Do you want a faster freestyle?

January 26th, 2015
by Sheryl "Scotty" Scott, Aquatics Director

Always Something NEW!

By: Karlyn Pipes of Aquatic Edge

Even after a lifetime of swimming, I am always learning something new.

This forces me to wear my “thinking cap” when I swim. But it also means that I am constantly examining why I swim the way I do, and sometimes I find it difficult to let go of old “truths” and to accept new ideas.

In other words, I have to be open to change.

However…change is hard, change feels weird and change is uncomfortable! But I know that if I want to stay competitive- and injury free – change is necessary. So, in the past few years I have been working on the following modifications to my swimming. I have:

  • Learned how to bilateral breath
  • Lengthened my “extend and pause” on my freestyle
  • Started to EMBRACE breaststroke…for triathlon recovery

Uncrossed my kick

Of course, making these changes took time, plenty of thought and patience. However, I slowed down, stayed focused and now I can see –and feel- that my efforts have paid off as my shoulder issues have disappeared, my kick is getting stronger and at the age 52 I am swimming just as fast as ever. Lastly, by embracing my “worst” stroke, my running and cycling have improved. Yes…from swimming breaststroke!

So, what can you change about YOUR swimming habits? That is all swimming, or any sport for that matter, really is…a whole bunch of habits that we often call technique. I knew that I needed to make some changes, so here is what I did to help me put my thoughts into ACTION.

Bilateral breathing:

Why I changed: I can be very stubborn! I resisted breathing bilaterally (on both sides) for over 40 years! That is until I started to experience a dull ache in my right shoulder and neck that was most likely caused by the constant, repetitive stress from my right shoulder always being  “on” or in the “up” position when I took a breath. Now that I can breathe on both sides I am able to relax more, lengthen out the opposite arm and that gives my neck and shoulders a nice break. I also seem to have fewer bad habits on my left side. Less practiced, maybe? FYI: When I race, I still use my dominant side.

Why it is important: Swimming is all about balance, so if you single side breathe you are constantly out of balance. In a 3,000-yard swim you can take upwards off 400-500 breaths…that is a lot of head turning! Since breath strokes tend to be asymmetrical your technique may suffer if your hand/arm over-reaches on entry. In open-water, single side breathing can make your drift to one side. When incorporating bilateral breathing into your workouts, please SLOW DOWN and think. A great time to practice your new breathing habit is during warm up and in generous interval swim sets.

Extend and pause (glide!):

Why I changed: Every elite level swimmer now uses some form of “catch-up” stroke with a quick power phase, shorter pull and longer reach. This “extend and pause” maximizes the momentum created by the previous stroke, allows time for the set up of the catch and for natural body rotation to occur. More importantly, the large muscles being used are given a break before initiating the next pull so it’s easier to relax and let go of tension.

Why it is important: The recovery phase takes less time than the power phase, so to make up the difference most swimmers chop off the front resulting in a mirror like stroke. This causes a shorter reach, a missed or delayed catch and forces the power phase to the back of the stroke where it becomes a PUSH instead of a PULL. When in doubt, do more catch-up in your stroke, than less. Also remember that you may need to glide even longer when you take a breath.  Keep it wide, ride the glide, especially on the breathing side.

EMBRACE breaststroke…for triathlon recovery:

Why I changed: Three years ago I began training for Olympic distance triathlons and my legs were getting beat up from the added biking and running. It also seemed like every time I ran I experienced a new, never-before sore spot. That never happens in swimming.I was also looking for a cheap way to massage my legs as well as to find a way to help my legs, and my while body, recover faster.

Why it is important: Your hips and legs are on the sagittal plane when you bike and run.
Breaststroke or “frog” kick is just the opposite. You circulate the leg around the knee and hips, giving the abductors, IT band and hip flexors a nice massage from light hydrostatic pressure (also compression). If you glide on the reach (count to two in between each pull) you also stretch out your spine and may even connect with your psoas. Try gradually adding breaststroke into you warm-up and workout. And yes, swimming other strokes “counts.” You can put THAT in your training log.
Uncrossed my kick:
Why I changed: I am a good kicker with very flexible ankles. However, when I swam freestyle I didn’t get much out of my legs as I had a crazy crossover kick that I acquired at the age of six, probably caused by the imbalance of my one sided breathing.

Why it is important: After watching the Trials and the Olympics, it became obvious that really good swimmers can hold a strong kick throughout an entire race. Miraculously, my legs uncrossed once I began to bilateral breathe and I now have access to a faster, more powerful kick. To make sure my feet are not kicking too big or spaying out, I constantly tap my big toes together.

The next time you swim take an inventory of your stroke and see if there are changes, big or small, that YOU can do to help you improve your swimming.

Karlyn Pipes will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame class of 2015. Woo hoo! Besides being a fast swimmer, Karlyn travels the globe presenting swim technique clinics and inspirational talks worldwide.