When I stopped counting lengths, swimming got interesting. I've improved my form in every stroke but best of all, I've finally cracked front crawl. If you'd like to know how I got better at swimming without any swimming lessons, read on.
I got back into swimming because, to be honest, my chiropractor husband nagged me into it. Russell sees first hand how differently people age when they exercise, and as my personal chiropractor he could see that I was getting aches and pains because I wasn't fit. I'm middle aged, and I was starting to feel it, but now I don't. It's all down to swimming.
I was already a half decent swimmer. I submerged my head doing breast stroke, and could do back stroke, but the skill that had always eluded me was front crawl. It made me panicky and I could only manage one length at best. Now I can do length after length and I don't get too out of breath.
In my 20's I used to count my lengths, but with only 30 minutes to spend in the pool this time around, I started watching the clock instead. This freed me up to pay attention to how I swim, and that's when I got better. I started setting little challenges for myself, I looked for tips online, and I asked my daughters' swimming teacher for advice. Here are the changes I made. I'm no expert, but I hope you find it useful reading.
1. I stopped breathing out so much. Unlike breast stroke, I used to get into oxygen debt straight away when I swam crawl. Now I realise it was because I emptied my lungs completely on every out-breath. This meant my in-breath was a big panicky gulp for air, and and by the time I reached the other side I was exhausted. Instead I now breath out/ pause/ breath out. When I turn my head I resist the urge to gulp for air, even if I'm short of breath, because it seems to set off a panic response in my body. Instead I take a slow, restrained breath and keep moving steadily along.
2. At first I only used my arms. By the time I brought in my legs, weeks later, I had nailed the breathing and didn't feel panicky any more. Plus I'd built up some much needed muscle power in my arms to pull me along. In fact, doing lengths with only my arms or only my legs has helped my form in all 3 strokes. For example I noticed that my arm movement at breast stroke was pretty pathetic really, and I've beefed it up so it gives me more propulsion.
3. I changed where I look. Someone told me that if you can see where you're going with front crawl, you're doing it wrong. I noticed that my daughters' swimming teacher gets the kids to roll on their backs for each breath, so now I kind of tilt my whole body not just my head. When I take a breath, the thing I see is the stretch of roof behind me, and the beginning of the wall. The weird thing I do when I'm swimming face down is this. I pretend I'm floating on deep water with an octopus far beneath me. I have to keep watching because at any minute it will rise from the deep, and I have to be ready for it. Call me unhinged, but it works for me.
4. I try to feel the air on my feet. My head used to be higher than my feet, but now that I'm watching out for the killer octopus my chin is tucked right in, and my legs are more parallel to the pool floor. Now I'm working on getting the air with my feet, because apparently it gives you more momentum if you break the surface of the water. I pretend that the sun is shining down on the soles of my feet and I need a sun tan. (UPDATE July 2018. Since learning the secrets of Total Immersion swimming, I realise that I was misinformed on this. Yes, it's crucial to have your legs high up, in the slip-steam of your body, but they shouldn't break the surface. To learn more about this wonderful swimming technique, click here.)
5. I sometimes count how many movements I take per length. To get across the pool in fewer movements, you have to make every swish of your arms or kick of your legs count as much as possible. I put more power into it, and I extend the movement. Then when I go back to swimming at normal speed, I keep the same form. I'm stuck on nine breaths per length for crawl, I just can't get it down any lower, but doing it has really focused my mind, and in fact it's helped all my strokes. Lately I think that back when I did mindless lengths, counting and daydreaming as I went, I wasn't really exerting myself very much at all.
Swimming is great for spinal health, if you're doing it right. (One of the worst things you can do for your neck is swim breast stroke with your head sticking out of the water, click here to read more.) Chiropractic patients who start taking regular exercise see faster results and stay out of pain for longer than those who don't. If you can learn to love swimming (as I have done after a long absence!) it can make a huge difference to your core strength, and it has been linked with longevity. I can now run for the bus without getting out of breath, and I can put my tights on without sitting on the bed. So thanks for all the nagging Russell! (But don't let it go to your head.)
I hope you like my tips. Please share them if know someone else who swims.