Of course you need to be able to swim, be fit and enjoy being in the water but to be a great swimmer, it takes more than just being able to swim. You need to understand your body, how it moves and how it works anatomically. That does involve a lot of in-pool training – I used to swim for 5-6 hours daily plus gym work – but there are so many other things you can do to improve your speed, endurance, motion awareness and technique too.
Here are 8 great tips to get you started. They might seem simple but they’re super effective so give it a go.
1. UNDERSTAND YOUR ANATOMY
Once you can swim well, the next step is to really begin to understand how your body wants to move and how it’s designed to move, then train it to do that in the water. For example, lax swimmers who haven’t had much training tend to copy each other rather than follow their natural instinct. They do things that are really bad for their body (e.g. they look upward, putting so much stress on their neck; or create crazy, unnatural movements with their arms, leading to shoulder injuries). The key is to think of basic anatomy, then apply it to swimming.
Struggle with body and movement awareness? Yoga will definitely help. I had a lot of shoulder injuries, along with neck and back issues, whilst swimming; mainly because I have Scoliosis. My spine is slightly curved so it pulls unevenly on my shoulders and creates imbalances. Since doing yoga, my core is much stronger, my spine is more supported and my body feels much more balanced.
2. PAY ATTENTION
It sounds obvious (and is the MOST important thing) but most people don’t do it. When swimming, it’s easy to daydream and not pay attention but to be a successful swimmer you need to be able to stay highly focused for a long period of time – both when training and racing. I think that’s why I was so successful; I was able to hold acute concentration for long periods of time.
Swimming is very repetitive and small tweaks to hand positioning, body movement, focus and more can make a huge difference but to make those tweaks you really need to focus and see everything as important.
I love to shake up my workouts with cross-training…. Yoga, weight training, boxing, hiking, running… They all work different muscle groups, improve mobility range, concentration and more, so not only will you become fitter and have fun, but you’ll become a more rounded athlete. You’d be amazed by how much they can improve your swimming speed, technique, endurance, even happiness and motivation.
Making fitness a part of your social life – a way to have fun with friends – rather than a chore definitely helps. The more you enjoy it, the more you’ll do.
4. BODY SURFING
I do a lot of this as a contrast to swimming. In the pool, you’re manipulating yourself around a relatively static body of water. The water moves but you’re manipulating yourself. Whereas, when body surfing you’re changing your body shape and letting the waves take you where they want to.
‘Butterfly came naturally to me but some people find mastering the technique quite tough. It’s all about the body. People make the mistake of using their arms too much and not focusing on their body. That’s the secret.’
PERFORM WATER-BASED DRILLS
You should also perform water-based drills. These will help you to hone in on specific parts of your body and technique, really analyse them and see how you can improve them individually so that, when you race, your whole body will be optimized and working effectively as a whole. Some of the best water-based drills are:
5. BODY POSITION KICK-BOARD KICKS. One of my favourite drills. Brilliant for improving kicking-specific body positioning, in addition to general swimming technique.
How to: Wearing a central snorkel, hold the kick-board out and perform continuous body position kicks. Aim to get the lower back as high up from the water as possible so that it’s almost dry. To do this, manipulate your spine whilst sucking your belly button in towards it and engaging the core as much as possible.
6. ONE-ARM DRILLS
How to: Whilst swimming freestyle, wear a snorkel and perform perfect isolated movements using one arm. Depending on the exercise, keep the other arm at your side or up in front. Perform for an allocated time and then repeat on the other side.
7. REVERSE CRUNCH SKULLING
How to: Use your arms like windshield wiper blades, keeping them out at your sides, and using them to skull as you go backwards. It’s a really good way to work on your feel for the water as well as strengthening your upper arms.
8. TRY ALL OF THE STROKES
It’s really important to learn and be competent at all the strokes – even if they’re not your favourite. My coach Teri McKeever said that ‘Anytime you’re getting better in the water, you’re making yourself better in your strengths.’ So even if you’re practicing your weakest stroke, you’ll improve because you’ll understand your body and the water better than if you stayed in your comfort zone.
Natalie Coughlin is one of Team USA’s most successful swimmers ever and an active supporter of creating sustainable, natural produce and great tasting food. For more information, visit www.nataliecoughlin.com