Swimming isn’t exactly a natural activity for humans so finding the most efficient and technical way to fight the water element leads to faster swimming. There are many bad habits swimmers develop that usually stem from poor adaptation to the water. Some of these habits surface even in the most seasoned of swimmers. One thing I can guarantee is, swimming requires a lot of practice, a lot of hours in the water, and countless repetition of aspects of the stroke in order to perfect the skill of swimming. Here are four common mistakes and what you can practice to fix them.
The front crawl, commonly the stroke used in freestyle, is for most people the fastest, most effective stroke, and the one I will be concentrating on here. This is the stroke you should be focusing on if you intend to compete at any level.
Mistake #1: Head Position
This one isn’t really a secret to anyone anymore as I have been pretty vocal about it. You could say this is a pet peeve of mine, and one habit most of my swimmers know not to mess with anymore. With beginner swimmers the most common mistake is lifting their head up to breath. With more experienced swimmers we often see just improper head position marked by a stiff neck angle causing a drop in the lower body. We have covered ways to fix this problem, and the reason I included this one at the top of the list is because I feel the more I remind people that this is a problem, the more likely they will actually address it.
Mistake #2: Short Stroke
This is one where I am a huge culprit, especially as I get tired. The most efficient way to swim will involve placing the hand entry in front of the head with the arm outstretched, and the hand exiting the water and near full extension on the back by the hips. With a short stroke usually hand entry is still correct, however the swimmer finishes the stroke early, with hand exit occurring way before extension, in some extreme cases at waist level. This clearly reduces the length of pull, greatly diminishing the distance traveled per stroke. In turn this means it now takes more strokes to swim the same distance. What we end up with is a swimmer taking more strokes, getting more tired, and covering a shorter distance. No bueno!
Sometimes just slowing down the stroke rate will help in achieving a full stroke. A good drill to help practice this good habit is the “salute” drill. While swimming, exaggerate the end of the stroke by “saluting” as the hand exits. You will feel the power as the hand exits and will throw water as the arm recovers forward. Another good habit is to count strokes per length. If you notice your stroke count increasing, this is usually due to shortening of the stroke. You will often hear or see swimmers and coaches talking about DPS (distance per stroke). An efficient swimmer will have a high DPS, which correlates with a low stroke count and can usually be linked to the absence of short stroke.
Mistake #3: The Kick
There are two common mistakes with the kick that tend to be related: weak kick and over-kick. If you have ever grabbed a kick board and tried using just your legs to get across the pool, you probably noticed you don’t move very fast. If you have a weak kick and/or over-kick then you probably are barely moving. A good kick requires good ankle flexibility, which if it is lacking usually leads to calf cramps (especially if using fins). There should be good amplitude on the kick, but not too wide as to disturb body position. When the kick is weak, swimmers usually resort by doing a lot of kicking in the hopes that more is better. Sorry, that doesn’t work here.
The kick should be rhythmic and timed with the stroke, particularly the breathing. The other thing over-kicking will do is make you burn a lot faster, without really achieving much else in return. Training with fins will usually help the weak kicker, but be cautious, fins can quickly become a crutch and hold you back in developing an effective kick.
Mistake #4: Swimming Flat
I am not sure why swimming flat didn’t make an earlier appearance. This is a very common problem with a lot of swimmers, especially with beginners. Hips are important in swimming. In freestyle, hip rotation in concert with shoulder rotation ensures a long stroke, maximizing water surface and creating an effective, powerful movement. This hip rotation in swimming is like the kipping in pull-ups, so to speak.
A couple of good drills help with swimming flat. The 6-kick drill starts on one side with the bottom arm out stretched in front of the head and the other arm on top of the hip along the leg. The swimmer performs six kicks before switching arms flipping to the other side (180 degree turn). A modification of this drill can include the swimmer taking three strokes between switching sides. Another useful drill that will help awareness of hip rotation is placing a kickboard (yes a kickboard, not a pull buoy) between your legs. Begin swimming, using hip rotation. Feel the ends of the kick board brush or touch the water on each end, while coordinating with the full stroke. Hip rotation is needed, but beware: too much rotation can also be detrimental.
While practicing these skills individually is great for breaking down and developing specific aspects of the stroke, ultimately you will want to practice them all together in full stroke. Patience will definitely be a virtue here. A lot of practice will be required before you can really see any significant gains. Just don’t give up. Eventually everything comes together.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.