Sara McLarty explains why you don’t necessarily have to spend hours and hours in the pool to become a better freestyle swimmer.
You know what they say: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But not always. And I’m here to tell you that you really can improve your freestyle by fewer miles. There are three tools that you can use toward this end: swimming slower, watching other swimmers and visualization.
Vince Lombardi said it best: “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” In swimming, the effort to go fast often results in imperfect practice. You’re so focused on getting to the other side of the pool as quickly as possible that you can’t think about the elements of good technique and your form gets sloppy. Before you go fast in the water, you must learn how to correctly swim slowly. Stroke technique can shine if speed is taken out of the picture. With practice, your muscles will memorize each new movement so you can eventually recreate it without thinking as you swim faster and faster.
Use your practice at the pool to focus on one aspect of freestyle at a time. Do not look at the clock when you are improving technique. Instead, feel the water moving and watch the lines on the bottom of the pool to judge if you are going faster. Drill sets should not be performed on timed intervals. Instead, use a specific amount of rest between sets.
Some technique flaws are only visible when athletes swim slowly. If Sally always swims as fast as possible, using a six-beat kick and a quick stroke cadence, it may appear that her body position is correct, with her hips and legs at the surface. But her velocity and flailing arms may disguise a tendency for her legs to sink. If Sally cannot keep her body in horizontal alignment when she is swimming slowly, a major technique flaw has been discovered. In this case, Sally should work on floating (or swimming so slowly she doesn’t move at all!), improving her core strength and relaxing in the water. Eventually she will be able to swim at her familiar fast pace with much less energy expenditure.
Watching Other Swimmers
Why do all the swimming yourself? Let others do some for you! Go underwater at your local pool, buy a DVD, surf the Web or watch a swim practice. How do you know that you finally understand the basics of freestyle technique? When you start making mental notes and correcting other swimmers’ technique. If you can see flaws in others’ strokes and know how to make corrections, you are becoming aware of how to move through the water.
Pay attention to both the correct and incorrect techniques you see in other swimmers. For example, when you watch Athlete A swim, you might notice he has a very relaxed arm recovery with high elbows. In your next swim, visualize his arm movement and try to mimic it. Let’s say you also noticed that Athlete B’s hands crossed the center line of her torso. Keep this image in mind when you are swimming and think about where your hands are during the pull.
You can use visualization to practice correct technique when you’re not even in the water. You can have swim practice right where you are sitting. Click your watch over to stopwatch mode and close your eyes. Start the watch and mentally swim 100 yards of freestyle. Think about every stroke, breath, turn and kick. Stop the watch when you are finished. Try to mentally swim your average race pace.
Becoming a better swimmer takes time and practice, but swimming more is not the only way, and often not the best way, to improve. Sometimes it’s the lazy way because it doesn’t require you to think. By bringing your mind into the quest to become a better swimmer—specifically through slow, mindful swimming, paying attention to other swimmers and using visualization techniques—you can make faster progress with less time in the pool.
Sara McLarty coaches swimming at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla.