February 9, 2017
The secret to swimming faster is learning to relax
Unlike many sports, swimming is almost solely technique-based. Simply trying harder won’t make you faster. At the risk of overgeneralizing, if you want to run faster you simply pick up the turnover of your feet. Similarly, if we take away a bike’s gears, the secret to speed is pedaling faster. Want to hit a baseball or golf ball farther? Increase club head or bat speed.
But swimming is different in that subtle changes make a difference. How subtle? Finding easy speed is a matter of relaxing the parts of your body that aren’t helping you swim and preventing them from robbing you of energy. Another way of looking at it: Muscles that are working (contracted or stiff) when they don’t need to be are using up valuable oxygenated blood that should be going to the muscles that are propelling you forward.
How Do They Do It?
Male or female, short or tall, young or more seasoned—the fast folks make it look so easy, even effortless. But swimming at that level is anything but easy or effortless. The secret is that elite swimmers aren’t wasting any movements or doing anything that isn’t related to swimming faster. Many of us will chalk that ability up to pure talent, but there’s more to it than that. Anyone can learn how to do this in any stroke, but it takes patience and a concerted mental effort. Here are some suggestions for what to do to find your easy speed.
- Harness the power of counting. This is a new twist on a drill you might have used before, the 20 for 20 drill. Take 20 strokes of any stroke. For freestyle and backstroke, each time you move an arm, that’s a single stroke. For breaststroke and butterfly, count each stroke cycle. Go through each of the four strokes, five times. The goal is to be aware of where the tension is in your body. As you’re swimming, carefully monitor your entire body and make note of which muscles are flexed and which are relaxed.
- Feel where you slip. You’ve no doubt seen the elites with their pre-race rituals—slapping their muscles or rubbing their palms across the starting block. There are several reasons for this, but the one to focus on here is that they’re trying to stimulate the nervous system. They’re waking up the body and signaling to the parts where the water may slip, to feel what’s happening in the water. Maintaining a feel for the water is critical for all strokes. Roughing up the hands or other body surfaces can make them more sensitive to where the water slips off those surfaces. This heightened sensation can help you make micro adjustments as you’re swimming, adding velocity and intensity to your swims.
- Breathe. When putting in a big effort, many people unconsciously take a deep breath and then hold it. This is problematic in swimming, where oxygen is fuel. What’s more, holding your breath requires effort, and flexes a bunch of muscles in the core that aren’t helping you swim. Depriving yourself of oxygen is always a bad idea. Rather, strive for rhythmic and relaxed breathing that provides resources to the muscles. Avoid holding your breath or hyperventilating to avoid engaging muscles that can’t help you swim faster.
- Conduct a head-to-toe body check. Start with the hands: If your hands are very stiff, chances are the muscles in your arm that connect to the hand are, too. They should be relaxed, with some space between the fingers. Tightening or clenching your fingers together doesn’t help you swim faster. The same thing is true of the feet. Rather than thinking about pointing your toes, which is forcing your foot muscles to work, focus on keeping your ankles loose when kicking. Relax those parts that are creating tension that aren’t doing any work for your swimming.
- Be thoughtful. Many of our daily activities are goal-driven. But finding your easy speed when swimming is process-driven, so it’s important to be mindful of the process rather than the goal. If you focus energy on your movements and not the other end of the pool or the yardage, you’ll be more aware of many of the things your body is doing, which give you the opportunity to make adjustments.
At the end of the day, the two most important things to remember are: First, along with being great exercise, swimming is a cognitive activity—you’re programming your brain to tell your body to perform a specific pattern of movements. Second, each time you look to acquire a new skill, it takes time to master it, so be patient with yourself.