, and end at the sides, you will likely be able to advance a few inches with each bob. Emphasize the forward reach of the kick to gain even more distance with each rise and fall.
Next, pull with only one arm at a time, allowing the other to float easily before you, hand remaining always near the surface. Many learn this more quickly by pulling repeatedly with one arm, then changing to the other. Some find utility in grasping the gutter or a kickboard with both hands between pulls, to learn the discipline of returning to the hands-in-front position before each ascent. With each arm, practice both right leg forward and left leg forward in kicking. Initially, remain in one place, but as you develop confidence, once again reach forward and pull to the rear to travel.
Turning to Enhance the Pull
As you gain a better feel for the water, you will probably discover that stepping forward with the leg on the same side as the pulling arm feels easier. As you do this, turn to face to the pulling side as you rise from the water and inhale. Finish each pull with both hips and shoulders turned so that a line may be drawn through them straight along the arm which remains at the surface. Wait until you sink back below the surface, to face forward and again gently bring the arm with which you just pulled back to a position in front of you and beside the other.
Once this is comfortable, tilt the head so that ear moves close to resting arm as you turn to face to the side. Now you probably have a greater sense of pushing backwards against the water with the pulling arm to drive the arm extended forward in the direction it is aimed. Keep the ear nearer the forward arm in the water as you breathe. As you exert more force backwards, you will likely begin to angle forward more, with legs and torso swinging upward towards the surface. When inhaling, look to the side and slightly rearward, long axis of the head more horizontal than vertical. Remember to wait until you have completed the arm pull to inhale, and to close the mouth abruptly at the end of inhalation.
Recovering Over the Water
By pulling through fully, you end the power phase with arm behind you and near the surface. With a little adjustment, you can recover the pulling arm through the air. Begin by lifting it from the water behind you. Then swing it around to the side at about a forty-five degree angle to the surface as you turn to face forward. Finally, drop it in front of you beside the other arm before beginning the next pull. This is a quicker recovery, so there will be less time between pulls. With steadier propulsive force, you will move closer to a horizontal position. As you gain adeptness, be increasingly conscious of looseness and relaxation in the recovering arm. Remember that you are alternating work with rest.
Though far from the fastest freestyle, this is a technique by which some of us can swim continuously for long enough periods and at high enough levels of energy conversion to achieve cardiovascular training. Many novices swim like this for dozens of laps, sometimes bobbing at the wall after each length to recover a sense of easiness and relaxation. The advantages of this pattern, where we breathe on every pull and bob to recover, are that activity is continuous, providing greater opportunity for cardiovascular training, that the ratio of breath to motion is high, reducing fatigue, and that the essential elements of freestyle breathing, exhalation in the water and inhalation above, are uninterrupted.
As you move through each stage of bobbing towards a traditional freestyle stroke, you will encounter myriad opportunities to cultivate the awareness which is the foundation for continuing improvement. At every step you will confront slightly different challenges, each of which is and invitation to acquire some new skill.
The list of items to which we can attend is seemingly endless. Are we relaxed? Can we feel looseness in feet, calves, legs, belly, back, chest, shoulders, neck, hands, arms, mouth, forehead…? Are we exhaling completely? Is vertical motion consistent in amplitude and steadily diminishing? Can we sense the resistance of the water throughout our power strokes? Are our recovery motions fluid and easy? Are we at any moment ready to describe what we see? Do we feel buoyancy, and time movement to take advantage of it?
Bobbing and its variants also offer opportunities to hone skills we can apply to more traditional freestyle swimming. Are we rotating shoulders both as we pull backwards and as we swing forward to recover over the water? Have we synchronized rolling into prone position with the swinging of arm as we reach? Are we looking low and to the side, and slightly to the rear, as we inhale? Do we adjust the direction of arm sweeps and the pitch of forearms and hands to find still, maximally resistant water?
Many swimmers reach this stage and become eager to just “start swimming.” A handful are able to do this. The majority, however, very quickly discover that they lose the easy rhythm of bobbing if they attempt to soon to kick up so that their longitudinal axis is parallel to the surface. Most important, now as before, is to limit your activity to that which is comfortable. The transition from bobbing in place, to bobbing in a consistent direction, to swimming freestyle continuously can be very gradual. For some of us, ten stationary bobs, followed by two directed bobs is a fine way to begin. As we grow certain that this will be easy, we can shift the ratio, or the number of bobs in the cycle. If at any point you feel apprehensive, you are overreaching, and will likely find greater satisfaction and more learning by returning to whatever is easy.
Physics for Swimmers
Many adults, especially those of us who have come of age in industrialized societies, rely heavily upon scientific knowledge in our daily lives. We have learned that the methods and language of science are enormously useful in understanding the world around us, and in shaping our interactions with the environment to achieve predictable results. Even those of us who are somewhat intimidated by science often act on the basis of information scientifically accumulated. The theories underpinning contemporary swim technique have been elaborated in terms of scientific principles by people who investigated the nature of swimming in a scientific way. By remembering a handful of these ideas, all easily understandable in terms of everyday experience, we may gain powerful new tools with which to analyze each element of our freestyle.
Ideas About Force and Motion
The majority of us are familiar with walking and running. To perform these motions, we push downwards and backwards against the earth. As a result we move upwards and forwards. On those occasions when we meet insufficient resistance to our downward, backward pushing, or excessive resistance to our upwards and forwards motion, we remain stationary. Cartoon caricatures of someone wildly running in place on ice or other slippery surface, or while pushing against some object too heavy to move offer amusing examples of these all-too-familiar plights. Less extreme cases include those where two people face each other on skates and push, and both move backwards, or where someone jumps or dives from a free-floating boat, and it scoots off in the opposite direction. In these situations the force is applied equally, and in opposite directions, to the two objects. All other things being the same, the less massive object moves farther and faster.
The lesson in all of this is that motion results from the application of force, and the relative size of the resistance to this force in each direction along the line of application determines the magnitude of the resulting motions in those directions. The forward motion of swimming results from the application of backwards forces against the resistance of the water. If these forces, and the resistance they meet, are larger than the resistance posed by the water to forward motion of the body, we swim. Otherwise, we may flail to exhaustion without moving forward at all. Freestyle technique is designed to deliver maximal rearward force against maximally resistant water, to minimize resistance to forward motion, and to achieve both these ends with efficiency.
By understanding the concept of torque we may better visualize the effects of various motions. Torque is a rotational force, which tends to turn an object about its center of mass. The center of mass of most humans is a point a few inches below and behind the navel, and in front of the spine.
If we imagine that we are pushing a square-topped table on casters across a smooth floor, we realize that intuitively we push from directly behind the center of the table, knowing that to push from any other place will produce rotation. The farther away from a point directly behind the center we apply our push, the more of our energy is absorbed in table-spinning.
To move forward through the water, the ideal place to apply a force is directly behind our center of mass. The farther from the line traveled by our center of mass we apply a force, the more of our energy is diverted to production of torques. Of course the impossibility of applying force with hands and arms directly behind the center of gravity while swimming is evident. We make many accommodations to human anatomy, and to the fluidity of water, as we utilize the idealized principles outlined here. In fact, swimmers use rotation of torso, repeated shifts in the direction of limb movement, and coordination of arm and leg action, to balance the various torques generated in freestyle swimming. Rather than aiming to eliminate all such forces, we learn to sense ways to integrate them with the rest of our stroke.
Taken together, the ideas of torque and of equal and opposite forces can be invaluable aids in analyzing and perfecting freestyle technique. If we are windmilling at a frantic pace and still going nowhere, we may benefit by becoming more attentive to finding greater resistance to our pulls. If arm swings laterally on recovery, shoulders are pushed to other side; if head is lifted or arm pull made too deeply, torso is driven upward or downward; pulling to left or right may send us in the opposite direction. Efficiency increases, and we swim more easily, whenever we find greater resistance to rearward force, or reduce the proportion of our energy directed to producing superfluous motion.
Moving Through Liquid
Living in a gaseous medium, and relying upon interaction with solid ground for most of our movements, we have much to learn about motion in a relatively dense liquid like water. Water offers a less secure base from which to apply propulsive force than does land, and it also offers greater resistance to forward motion than does air. Sounds terrible at first, but there are compensations, and once we gain a rudimentary understanding of ideas like buoyancy, drag, and streamlining, we are better able to reshape our swimming so that we may flow easily through the water.
We weigh less in water than in air. This is the result of a phenomenon called buoyancy. As we enter the water more fully, reducing the amount we are above the surface, we weigh less. One of the major advantages of the freestyle stroke is that virtually all of the legs and torso, and much of the head remain in water at all times. We swim near the surface of the water, and breathe above it. By remaining close to totally submerged, we devote only minimal energy to supporting mass held above the water.
Almost all of us can float effortlessly with head in water; yet virtually everyone works to stay afloat holding head entirely out of water. Inexperienced swimmers often fight to stay above the water, only to discover that they have too little energy remaining to do much else. The difference between swimming in the water, and struggling to remain above it, is a manyfold savings of energy. Only highly conditioned individuals with very efficient strokes can swim faster by raising head or torso from the water.
Friction is defined as the resistance to relative motion of matter in contact. Frictional forces resist any motion wherever the swimmer is in contact with the water; however, at recreational swimming speeds, the friction between water and skin or nylon swimsuit is a relatively unimportant factor. Friction works ever so slightly to our advantage when using a hand, or arm, or leg to push against water and move forward. Under all other circumstances friction absorbs energy otherwise available for forward propulsion. The streamlining and slight compression of the swimmer produced by an elasticized tank suit modestly reduces surface area, and therefore friction, as does the head-to-toe shave used by competitive swimmers. A more broadly useful method by which to do so, however, is to avoid unnecessary motion.
Inertia may be defined in part as the tendency of matter at rest to remain at rest. Inertia is both a boon and an impediment to the swimmer. By resisting the backward component of the forces applied on the power stroke and kick, the inertia of the water gives the swimmer something to push against in order to move forward. By resisting all other motion, the inertia of water absorbs energy and slows movement. The swimmer is constantly searching for new ways to obtain maximum inertial resistance to the rearward component of power strokes, and minimal inertial resistance to forward motion.
Turbulence is defined as fluid flow in which the movement of fluid at any point is constantly changing in speed and direction. In simple language, turbulence is approximately opposite to smooth flow. Turbulence is created as pressure builds ahead of anything moving relative to the water, and falls in its wake, and it is yet another source of drag forces acting on the swimmer. We may minimize unwanted turbulence by eliminating superfluous motion, by aiming always to slip gently forward through the water, and by swimming smoothly and evenly.
Streamlining is a way to shape an object so that fluid will flow around it smoothly. If we are sensitive to the resistance we feel to our forward motion when swimming, we can learn use streamlining to substantially reduce the negative effects of friction, turbulence, and inertia. By extending fully, and by always remaining aligned with our direction of travel, we become more streamlined, deflecting the water so that it flows around us with mimimum resistance.
Frontal cross-sectionthe apparent shape seen by someone directly ahead of us on our line of travelincreases in area whenever our longitudinal axis is not parallel to our line of travel. (The swimmer’s longitudinal axis is an imaginary line running from the foremost point on the skull, downward through the torso, between the knees, and between the feet.) Raising the head and shoulders, and allowing the legs to sink will make forward motion more difficult, as will swinging from side to side. Ideally, head, shoulders, and hips all move through the same narrow, imaginary tunnel in the water.
Introduction to Freestyle
Freestyle swimming has long been recognized as movement in which we can combine some of the best elements of diverse other activities. In the eyes of many exercise physiologists, swimming is without equal as a means by which people of ordinary ability and sturdiness may develop overall strength, flexibility, endurance, and coordination.
For decades, what is now called freestyle swimming was labeled the crawl stroke, conjuring up images of someone scuffling along with back to the sky and belly to the earth. Writers and teachers have insistently divided swimming into an arm stroke and a kick. Partially as a result of such descriptions, many people learn to swim lying flat at the surface, pushed and pulled along primarily with arms and legs. Such swimmers often appear angular and mechanical in their movements, and somehow out of place in the water.
To speak of freestyle swimming as combined arm and leg exercise, or as good cardiovascular training is to underemphasize what may well be its most salient feature. Swimming is an oppor tunity to learn to move and function better as a whole self. The accomplished freestyler feels the connectedness of arms and legs with shoulders, hips, trunk, and head, and often discovers a new awareness in learning to precisely coordinate all of these. As you read what follows, and as you swim, cultivate a consciousness of integration, of complete person with all faculties focused to a single purpose.
Rather than appearing as a torso with arms and legs moving around its periphery, the competent freestyle swimmer streams smoothly from fingers to feet. Any point that we observe on such an individual will trace flowing, continuous curves. With careful attention, we can locate the origin of any motion at center of mass, and follow it outward to tip of extremity, watching it increase in amplitude along the way. While center of mass moves steadily and in a relatively straight line, torso and shoulders rotate, and extend forwards and backwards; arms and legs circle, whip and sweep.
To swim this way, we become fluid, like the water itself. Much of the muscular contraction by which we stand erect is superfluous when we are floating. Shedding this tension, we can better feel the support of the water, and learn to flow with it. We extend fully at the beginning of each armstroke, and remain elongated from head to toe, even as we apply power. Without fixation upon some rigid sequence of thought, we become conscious of the many different aspects of our swimming in imaginative and ever-changing ways. Rather than concentrating always as we might with some riddle or mathematical equation, we dance in and out of a variety of awarenesses.
In swimming the movements of left and right, of upper and lower, are necessary counterbalances to each other. Underwater pull of one side is set against recovery and extension of the other to permit smooth curvilinear motions during each phase. Upward and downward movements of each hip and leg are balanced with action by the other side. Kicking is matched with upper body motion to provide maximal forward propulsive force and minimal lateral and dorsoventral travel.
Arm and Shoulder Emphasis
Despite the substantial size of leg muscles, most of us rely more on arm, shoulder, and torso muscles when we swim. An average person with reasonably efficient stroke technique will require far more energy to move a certain distance by kicking than by using arms alone. There are several reasons for this.
First, arms are attached to the torso and internally jointed to afford a range of motion far greater than that available to the legs. As a result, we can place them and orient them to better maximize the force we deliver opposite the direction, and close to the line, we travel.
In addition to being better suited to apply power, arms can also be recovered through the air between strokes. Thus, we may avoid the greater frictional, turbulent, and inertial resistance to our forward motion offered by water. Legs remain in the water at all times, hence they drag constantly against this denser medium. As as result, the arm stroke is very clearly divided into a power and a recovery phase, while the kick is compromised throughout to generate some useful power while avoiding excessive drag.
Limits to Word
Few teachers have emphasized vehemently enough the difficulty of translating a sequence of highly ordered, physico-mechanical descriptions of motion into beautiful, efficient swimming. We who read swim books or are taught “by the book” are likely to imagine learning much the way we learn history or chemistry. Swimming is in myriad ways distinct from such endeavors, and the words used in technical descriptions may be as much an impediment as an aid, if we attempt to realize them literally.
Many different analogies have been offered to enable beginning swimmers to visualize an effective stroke. Each of them is less than perfect, for in truth, the motions used in the freestyle stroke are a complex hybrid of many elements, some familiar, and some unique to swimming. Successful coaches and satisfied swimmers agree that the key to efficient swimming is developing a “feel” for the water. Only a very rare individual will be able to directly translate abstract verbal instruction, given in terms of some mechanical model, into a comfortable freestyle.
In fact, preoccupation with such instruction may preclude a kind of learning essential to swimming. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that there exists much specialization of function within the brain. The cerebrum, in which verbal processing occurs, is in many ways independent of the cerebellum, in which much motor and sensory functions rest. Both left-brain analytical thinking and right-brain visualization and intuitiveness are important in learning to swim. As we practice, we may consider how to best develop a “whole-brain” stroke, one which reflects both the internalization of word instruction, and the enhancement of our capacity for wordlessly imagining the processes by which we sense and respond to the water.
Probably the single most important thing to understand about the armstroke is that adult intuition, rooted as it is in the experiences of a lifetime on land, surrounded by air, can serve only as a partial basis for conceptualizing how to swim. To learn an effective armstroke, we will lay aside many preconceived notions, and look with fresh vision at the nature of movement through water.
Animals which live most of their lives on land generally use pushing and pulling motions to move through water. Many of us have seen how dogs paddle along with movements similar to those of walking or trotting when they swim. Horses, cattle, moose, and elk swim similarly.
Some animals with appendages specially adapted for swimming employ more or less rotary, sweeping motions, like those of a propeller, and generate forward thrust by movement across the direction of travel. Penguins use wings, and sea turtles their fins, this way.
Other species are adapted to wavelike motions of limbs, tail, and/or body. Beaver are an obvious example. Salamanders and sea snakes are others. Virtually all fishes swim this way, as do sharks, dolphins and whales. These animals sweep upwards and downwards, or from side to side, actually perpendicular to the direction of travel, in order to swim forward. While such movements may intuitively seem counterproductive, we can observe that without exception, the life forms which employ them swim fastest, and with greatest apparent ease.
The transition from paddlewheels to screw propellers as the primary means of ship propulsion marks a turning point in human understanding of fluids, and offers another perspective on swimming. Early in the steamship era, paddlewheels were common. These rotated at the sides or stern, along an axis perpendicular to the line of travel. By the middle of the nineteenth century, screw propellers rotating around an axis parallel to the line of travel had been improved to the point where they were considered superior.
Both designs produced forward motion by thrusting backwards against the water. The blade of the paddle, however, faced in the direction it was moving. The blade of the prop was angled to the side. It moved in one direction, and faced in another. In this way, rotation in a plane perpendicular to the line of travel was converted to rearward pressure, which in turn produced forward motion. This is a relatively subtle mechanism. Only with the elaboration of important elements of the theory of fluid mechanics did its broad application to marine propulsion prove possible.
Idealizing the Armstroke
The freestyle armstroke can be idealized as an anchoring of hand in water, followed by an application of force by which we drive forward past the hand. When this hand is extended close to as far rearward as possible, the other hand is anchored and force applied. The hand which stroked first is lifted from the water and recovered through the air to reach forward and repeat the sequence.
Visualize a rope strung from one end of the pool to the other, about a foot or so beneath the surface of the water, and imagine that you are floating prone above this rope. The freestyle arm stroke is a hand-over-hand motion similar in some very gross way to that we might use to travel along such a rope.
Any arm movement rearward through the water will reduce the effectiveness of the stroke, since our purpose is to swim forwards, rather than to move arms backwards. In the worst case imaginable, the swimmer might remain stationary while hand and arm move through the water. While this might be accomplished in a manner which requires much exertion, and thus might produce substantial effects in terms of increased strength or endurance, it is hardly swimming.
The kind of unyielding anchor point necessary to the idealized stroke described above is quite impossible to find in a fluid like water. As a result, we scull and sweep with hands and arms to reduce slippage. Even though we might imagine that pulling and pushing directly to the rear along our line of travel will provide maximum forward motion, this is incorrect. If we stand in shallow water or hold onto a wall in deep water, and push the water downward in a straight line, we will very quickly set it in motion, and reduce the resistance we feel. If, however, we sweep an arm from side to side before us, angling palm downward and towards the direction of travel as we did in drownproofing and bobbing exercises, we can maintain a steady downward force.
The propulsive force we apply is limited by the resistance we find at the point of application. Just as a car engine can run at high speed, spinning rear wheels wildly on ice without the car moving forward, so can we convert much energy slipping hands through the water without swimming forwards. To develop an effective freestyle stroke we combine pushing, pulling, and sweeping rotary motions in various directions with continuous changes in hand and arm position. The overall feel of such a stroke is one of steady resistance to rearward arm motion, even when lateral or vertical movements are large, of smooth transitions from one phase to another, of acceleration of hand and arm throughout the pull, and of substantial forward motion with each arm cycle.
The movements by which such a feel is produced can be dissected and carefully analyzed. Over the past two decades, coaches and teachers have used increasingly sophisticated techniques to measure the direction and duration of shoulder, arm, and hand movements. We may now describe with some accuracy the essential elements of the stroke used by virtually all world-class competitive freestylers, and the range of variation evident at virtually any point in the stroke.
Before rushing to embrace this particular technique in its every detail, however, consider the extraordinary aptitude and the intensive training that such people bring to their swimming. What is appropriate for them, young, supple, strong, enduring, and talented as they are, may be less useful to us than a stroke deliberately modified to better accomodate our own abilities and limitations. Our task is to feel our way to the stroke most effective for us at any stage of our learning, and to be conscientious in searching for improvement.
Naivete as Virtue
As might be expected, adults learning to swim often rely heavily upon intellectualized concepts accumulated in other contexts. Accustomed as we are to moving solid objects in a gaseous medium where gravity is important, we almost always paddle, push, pull, cycle, and tread in the water, to the exclusion of rotating and sweeping obliquely to our line of travel through it. Children more often employ a variety of motions without hesitation, and without being able to articulate the reasoning or theory which supports their action. In their less-conditioned state, they are frequently more able to feel the water, better prepared to interact without pre-meditated plan and to experiment with new movements. As you conceptualize the armstroke, remember the screw propeller, the sharks, the beaver, the fish, and the whales. Paddling is for the dogs.
Because the armstroke is a smooth and continuous cycle, any choice of beginning point for a technical description will be somewhat arbitrary. You will likely derive greatest benefit by reading through the entire armstroke description before practicing any particular portion of it. The sequence described here begins with the entry of a hand into the water, and continues through an extension underwater to the place where the swimmer catches water and feels resistance to driving force. There follows a combination of sweeping, pulling, and pushing, first downward, outward, and backward, then inward, upward, and backward, and finally outward and backward. As stroking hand reaches thigh, the swimmer turns palm inward, releases pressure, lifts arm and hand from water, and swings forward to enter once again. Throughout the period that hand is in the water, fingers are extended and close together, even touching, and hand is flat or gently curved, rather than severely cupped.
The hand enters well ahead of the swimmer, a few inches to the side of the line which the head is traveling, and short of the point where further forward extension is impossible. In preparing for this entry, elbow, wrist, and middle finger are aligned so that they aim through the entry point to an imaginary target approximately a few yards ahead and a foot below the surface.
The entire elbow-to-fingertip unit slides along this line, each successive part of it slipping through the same imaginary hole in the water and towards the target position described. This movement is effected from the center of mass, with torso rolling toward and extending on the side of the arm entering, and with the shoulder on that side rotating forward and then downward so that upper arm enters along the same line as lower arm, through the same imaginary hole in the surface.
A clean, splashless entry, where arm and hand appear to move without effort, are often an indication that a swimmer is developing a feel for the water. One way to lessen resistance at entry is to rotate upper arm inward, so that elbow is elevated, and to turn palm outward, so that index finger and thumb enter before little finger. By this rotation we move the arm away from the plane of the surface, reducing the likelihood that it will slap or drag into the water. Proper selection of entry point, proper alignment at entry, and elimination of arm motion except along the line of entry are all factors crucial to smoothly executing this part of the stroke. By over- or underreaching, by entering too close to, or too far from the centerline of the path being traveled, or by swinging across the line of entry, we create unnecessary resistance.
After completing the entry, continue to rotate at the shoulder and to reach, from center of mass to fingertip of extending arm. During this reaching, gliding phase, the entire leading arm, from fingertip to shoulder, is aimed directly forward, and kept free of upwards, downwards, or lateral forces. Throughout the underwater portion of the stroke, elbow remains closer to the surface than hand, and whenever both elbow and shoulder are in water, shoulder remains closer to the surface than elbow. This is important to remember during the glide, as many swimmers “sail” the hand upwards after entering, dropping the elbow. With this practice they create resistance to forward motion, and leave the arm badly positioned to begin the power stroke.
The glide lasts only so long as the opposite arm is delivering power. In order to maintain steady propulsive force, time the initial application of propulsive force at the beginning of the power stroke of one arm to slightly precede the release at the finish of the power stroke of the other arm. As the hand of the finishing arm nears full rearward extension and approaches the thigh, commence a new power stroke with the arm extended before you by gently curving it from shoulder to fingertips, and pressing downward and slightly to the outside. Good swimmers learn to make the catch definite without being abrupt. As soon as the arm leaves the streamlined gliding position of the forward extension, apply force. If you catch effectively, you probably will feel the resistance of the water first against fingers and palm, and then against forearm, as you deflect it outwards and backwards.
Almost the instant force is applied through arm and hand, water behind them is set in motion. As you feel this happening, now or at any time during the power stroke, sweep vertically or laterally into water more stationary, where there is greater resistance. Because of both universal and personal limitations in the range of movement available through shoulder, elbow, and wrist, we are constantly compromising any theoretically ideal motions which might be described. With all such accommodations our purpose is to find a way to apply power smoothly and evenly.
Continue the power stroke downward and outward, flexing the elbow just enough to give the arm a slightly curved shape, to permit further rotation of upper arm, and to keep hand from traveling too deep, windmill fashion. Rotate shoulder further downward, keeping it always less deep in the water than the elbow, and maintaining a feeling of extension all the way from fingertip to hip. Gradually shifting the orientation of palm from downward and slightly outward to backward, point fingertips less forward and more downward, and break wrist somewhat to the outside.
The feel of hand and arm is less one of pushing water down and back than one of reaching out and over, of pressing and sliding along a firm, frictionless, curved surface, as if preparing to gather a large, rounded object, like a fifty-five gallon drum, to us. By visualizing this kind of motion we more easily keep elbow high, and avoid inefficient, premature inward turning of hand and forearm.
Stand with one arm extended, palm upwards, directly before you and flex to 90 degrees at the elbow, so that forearm and hand point skyward. Look for the bony protuberance on the inner surface of the bent elbow. With the other hand, feel this bump, as well as the larger one on the surface of the elbow which is now away from you. Many beginning swimmers keep the second of these bumps on the leading edge of the arm as they pull. In doing so, they sacrifice much power. A forearm and hand drawn backwards, elbow leading, cut through the water easily, and afford little purchase by which to move the rest of the swimmer forwards. By keeping the arm rotated so that the smaller of the elbow bumps is facing to the rear and the larger to the outside, away from the torso, we improve our ability to apply power effectively.
As we move along to the point where head, and hand applying power, are roughly even with respect to the direction of travel, the motion of the pulling arm becomes more inward, upward, and backward. We contract the muscles of the pulling side, and move the shoulder on that side backwards away from the head. Bending more at the elbow, to perhaps a bit less than 120 degrees, we rotate palm inward and upward towards, but short of facing, the overall direction of arm motion. By the time hand is below longitudinal axis, and perhaps even with navel, fingertips are pointing towards the bottom and slightly across the line of travel.
During this phase of the stroke, we return the recovering arm to the water. The underwater extension of this arm is combined with the inward and upward motion of the pulling side, to rotate the shoulders through the plane of the surface. Entry and extension are accomplished with a twisting reach, driven from the hand of the power-stroking arm. Some swimmers describe this stage as a simultaneous pulling towards opposite hip and rolling torso towards pulling hand. The overall feeling is similar to that of jumping upwards to reach something overhead while giving a boost with the opposite arm using a waist-high counter or railing. An important difference is that the gliding arm is kept slightly flexed at the elbow, with upper arm rotated to orient large elbow bump to the side, rather than extended fully until elbow locks. Once we become aware of shoulder rotation, we are better able to see how accomplished freestylers lie alternately on each side, rather than prone, for most of the stroke.
At approximately the point where hand and arm are directly beneath chest, arm and forearm are redirected first backwards, then increasingly outward and upward. Upper arm moves closer to torso, and forarm brushes past hip. Wrist joint is hyper-extended to facilitate application of sweeping upward and backward forces. When first thumb joint brushes front of thigh, hand is turned palm-to-thigh and follows relaxedly as arm leaves water. The release is smooth, coming when the arm is almost fully extended. Driving force is ended without throwing water backwards or sideways, and without dragging hand forward against the water. Hand remains always to the side of legs and torso, rather than being swung or carried above either.
On those strokes when we breathe, head and neck rotate as well, until mouth is clear of the surface. This motion begins as hand passes beneath head, and is completed as hand touches leg at the finish. As you inhale, turn chin towards shoulder, gazing to side and rear, and keep waterline visible in the goggle eyepiece covering lower eye. Breathing is smooth and regular. Exhalation is completed as nose and mouth leave the water. Inhalation is rapid and forceful, occurring just after completion of powerstroke, as hand leaves water. Mouth snaps shut sharply after inhalation, and face returns to the water just before recovering arm is thrust forward and downward on entry.
The recovery is an opportunity for rest. From the moment that we release water along the thigh until the instant when we catch, the effort necessary to move the arm forward through the air and then extend it through the water is small, almost incidental to the action of the other side as we execute the power stroke. By moving from the center of gravity, using body roll, shoulder lift, and side extension, we can maintain a very loose, relaxed arm and hand, even while controlling the recovery carefully. Rather than carrying hand and arm and guiding them throughout their trajectory, we move them as passive elements connected to shoulder and upper arm, and steer them only with fine adjustments as we ready for the entry. By minimizing the time arm and hand are out of water, we suffer only small loss of bouyancy.
Direction of Recovery
Only elbow and upper arm need be swung high to avoid pushing forward against the water and creating unnecessary drag. Because we have rotated upper torso to extend the opposing arm and finish the power stroke of the recovering arm, the motion of the upper arm as we initiate the recovery can be almost directly away from the side of the torso, rather than backwards relative to it. Thus the arm will always be forward of an imaginary flat surface placed against back and hips and extending outwards.
Rotation of upper arm, so that elbow moves outward, away from side, rather than backwards along it, is crucial. A way to feel this is to stand with arm at side, palm against outside of thigh. Without moving hand along or away from thigh, rotate elbow out from side. Then, allowing hand and forearm to hang loosely, continue moving elbow upwards to the side and slightly to the front. The feeling is more akin to standing with back to a wall and raising arms from sides to overhead, keeping triceps against the wall and allowing forearms to extend out from it, than it is like elbowing a friend behind you and to the side. If you feel tightness around the shoulder and upper arm on the recovering side, you are probably moving the upper arm to the rear, rather than allowing the elbow to remain forward of the midline of the side throughout the recovery.
Practice the motion of lifting and rotating the upper arm from the side by standing on land, with hands about six inches away from chest, palms down and fingers interlaced. Press elbows to sides, then wing arms out and up as far as is comfortable. Next, place both arms at sides, and reach across abdomen with one hand to cup opposite hip in palm. Locking elbow at this angle, and moving arm and hand from shoulder as a single rigid unit, swing upwards until armpit is wide open, and you are looking foreward under the forearm. Repeat, gradually opening elbow angle and moving hand downwards towards the point on the leg where it lies at the completion of the armstroke.
Forearm and hand hang loosely and swing pendulum-like from exit until just before entry. Hand remains low and near the surface and may be relatively close to torso. Palm is oriented first towards the swimmer, then to the rear during the first half of the recovery. As hand is swung past shoulder, palm faces more downward and then rotates outward in preparation for descent. This completes the upward, muscle driven phase of the recovery, a portion which is relatively slow and even, which is dominated by rotational motion from the shoulder, which ends almost with a pause, and during which the swimmer remains more or less lying on the side.
Working with Gravity
In the second, gravity driven phase, forearm and hand, all the way to fingertips, are moving along the same line, angled slightly downward and inward. We transition from swinging, rotational movement originating at shoulder and elbow, to translational movement from the center of mass by which we drive hand, arm, and shoulder forward and downward, into and through the water. This is a smooth and well-integrated movement, with hips, shoulders, arms and hands all flowing together to produce a steady acceleration of recovering arm from the time translational motion begins. Set against the inward and rearward sweeping phases of the opposite arm, the second phase of the recovery embodies a fairly rapid roll from lying on one side, through the prone position, to lying on the other.
Immediately before entering the water, hand flattens and fingers extend, with elbow, wrist, and middle finger perfectly aligned. Palm faces somewhat to the outside, so that thumb and forefinger enter the water first. An imaginary wire connected at the far end of the pool a little below the surface pulls tip of middle finger until arm and shoulder are fully extended. As the same time, opposite arm and shoulder are pulling through to rearward extension so that the line from lead hand through both shoulders to trailing hand is relatively smooth and without sharp angles. When we perceive a stretch in the muscles of the forward-reaching side, we know that we have shifted ribcage forward, away from hip to maximize reach.
Using the Torso
During the pull and recovery, we utilize the torsional capacity of the spine and much of the mobility available at the shoulders and neck. Each shoulder is alternately somewhat in front of and below the head at the catch, and almost as high as, and behind the head at finish. Many novice swimmers keep shoulders in the plane of the surface, sacrificing a large fraction of their potential reach and power. By moving fully through shoulders and upper back we are also better able to breathe easily from the pocket alongside the head, created by our motion, and to avoid water resistance against upper arm as we reach to the catch of the next stroke.
The recovery is a test of confidence and ease. Many swimmers learn to go fast and far without ever developing a relaxed recovery. Because of this, they work harder than necessary, and risk shoulder injury which in some cases may become severely limiting. If you feel less than totally fluid as you recover, practice straight-arm for awhile. Imagine that the arms are like soaking wet towels, limp yet dense enough to remain extended if swung through the air. Instead of aiming for a neat, splash-free entry, become accustomed to the feeling of arms falling into the water. Most people discover that adding a bit of control to a fully relaxed arm is easier than selectively subtracting control from a tense one.
Practice out of the water. Start by standing with both arms relaxed at sides. Rotate easily to left and right, so that arms fly slightly outwards and wrap around to front and back. Once you feel loose, stand with one arm extended upwards and slightly in front of you and the other hanging alongside. Without moving shoulders, swing the hanging arm upwards until hands are together and arms roughly parallel overhead. Place thumb-forefinger side of moving hand in palm of overhead hand. Watch the stationary hand! Once you can do this easily, practice using motion of the torso to swing the arm. Begin with shoulder on hanging arm side depressed and rotated to the rear. Then straighten up and turn forward to swing the arm overhead. Swing freely, so that the arm keeps moving if you miss the waiting hand. Eventually, you will learn to swing a relaxed arm with accuracy. This is the essence of the recovery.
If you have mastered the land exercise described here and still feel short of a restful recovery, you may be straining to breathe, and thus adversely affecting all else that you are doing. Check to be certain that exhalation is complete, and that inhalation is rapid and forceful. Inhale at the finish of the armstroke, just as the recovery begins. Be especially careful to close the mouth as soon as you have finished inhaling. Some swimmers feel as if head is in the way of the recovering arm. This is often a result of delaying the roll to prone position until too late in the recovery. See if you can sense a connectedness of head, shoulder, and arms so that all three move together as they return to the water.
Remember that the motion arm is moving inward, as well as downward as it enters the water. If you enter directly on the centerline of the path you are traveling, the arms will drift across in front of you as they continue forward through the water. Think of eleven o’clock and one o’clock, rather than high noon, as the entry points for the hands.
Many people learn to swim with very little rolling. Lying prone at the surface, belly to the bottom, we are able to recover only by drawing the upper arm backwards with respect to the torso. This motion is incompatible with a relaxed recovery, and will almost certainly pose an obstacle to easy freestyling. If you have swum this way for a long time, you may have developed a very deep-seated, difficult to change habit.
If you are comfortable lying on one side and kicking, either with or without fins, you can practice the recovery in slow motion, watching the upper arm to be certain that you swing it in the direction you are facing. Inhale before initiating the recovery, and allow the face to sink back into the water, at least partially, while facing to the side and rear. Then lift upper arm from side, dangling forearm and hand so that fingertips trail along the surface. Continue swinging arm until hand hangs in front of face, about a foot away from it. Kick along in this position, checking to be sure that armpit is open wide, forearm relaxed. Then return arm by the same path and repeat.
Once you have mastered this, add another element. Kicking along with hand hanging before face, roll into the prone position and drop the recovering arm into the water. With practice, the fall of the recovering arm can be guided just enough to permit a clean entry, without introducing unnecessary tension. Now pull through with the opposite arm, rolling onto the other side, and repeat. Finally, alter the timing so that roll, entry, and extension overlap with pull, and you are swimming smoothly.
The armstroke is far from the windmilling many novices use when first learning. The path of each hand, rather than being a circle centered at the shoulder, is a somewhat elliptical curve in three dimensions with many smooth deformations. Instead of remaining opposite each other throughout the stroke cycle, hands alternately play catch-up during the recovery. Each hand enters the water, continues reaching forward, and catches while the other is still applying power. Recovery and extension of one arm are set against power stroke of other. This rhythm feels quite natural since the water offers much resistance and the air, little. Most swimmers breathe at or near the moment when hand is leaving the water, and begin each pull shortly before finishing the previous. Many people with inefficient strokes and tense recoveries begin pulling too soon, complete the second phase of the recovery too slowly, and glide little during extension. Single stroking, the final stage of bobbing described earlier, can be a useful exercise for correcting these errors.
We kick: (1) for propulsion, (2) to stay more or less level with the surface, and (3) to control rolling and swaying. The propulsive force of the most commonly used freestyle kick is generated by alternating wavelike motions of the entire left and right sides of the lower body. Three jointship, knee, and ankleflex and extend with each full downward and upward leg cycle. The range of motion increases steadily from hip to toe, with lower leg and foot being forcefully whipped.
The legs are in many people a relatively dense part of the body, and tend to sink. Also, by carrying the head, which is forward of the centers of gravity and buoyancy, at least partially out of the water in order to be able to inhale above the surface, we exert a downward force on the legs. The effect of this is similar to that produced by lifting one end of a floating stick, and thus further submerging the other.
Even if you are reluctant to expend the energy necessary to derive much propulsive force from the kick, you may benefit by kicking just enough to keep legs from sinking below the level of torso. By decreasing the cross-section of the “tunnel of water” through which we move, we can dramatically reduce resistance to forward motion.
To understand how swimmers use kicking to balance the forces generated with the armstroke, visualize a person walking or running. Remember how left shoulder and arm move forward and backward together with right hip and leg. The relationship between kick and armstroke in the water, while less than perfectly analogous, is similar. Downward and upward movements of each leg counteract simultaneous movements of arms and torso to minimize swaying and unnecessary rolling.
The actual movements of the kick are difficult to describe, because some parts of the leg are moving downwards while others are already moving upwards. Action at each jointhip, knee, and anklefollows that at the joint above. With the kick, as with many aspects of swimming, few people are able to directly translate verbal instruction into efficient, pleasurable movement. As you read, remember that the kick is flowing and wavelike overall, much like the action of a rope or garden hose set in motion with a large, vertical snap of an arm to loop it clear of some obstacle. Use your imagination to integrate and meld all the actions described here into a smooth, continuous kick.
Downward leg movement is initiated by rotation at the hip, and continued with thigh, calf, and foot. Knee bends soon after hip begins moving downward. This is because lower leg and foot are still moving upwards! Ankle plantarflexes at the top of the kick, in response to water pressure on dorsal surface of the foot as its motion shifts from upwards to downwards. From this moment, straightening of knee and attendant movement of lower leg are the dominant downward motions. By the time ankle dorsiflexes at the end of the downstroke, hip has already begun moving upward, pulling straightened leg along. As upper leg approaches surface, hip again moves downward to begin the next cycle.
The motion of the leg, especially on the downswing, is very similar to that of a person kicking a football or soccer ball. Throughout the kick, however, ankles remain relatively loose, so that we may feel the water and allow foot position to adjust to its pressure to give maximum forward thrust and minimum drag. Legs and feet are always in the water. The resistance of air is negligible at the speeds swimmers move; useful driving force can be generated only by kicking against water.
Kicking rhythms vary. Some swimmers kick once, others kick three times, with each arm pull. The latter usually emphasize the first kick of each triplet. Kick however you are more comfortable. Learn to feel effectively applied power, and to carefully apportion energy between arms and legs. If leg motion feels efficient, kick; if you produce little forward travel with much labor, do only what is necessary to remain streamlined and stable.
By kicking along with arms stretched before you in the water, or while holding a kickboard, you may obtain some indication of your efficiency . With the kick isolated like this, experiment with different techniques, using varying ranges of motion at each joint, and altering both cadence and timing.
Some swimmers use a single scissors kick with each arm pull. The leg action in this kick is very similar to that employed when bobbing. While this technique is less common, it is both stabilizing and propulsive, and is an alternative for those who find flutter kicking difficult or uncomfortable. As with every aspect of a healthful swimming practice, each individual is ultimately the best judge of what is appropriate to her or his particular circumstances.
Many adult swimmers attempt a bicycling or running motion while swimming freestyle. This can detract substantially from swimming efficiency. If you experience difficulty in kicking, consider wearing fins for awhile. With fins, we amplify the feel of the water and become better able to recognize those leg motions which are worthwhile. Furthermore, with fins we are able to travel well with even a gentle kick. Thus we can be more attentive to remaining relaxed, and sending wavelike motions down each leg.
Begin to learn how to use fins by practicing along a wall. Hanging vertically with head above water, hands shoulder width apart on gutter, upper surface of fins against wall, and tips pointing to the bottom of the pool, rotate one hip to the rear, drawing the leg on the same side slowly and directly backwards. Knee remains straight, and ankle dorsiflexes in response to water pressure on bottom of fin, so that tip of fin moves upwards until sole is tangential to the arc being traced by foot moving to the rear. In this position, the fin offers very little resistance. Some people focus on pressing away from torso with heel, to avoid bending knee, and to allow foot to respond to water pressure rather than be fixed in position by deliberate action.
Next, reverse direction with the hip, rotating it towards the wall even as foot and lower leg continue to swing to the rear. When heel is three to four feet from the wall (depending on personal size and strength), begin to swing the leg forwards, maintaining a steady pressure at the foot. As the tip of the fin catches the water, ankle plantarflexes and knee bends slightly. With foot in this position, kick forward with leg, straightening knee until feet are once again together along the wall, toes pointed to the bottom.
The most common errors in this practice are: tensing the ankle so that the fin fails to move in response to water pressure, and bending excessively at hip and knee while swinging forward, allowing the knee to move upwards towards the torso and losing the feeling of steady pressure on the fin and foot. The first of these can sometimes be remedied by deliberately dorsiflexing the ankle on the backswing and plantarflexing it on the kick forward. To stop bending knee and hip more than is optimal, concentrate on extending the leg as you kick, and reaching far from the hip with the toes.
After practicing with one leg at a time until the kick feels smooth and flowing, begin scissoring the legs, moving one forward as the other comes back. As you learn to coordinate these movements better, the alteration of foot and fin position will become effortless. With each properly executed scissors, you generate enough thrust to rise from the water. Once you have attained an easy, fluid automaticity, use the kick to travel. Experiment with belly to the bottom and both hands ahead (holding a board before you if you like), or lying on either side, with lower arm extended forward in the water, arm nearer the surface trailing alongside torso and thigh, and face turned to look to the side and somewhat rearward over trailing arm.
If you find the freestyle kick difficult, even with fins, consider learning the dolphin kick, where the motion of each leg is very close to a freestyle kick, but legs move in unison instead of in opposition. This is substantially easier for some people than is flexing one ankle while extending the other, or moving one leg up and the other down. In addition, once you have felt the wavelike motion of an effective dolphin kick, you may more easily master the coordination and timing of freestyle kicking. Stand on dry land with feet together and arms at sides. Bend knees to about 120 degrees, arch back, thrust abdomen forward, and look up slightly, so that you are bowed forward from head to foot, and inhale. Then straighten legs, flex at hips, push buttocks backwards and shoulders forwards, face slightly downwards, so that you are bowed backward from head to foot, and exhale. This is the essence of the dolphin kick.
Move into the pool and don a pair of fins. Hang from the with both hands, facing the wall, belly to it. Let the fins hang, and keep the ankles loose. Move the legs rearward by arching the back. Continue this rearward motion by bending the knees to about 120 degrees. Gripping the wall firmly, straighten the legs and flex at the hips until upper surface of fins is against the wall and hips are about a foot from it. Now relax the abdominal muscles and allow hips to swing back down to the wall while extending legs backwards to begin the next cycle. Note how the water pressure against the fins dorsiflexes the feet on the backswing and plantarflexes them on the foreswing, just as in freestyle kicking.
After you have become well-coordinated enough to execute these moves smoothly along the wall, inhale deeply and push off in prone position with arms extended overhead. Exhale while bowing abdomen downward and bending legs to bring feet towards surface. Then plunge head into water and look downward while extending legs and flexing at hips as before. Kick both downwards and backwards, aiming once again to reach away from hips with toes. Repeat the cycle. If you are flexing hips sufficiently, buttocks will surface at the end of each downward kick. Remember, head and feet move downwards as buttocks move up; head and feet move upward as back arches and buttocks move down. To an observer at poolside, you appear to be sinuously snaking along, dorso-ventral waves moving from head to toe and carrying you above and below the surface.
Beginners sometimes resist using fins, fearing that they will become dependent upon them and unable to swim without them. Like training wheels on a bicycle, fins can provide a measure of security which many find valuable. If you are at the stage where you swim only by using every bit of skill and energy available to you, you may be unnecessarily concerned with survival. By wearing fins, you take the pressure off. Then, in a more relaxed state, you can be more attentive to improving stroke efficiency.
When you feel ready to shed the fins, do so gradually. Swim with only one for awhile, changing it from one leg to the other. Then swim a single length barefoot. Slowly increase the ratio of finless to finned swimming, until you feel comfortable without using them at all. Even then, you may want to wear them sometimes, either to work the leg muscles harder than usual, or to facilitate armstroke practices in which you generate too little propulsive force to keep moving.
Freestyle Technique Summary
The suggestions on these pages are reminders of things we often mention when teaching. Some of them are general, and others more specific. The former you may want to remember each time you swim. The latter you will perhaps use the way some meditators use mantras, selecting one or another to repeat as you swim each lap, or each series of laps. Please read them carefully. Consider memorizing them. Think of them as tools by which you will give greater direction to the trial and error by which you become more efficient and relaxed moving through the water. To become independent of texts and instructors, you will internalize the information for which you now rely upon these.
Imagine how each of the hints here will feel as you apply it, and develop the ability to measure the degree to which your own swimming evidences the qualities you are cultivating. As you focus on one or another aspect of your stroke, study the appropriate parts of these pages.
Relaxation is primary. Before you begin to swim, take a moment to become calm and relaxed. Leave behind the cares of the day. Anticipate the joy of swimming. If at any time you feel tense or fearful, return to a practice which is comfortable for you. Invent new ways to take small intermediate steps from one level of competence to the next. Be patient. Enjoy the moment. Forget what others are doing. Learn to appreciate what you are right now! When you are ready to leave the pool, reflect upon what you learned. List your triumphs. Contrast this swim to your first. Be positive. Recognize the challenging nature of swimming and resolve to learn at every level. Feel the satisfaction of your practice. Be glad that you are becoming a healthier animal.
Full exhalation is crucial. If you feel tired swimming, inadequate exhalation is likely a part of the reason. Rotate the head to the side and rear, and look slightly backwards and low to the water, towards and under the recovering arm. See as you turn! Shift your visual field in a smooth arc to the side and rear. Synchronize turning to breathe with rolling of shoulders and torso during the latter part of the pull. Breathe on the recovery, after you have finished pulling. Feel the water on one cheek and in one ear as you inhale. See if you can keep one eye underwater even as you breathe, by opening the “high” side of the mouth and pulling it upwards on the face. Experiment with breathing to each side so that you may compare your movements to left and right and choose the more efficient motions for use to both sides. Learn to inhale quickly and deeply, closing the mouth before turning face back into the water. This minimizes the interference of breathing with other actions. Remember to turn and roll the head, rather than lift it.
You can be long in the water. Without gravity pulling along spine and legs, you grow! Imagine being dragged by extended fingertips directly to the far wall. Look forward, rather than downward. Arch upper spine and thrust chest forward to avoid a kinked neck. Open chest to keep breastbone visible to an imaginary observer a foot underwater and a few yards ahead of you. Avoid lateral bending of neck or torso. Remember that excessive lateral arm motion will contribute to such bending. Avoid flexion at hip and locking of legs. Roll gently and rhythmically from side to side with each arm pull. Think of swimming first on one side, then on the other, moving through the prone position quite rapidly as one arm enters and extends and the other finishes. Stay low in the water. Only the strongest, most enduring, most technically proficient swimmers can afford the loss of buoyancy attendant to swimming high in the water.
The arms and hands are to be anchored in the water, rather than pulled backward through it. The force which drives you forward is exerted opposite the direction you travel. We sometimes move arms in other directions to maximize this force because of the need to accommodate human anatomical limitations, and to find still water in which to anchor after we have already set other water in motion by pulling. Enter the water cleanly, with minimal splashing and bubbles, by aligning arm in the direction you will extend it. Extend fully towards the point on the far wall towards which you are swimming. Pull firmly, but gently enough to feel the resistance of the water and to accommodate the shifting locus of maximum resistance. Sweep the arms in smooth and changing curves rather than windmilling or pulling only with the hands. Feel the side-to-side, up-and-down “sculling” by which you find still water against which to pull. Remember to flex, extend, and rotate all three arm joints: shoulder, elbow, and wrist, to apply maximum rearward force. Finish the stroke with a push until you feel first joint of thumb against front of thigh. Release the water by turning palm to thigh and relaxing arm and hand. Recover with a loose arm propelled more by shoulder rotation than by arm muscles. Swing, rather than carry, the upper arm at about a 45 degree angle to the water. Allow forearm and hand to hang loosely, and to trail behind elbow until the latter passes forward of the shoulder. Use roll and shoulder rotation to allow you an easy recovery without feelings of strain or pinching in upper back and arm.
Imagine the legs to be like the tail of a kite, or like algae in a stream. Whip them flexibly rather than kicking stiffly. Kick from the hip and let the impulse travel down the leg the way you can send a wave down a garden hose by snapping one end. Avoid treading, running, walking, or cycling motions. Feel the ankle dorsiflex as feet come up and plantarflex as they move downward. Visualize the vertical motions of a whale’s or a dolphin’s tail. Use the legs gently, first with the idea of simply keeping them aligned with the rest of you, then with thoughts of propulsion. Find a rhythm comfortable for you, either one or three kicks for each arm pull.
Practice turning in some regular way. See if you can touch the wall with one hand, draw legs and torso to it, take a single breath, and push-off. Learn to push-off from a completely submerged position. Stay aligned, so that hands, shoulders, hips, and feet all move through the same imaginary tunnel in the water. A consistent turn will fit right into your swimming rhythm.
Maintain the sense of pull and glide that you practice with single-stroking. As you become confident, pull a little sooner with the extending arm, so that you are always applying power with one arm. As you pull inward towards the opposite hip in the second of the three armstroke sweeps, use the roll into the prone position to drive the recovering arm forward into and through the water. As you finish the armstroke, extend forward towards the catch on the other side. Remember that the recovering arm will catch up as it moves through the air. Synchronize breathing with the roll of the pull. Inhale after the finish, during the recovery. When in doubt, return to single stroking.
Pushing Off from the Wall
Turns and push-offs are essential to pool swimming. We can accomplish both with precision and economy, connecting them smoothly to other swimming movements. A well-executed push-off, in which the power of legs and torso is effectively applied, can feel exhilarating. With limbs fully extended, and water rushing by on all sides, our sensation is almost that of flying. Swimmers usually reverse direction at the wall in one of two ways: (1) by clasping the gutter with one hand, and maneuvering legs and torso into position, or (2) by somersaulting just before reaching it.
The first of these techniques we often employ when starting from a standstill at the beginning of a swim, or as part of an open turn, where face remains clear of the water to permit an extra breath. Hold the gutter with one hand, placing both feet against the wall, close together, directly below that hand, and about thirty inches beneath the surface. With legs flexed at hip, knee, and ankle, balance pull of arm and push of legs at a level of force just adequate to keep feet to the wall. Feet, hips, shoulders, and face are oriented as much to the side as to the bottom of the pool. Free arm lies at the surface, aimed towards the far end of the pool, so that a fairly straight line can be drawn from hand on gutter, through shoulders and free arm, to the point on the far wall where you will arrive.
In final preparation for the push-off, rise slightly from the water, inhale, and then release the holding arm and swing it overhead and forward, while relaxing legs to sink downward and backward into the wall. The gravitational force upon you, which you feel more strongly as you rise from the water and diminish your buoyancy, and the reactive force exerted as you swing one arm overhead, act in concert to press you back to the wall even after you have released the gutter. By relaxing the legs, you are able to fully flex hips, knees, and ankles while keeping feet to the wall. Thus coiled, you are ready to apply power through the entire range of leg motion.
The swinging arm comes to rest parallel, and close, to the arm which has remained extended towards the far wall. Head is directly atop spine, with both upper arms pressed to skull just behind ears. Feet, hips, shoulders, and hands are positioned so that a straight line extending through all of them meets the surface at the point, perhaps two body lengths from the wall, where you will begin stroking. You are lying more on a side than prone, the arm you have swung now submerged, but closer to the surface than the other, with an imaginary underwater observer ahead of you seeing fingertips and arms partially obscuring top of skull. Head is about a foot underwater and the plane in which back and shoulders lie is facing more to the side than to the bottom or the surface.
The glide path of the push-off rises from the time we leave the wall until after we begin the first arm pull. Hands, pressed together with palm of one to back of the other, part the water easily. Palm is exposed on the hand with which will make the first power stroke, and the swimmer attentive to symmetry uses each hand half the time. Accomplished swimmers often kick before beginning the armstroke, to extend the period that they glide with arms outstretched. By very slight adjustments of hands and arms, and by imparting a slight twist as you push from the wall, you can rotate to the position from which you will take your first armstroke. With attention, the moment to begin stroking, when glide speed has slowed just to swimming speed, is easy to determine. Most swimmers breathe after the first or second arm pull.
Extension and alignment are crucial to push-offs. If we are as long as possible, from fingertips to toes, and from crown of skull to base of spine, we minimize frontal cross-section, and increase aspect ratio (length to breadth). By optimizing these factors, we are able to reach greater velocity per unit of energy converted. When feet, hips, shoulders, and hands are all aligned, we deliver force through the legs to a point precisely behind our center of mass, and direct it along the longitudinal axis of head and torso. Thus we eliminate unwanted torques, and leave virtually all the power we apply available to produce forward motion. Stretched and straightened we slide through the water, hardly disturbing it, as if pulled by fingertips to the far wall. Be alert to feelings of pressure and resistance and to the sounds of water eddying about a protruding part so that you steadily refine your technique.
A common error is to jump forward over the water from the moment hand releases the wall. If you do this, you are failing to relax and sink downward to full leg flexion. By pushing off prematurely, you compromise alignment and power, and increase turbulent drag. To learn more effective timing, practice the first part of the push-off alone, stopping at the point where you are coiled at the wall with both arms overhead. Once you can move easily into this position, go on to learn how to drive streamlined from the wall.
Open and Closed Turns
To initiate and open turn, glide gently to the wall, with one hand along the thigh where you finished the last power stroke, and the other extended ahead, ready to grasp the gutter. You are lying on one side, hands as far from each other as you can comfortably hold them. With practice you can become adept at gauging distance, and at distributing force to each arm pull evenly and consistently, so that you may avoid finding the wall an awkward half-stroke away.
Catch the gutter with the leading hand, and pull towards the wall. Continue trailing the other arm behind, extended towards the far end of the pool, and maintain it in this position throughout the turn. Rising from the water slightly, swing legs and body underneath to reverse direction, place feet on wall directly beneath hand, tilt top of head towards far end of pool while still facing to the side, and prepare to push-off.
The closed turn is challenging, but once we master it, the wall seems more a treat and less an obstacle. All our fears of drowning are intensified by doubt about the direction in which the surface, and air, lie. Closed turns offer another way to uncover and eliminate such uneasiness. Because the closed turn incorporates a forward somersault and half twist, and takes place in an environment where gravity is felt barely if at all, many swimmers experience some difficulty maintaining balance and orientation.
The center of visual field can be a cue to head motion and position. By imagining what you will see as you move through the turn, and actually looking for these things when you practice, you can preserve a more accurate sense of direction. As with other aspects of swimming, the ability to visualize clearly how you appear to a poolside or underwater observer, is fundamental. To develop this skill, stop at various points in the turn and think carefully about your position and orientation. Eventually, as you fit more and more pieces in place, you will be able to execute the turn smoothly and confidently.
Begin with one arm remaining at the side after finishing a power stroke. As you complete the next power stroke with the other arm, drop chin to chest, bringing the entire head underwater, and putting it on a semicircular path, first downward, then backward. At this point you are flexed fully at the hip, legs straight and close together at the surface, head close to knees and below them, and hands just outside calves with palms turned to the bottom of the pool. Face is directed more or less skyward.
Complete the somersault by executing a two-legged “dolphin kick”, the rough equivalent of left and right leg performing a freestyle kick simultaneously, and pressing downward towards pool bottom with forearms and hands to drive hips forward over head and torso towards wall. While somersaulting, tuck knees in towards chest and and bring heels close to buttocks so that legs travel low over the water. With knee flexion here we accomplish two purposes: accelerating rotation about the center of mass (just as a skater spins faster by folding arms inward), and entering a crouched position before arriving at the wall, so that we are ready to push-off without hesitation. Continue pressing hands and arms toward the bottom to provide the resistance necessary to bring head and torso upwards and into line ahead of the point on the wall, about two feet below the surface, where feet will make contact.
Forward momentum now has been converted largely to angular momentum, in which head, torso, and legs are all rotating about a center of mass which continues to drift toward the wall. As feet touch, align them with hips, shoulders, head, and hands to aim at the point where you will break the surface as you complete the first arm pull. Immediately apply power with the legs to push-off.
Most swimmers accomplish in several stages the half twist necessary to emerge from the closed turn in freestyle swimming attitude. By tucking head slightly to the side on which you delivered the last arm power stroke when entering the turn, generating torque to that side with unequal arm pressure as the rotational movements of the turn are underway, and carrying the legs to that side as they move through the air, you complete almost a quarter twist by the time the feet touch the wall. The shoulder on the side of the arm which pulled last is lower, and you are lying more on the side than the back as you push-off. Face is directed to the side and somewhat to the rear.
As you drive with legs, continue to twist so that you are moving towards prone position as feet leave the wall. During the glide, employ hands and arms as steering surfaces to complete the twist and move into proper position to begin stroking. Generally, people stroke first upon leaving the turn with the arm which pulled last going into the turn.
Locating the Wall
In pools designed for lap swimming, cross-bars inlaid or painted on the bottom and on each wall offer guidance in determining when to initiate a closed turn. Because chin is dropped to chest, limiting frontal vision, early in the turn, many swimmers use bottom markings to judge distance from the wall. Those who face the wall after initiating a turn are hindered by high head position as they move to convert translational momentum (forward motion) to angular momentum (somersaulting).
Prudent people practice closed turns slowly and cautiously. One of the few traumatic injuries pool swimmers suffer is the bruise to heel or Achilles tendon which occurs when a closed turn is made too near a wall. One way to avoid this as you first begin to learn this turn is to practice far from the wall, even in the middle of the pool. Here, without fear of hitting anything, concentrate first upon flexing at hips and bringing head and torso around towards thighs and knees. Then focus upon performing the dolphin kick and flipping legs up and over while somersaulting comfortably. Finally, practice using hand and forearm pressure to bring head and torso into line with feet. Once you have mastered the turn itself, you can move progressively closer to the wall, until you consistently couple it to a solid push-off.
Learning by Watching
We can learn much by watching other swimmers, and by imagining how they feel and what they see as they turn. Since the turn is completed quite rapidly, you will likely learn best by observing one element at a time. Focus separately on each hand, each arm, head, back, and legs, looking sometimes from poolside, and at others from beneath the water. To keep swimming enjoyable, learn this skill like all others: at your own pace. Once you master it, you will approach the wall with eagerness, viewing it as an opportunity to tumble and jump, to rest arms and feel the full strength of legs, rather than as an unwanted interruption.
After learning to stay low in the water without apprehension, a swimmer appreciates better the weightlessness produced by buoyancy. Because humans are nearly the same density as water (i.e. — a person weighs about the same as an equal volume of water), the gravitational pull felt when swimming is but a small fraction of that felt when surrounded by air. Most of us, even with lungs deflated, sense hardly any gravitational force at all in the water. We float. Even very large, very lean people rarely weigh more than fifteen or twenty pounds submerged. An upward force this small will keep them at the surface.
Floating is so universally associated with relaxation and ease that the word has been extended far beyond its scientific definition. Expressions like “floating on air” and “buoyed spirits” are but a few of the many ways we connect the delights of weightlessness to other positive occurrences and feelings. The calm which is possible when weightless and surrounded by water is one of the great joys of swimming. We can relax muscles with which we labor almost constantly on land to resist the pull of gravity. Compressive loads on spine, and on hip, knee, ankle, and foot joints disappear. Extension beyond normal range becomes easy.
Even a bed or a comfortable chair offers less uniform support from all directions than that provided by water. Evidence of the stresses we bear in resisting gravity is apparent if we compare the skeletons of large land animals with those of marine species of similar size. Record-breaking fish weighing more than one thousand pounds have bones much smaller and lighter than the average human, who weighs a fraction as much. Oh, the advantages of life in the water! Further evidence can be seen in the steady loss of height which accompanies the human aging process. Though we are often oblivious to it, life is an almost constant struggle to keep from being pulled to the ground.
Swimming can be gentle, and relatively undemanding. If we feel we are working hard just to remain near the surface, we may return to bobbing until we discover a tempo which we can continue indefinitely. Slow swimming requires little more energy than bobbing, and can be sustained by the same kind of regular breathing and measured motion.
Swimming is a game of extension. To be as long as possible, from tip of middle finger of one hand to tip of big toe of opposite foot, just before commencing each arm power stroke, is to feel muscles at back of arm, and under it along the side, all the way to the hip. Ribcage is lifted off lower torso. With this, as with all the other cues offered here, remember to enjoy. A painful stretch is worthless. To be fully elongated and slipping through the water can feel delightful.
Rhythm is essential to easy swimming. Regular alternation between working and resting permits us to flow easily and effortlessly through the water, to become one with it. Your rhythm may be short and quick or long and slow. Continuously experiment to discover what you like best at any particular time. As you become more efficient and better conditioned, alter your tempo. Remaining open to new ways is crucial. To feel great certainty can be an invitation to persistent error.
We can learn to match exertion to available energy. If one breath every two strokes seems insufficient, perhaps softer strokes will redress the imbalance. Sometimes change will be slow, at others dramatic. By remaining focused on swimming, we are alert to the new and unexpected. If we accept each new revelation with gratitude, we are more likely to feel content. To want to be different now is to swim dissatisfied.
To swim to exhaustion or frustration seems foolish. To swim regularly for a lifetime is potentially to swim many thousands of days. This lifetime swim can be joyful, with each occasion in the water a continuation of the previous, and a prelude to the subsequent. So often we overreach today and suffer the morrow. With ambition and ignorance we fuel such behavior.
The patient swimmer recognizes that, “How far, how fast today?” can be asked within the context of, “What is appropriate for a lifetime?” To swim each stroke with full attention, to feel and relish each motion, to leave the water refreshed, these are elements of joyful swimming. The Balinese say, “Our life is our art.” We can swim with this attitude.
Every time we enter the water we discover the strength and balance, the coordination and endurance, that we bring to this practice. Each of us is unique, and in swimming there is so much room for individual difference that generalizations about distance and time, like those pertaining to technique, can easily be made into so many false rewards and punishments. To swim enough to raise the heart rate to a level where we gain cardiovascular benefit is the goal of many. To feel the power of regular, deep breathing can feel enlivening. To float and extend supported by water may be among our greatest relaxations. To do these things long enough to find a meditative rhythm, and short enough to leave the water invigorated can be a happy balance.
The clock is an external standard. The clock knows nothing of how we feel. What else matters, really? Why ask the clock if we are swimming well? Each of us can enjoy swimming, just as we do it today. Why rely on an external standard for permission to enjoy? Too far, too fast seems little different from too short, too slowly. Swimming can be an hiatus from the ubiquitous quantification of our culture. If only for the sake of variety, perhaps you will use it as such.
To swim easily for as long as we want is possible for most of us. To learn this, we practice regularly, perhaps so regularly that few days pass without our being in the water. How often we swim depends upon our own values. Remember that learning requires attention. As we become more at ease in the water, we often want to swim more. Each of us can use the quality of our own experience as our guide.
People learn in different ways. What is easy for some comes slowly for others. Sometimes we focus on apparent inability, or on some aspect of our practice with which we are dissatisfied. At these times we may cease meta-learning, and become obsessed with desire for progress in the form of technical mastery. Swimming thus can be pure drudgery.
At such moments inspiration can be particularly useful. Many find this in world-class swimmers and water polo players, or in others who perform feats of tremendous speed or endurance, like swimming the English Channel. Others are spurred onward by those who swim joyfully despite some limitation: the blind people, the ones who come in wheelchairs, those whose shoulders or hips move only minimally. A few minutes watching such swimmers, or chatting with them at poolside can be a reminder of how much each of us can achieve.
There may be times when we may facilitate our practice by relying on the presence of another. Moving up and down a pool stroke-for-stroke, side-by-side, is a different dance. However, graceful swimming is possible only at our own pace. Swimming together, each comfortable, is different from chasing and/or waiting. Often friends just travel to and from a pool together, or share insights. The observations of a sympathetic fellow-swimmer can be invaluable.
Swimmers use a variety of aids to focus attention on some part of their stroke, or otherwise facilitate learning. Kickboards, hand paddles, pull buoys, flotation belts, fins, wet suits, snorkels, face masks, and sundry other devices all have their advocates. If any of these are available to you and seem appropriate to your circumstances, experiment. By using such tools we may practice specific skills without distraction, or just generally reduce the demands of swimming. This permits us to direct our practice more narrowly. Those who find the transition from bobbing to swimming difficult often experience breakthroughs in armstroke efficiency when using mask and snorkel to make breathing easier. Others find that fins are the difference between floundering at the edge of panic and swimming with confidence. Remember that all extrasomatic devices remove us to some degree from the direct interaction with the water which the unencumbered swimmer enjoys.
Variety in swimming comes in myriad forms: on some days we may just bob and breathe; on others the motion of an arm or the position of a hand will be all-engrossing. We may start and stop frequently, or swim an unchanging rhythm. Different strokes, alteration of speed or distance, training aids, and swimming at different times of day or in different places can all be ways to vary our practice.
We soon discover that what we eat affects our swimming. To feel light and empty in the water is a good beginning. Few of us swim well within an hour or so of eating. Most of us eventually recognize that fresh foods, processed minimally, are appropriate to an active life. Sugar beyond that found in fresh fruits and vegetables seems unnecessary, and heavy, fatty foods almost always leave us feeling sluggish. Food is fuel and building material; to eat anything beyond what is required to meet these needs is a potential abuse.
After we have swum with attention and regularity for awhile, we begin to notice changes: a stronger, slower heart; deeper, more relaxed breathing; firmer, stronger musculature; gentler, more flowing movement; a new balance between activity and fatigue, between hunger and eating, perhaps even between fear and confidence, frustration and patience. For many, these differences are surprising, but movement is generally a part of the life of a healthy, well-adapted animal, and a regular, integrated swimming practice as described here can have positive effects on a surprising variety of aspects of being.
Living in a culture dominated by word consciousness, we turn to verbal instruction almost by habit. Learning to swim joyfully requires more than just internalizing verbal instructions. We can watch others, imagining how they feel, moving as they do. When observing others, we can learn to see afresh, forgetting our previous ideas and expectations of what we will see, and looking with openness to discover something new. We can notice the parts of their strokes which are bilaterally symmetrical or disparate. We may compare and contrast our way of swimming with theirs. We can experiment, and feel the differences. By repeating this cycle of observation, imagination, and experimentation we learn.
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