Most of us have aspects to our swim stroke that can be improved. What are they and how important are they? Which should we spend time correcting?
The most common swimming faults I observe in my daily routine as a coach have been outlined below. They are listed in the order of most to least importance as I see it, which is also the order of common occurrence in swimmers. After describing each issue, I'll give the possible reasons why they will occur and also my remedies for fixing them.
Number One: Balance
This is the most important problem I deal with in stroke correction and also the most common.
When you swim along continuously with your head too high (4-6 inches above the water) then your hips will drop acting as a brake. You may be doing it subconsciously, but the effect will be that a large percentage of your hard-won effort is going to waste against the forces of drag from the water hitting your body when it tries to pass around you.
Possible reasons: (1) Lack of balance may simply be a lack of awareness - video feedback can be very enlightening in this case, or (2) it may be due to a breathing issue, such as the inability to exhale comfortably through the nose, resulting in a deep sense of stress if your head is almost fully submerged (where it needs to be).
Drills include any exercises that teach you to exhale through the nose while rotating to find the air, rather than allowing yourself to lift, for example, Side Kick, or Six Kick, or even 1-Armed Freestyle. The aim is to learn to keep the head no higher (any part of it) than 1cm. This involves looking backwards to the bottom of the pool when swimming or looking diagonally backwards when rolling to breathe. Only look forwards every now and then to check where the other swimmers in your lane are.
Number Two: Failure to finish the reach with a straight arm
Most swimmers lack this very simple and obvious part of an efficient stroke. To go forward you actually have to finish your reach by locking your elbow to get the most length out of your arm. Only then should you begin the catch and finally the pull. I believe most people fail to realise their full reach and glide because they are too focussed on the power components of the stroke (where the glamour is). But the irony is that your Catch & Pull will never become much improved unless you learn to feel the flow over and under your palm before starting anything subsequent. And that doesn't happen unless you master the reach first.
Drill: DPS swimming… count your strokes per length and aim to get under 15 per length on single lengths or under 18 continuously for non-stop lengths (depending of course on where you start). You'll also have to kick a little faster to make this work.
Number Three: Over-reaching
Many swimmers I see reach too much towards their nose and go right over the centreline. Again, this can be due to lack of awareness, but it can also be due to a lack of understanding of the definition of a straight reach. The correct action is to reach straight in front of your shoulders (not your nose) and then pause.
The reach is very important, because when it is incorrect, you will have definite flow-on effects with faults in the next two stroke phases. For example, many swimmers who overreach lose their stability in the water and this makes them slip outwards on the catch immediately after reaching, hence making their pull less effective. Swimmers who over-reach will frequently snake at their hips, which again causes drag hindering your forward movement.
Drill: try swimming at a time when the pool is not busy and you have a lane to yourself. Then swim the first half of every length looking forwards at your stroke without lifting your head - just tilt your chin forwards. And aim to reach your left hand down the left side of the blue line plus your right hand down the right side of that blue line. But always make sure for the other half-length you look backwards on the bottom so you correct your body position again. In this way you will learn exactly where you are reaching (you can see it), but you will maintain a good head position as well.
Number Four: Lack of a pause
If you do not pause at the same depth (without going down any further) for at least a split-second on the reach then you simply will not glide. Gliding is not achieved just by reaching. You need to be able reach completely, rotate your body up to 70 degrees and then let your body follow the direction of that reach by falling forwards. Only when all these three aspects of correct body position occur will you see a swimmer smoothly cut forward through the water with a slower stroke than those around them.
Number Five: Rotation of the shoulders
Many people do not rotate their shoulders to the 70 degrees of rotation necessary for an efficient stroke. When you allow your shoulders to rotate at the same time as you reach and pull, this adds (1) more distance on the reach, (2) more leverage and distance backwards on the pull, plus (3) elimination of drag because the water misses contact with your top shoulder and the chest.
I understand from many of my older swimmers that as young swimmers they were taught to swim flat. Our understanding has obviously since changed and this has now been shown to be incorrect. Rotation levels also depend heavily on the quality of a swimmer's kicking ability. A weak kicker generally rotates less on average than a strong kicker, hence less reach, less power and more drag.
Drill: try kicking on your back with fins, keeping the head as still as possible and continuously rotating the shoulders. Aim to keep the hips up and rotate continuously while practising this drill
Note - all these faults are drag-related and therefore they are problems with body position. A good coach or smart swimmer will always learn to eliminate drag before focussing seriously on the propulsive systems. The only exception to this is your kick. Even though an effective kick will add very good power to the swimming equation, you should always understand that the kick's main role is to provide stability. And hence you should always be working on a better kick. It will enhance your entire swimming stroke.