Everyone has the potential to swim well.
Whether you’re training for your next triathlon, or splashing about for a spot of exercise, it’s about finding the most efficient way to move your body through the water.
Swimming is a great combination of aerobic, low-impact, resistance training. You’re building up strength as you pull through the water, and because you’re weightless, it’s great for your joints.
But there’s no getting around it. Swimming is a technical sport and requires a lot of practice. A lot of hours in the water. A lot of repetition to perfect your stroke. And a lot of strength and conditioning on dry land to back it all up.
It takes time to improve.
So to help speed up the process, we’ve tapped into the knowledge of former Dutch Olympic gold medal winner Marleen Veldhuis.
Marleen won four Olympic medals at three consecutive Olympic games - Athens, Beijing and London - and says a lot of bad habits people develop in the pool surface from poor familiarity with the water.
“Often people have no idea what their body does in the water. [A] big mistake people make is rushing, and not going through the process of a proper stroke."
Marleen told us about some common mistakes people make and shared some Olympic level training tips that will give you an edge.
1. Head position
“Keep your head in a neutral position and lead with the crown of your head.”
Lifting your head out of the water means your body will sink and create drag. Before you get into the pool, stand straight and take note of how your neck and spine align. Try keeping that same position when you enter the water.
Everyone’s gravity point is a bit different. Practice floating face-down like a starfish in the water, using your arms and legs for balance. Move your arms and legs into a streamline position and take note of which muscles you need to activate to maintain your body position. This is a great way to get a feel for how your body behaves in the water. Try it on your front or on your back, and hold it for 3-5 seconds.
“The more you can familiarise yourself with breathing, the easier it is.
People often continue to breathe out in the air, but the trick is to completely breathe out into the water. When swimming freestyle, you’ve got limited time to get your breath in, so if you’re breathing out in the air, you’ll always be running behind which will make you more tired.
If possible, try to breathe every third stroke, but don't get hung up on how many strokes to do per breath – do what works best for you. Alternating your breath on both sides is ideal as it gives you a rhythm.
Practice fully breathing out into the water using a kick-board. Turn your head just enough so your mouth is able to open and keep the lower side of your face submerged. Try emptying your lungs by swimming one lap while singing your favourite song into the water.
"Pretend your body is a plank; the straighter it is, the easier it is to pull through the water.”
People often forget to activate their core. The straighter your body it is, the easier it is to pull through the water. Consider the shape of a boat affecting its speed – you too want to be long, tall and straight in the water.
Push away from the wall in a streamlined position, pull in your belly button and put tension on your legs, keeping as straight as possible. Glide as far as you can. Activate the glutes (your butt) by practicing kicking on your side, keeping your head low, and hips up.
“People think they have to kick really hard and put a lot of power into it.”
The trick is to relax! Keep your feet, knees, ankles and legs relaxed, and kick from the hips. Kicking from the knees is like cycling in the water and creates more drag. A relaxed continuous kick with smaller amplitude will give you optimum power. Marleen is the Virgin Active ambassador for the Sydney Morning Herald Sun Run Cole Classic. Now based on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, she offers swim and stroke correction lessons at Virgin Active Frenchs Forest.
Using a kick-board, try smaller and larger amplitude kicks to get a feel for the difference. Relax your ankles by sitting on the edge of the pool and pretend to kick your shoes off. Rather than trying to fight the water, practice using the water to power yourself forwards.