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Not the same old stroke

Not the same old stroke
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Chances are if you took swimming lessons as a child you learned techniques that can actually slow you down in the water. That’s right: thanks to technological advances that now allow experts to view athletes underwater ­– not to mention elite athletes themselves, who are continually showing us new world-class techniques – we’re rethinking the most efficient ways to move through the water. In other words, it’s time to scrap what you learned. “Swimming is perhaps evolving faster than other sports because we’re now able to look at parameters that have never been studied before,” says three-time Olympian, and three-time medallist, Gary Hall, Sr, technical director and head coach of The Race Club swimming camp in the US, who studies swim technique. “For the first time, I feel like we’re now able to look under the hood and examine the small parts that make up the engine. It’s exciting because we’re learning as we go, and our research is creating a new breed of technique coaches.”

Always bending arms in air

Always bending arms in air
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One distinguishing feature of the front crawl (aka freestyle) stroke is bending your arm during the ‘recovery’ phase (when your arm is out of the water). Not so anymore, says Jenny McCuiston, two-time Olympic Swimming Trial qualifier and founder of Goldfish Swim School. “Everyone used to think this was the most efficient way to swim, but then a few swimmers came out with a straight-arm recovery and they were actually swimming faster,” she says. While distance swimmers may still benefit from the bent-arm technique, sprinters are increasingly trying the straight-arm recovery, she adds.

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Looking forward

Looking forward
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“Most swimmers are taught to look forward underwater, and now you want to look down and your head should be submerged after the breath in order to move faster in the water,” says Hall.

Sculling with your arms

Sculling with your arms
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Forget the S-shaped underwater pull. “When I learned to swim, I learned sculling, making a quick S-shaped motion as you move forward,” says Douglas Graustein, aquatics regional manager at Life Time Fitness. “Recently, though, we’ve learned that efficient swimming is so simple: if you want to go forward in the water, you have to push the water behind you. I like to call it aqua-dynamics.” When your hand enters the water, point fingertips downward while elbow pops up, then push back. “This applies for backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle,” he adds.

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Keeping your fingers together

Keeping your fingers together
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You may have been taught to keep your hands together like a paddle when moving through the water, but it’s time to scrap that advice. “We’ve discovered that separating the fingers and the thumb increases propulsion through the water more than squeezing your fingers together,” says Hall.

Making movements too large

Making movements too large

The frog kick is now a thing of the past, say our experts. “Now, it’s a much more narrow kick, with a snapping, whip-like motion,” says McCuiston. Rather than a large out-and-in motion with your legs, your knees should only come apart a few centimetres, adds Graustein. The same goes for your arms. “Your hands should stay in front of you the entire time and when you’re initiating a pull and your hands separate, they shouldn’t go more than shoulder-width apart, so it’s really a much smaller circle than people think,” he says.

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Staying flat in the water

Staying flat in the water
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Speaking of breaststroke, another common misconception is that it’s a flat, forward motion. Not so anymore, says Hall. “This is a great example of how strokes have evolved over the years,” he says. “When you look back to the 1970s, swimmers would swim flat, they wouldn’t elevate much. What that’s doing, though, is creating more drag underwater,” he says. Instead, the breaststroke should look more like the butterfly, with a waving, undulating motion, says Graustein. “When I show people this, they often are surprised but comment on how much difference it makes.”

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Overthinking the kick

Overthinking the kick
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Generating bubbles when you’re doing a backstroke kick? Then you’re doing it right. “The proper kick technique can be tricky, it requires an intuition for how the water feels around you,” says Graustein. “I either see people bending knees too much, like a bicycle kick, or being too straight and rigid.” Your kick should generate from the hip, with knees loose and not locked. The trick, he says, is feeling comfortable and relaxed in the water, which translates into a more natural, flowing motion.

Using the butterfly ‘keyhole’ technique

Using the butterfly ‘keyhole’ technique
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For those who are brave – and skilled! – enough to attempt the butterfly stroke, you’ve likely learned a keyhole technique. “That’s how I learned to butterfly,” says Graustein. “It’s where you sweep your arms across, then come into the middle and push backward from there. Instead, we now know to push fingertips down with high elbows, and that’s where the power comes from.”

Pulling with a straight arm

Pulling with a straight arm
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For backstroke, your arms should be straight the entire time, right? Wrong, says Graustein. “Think about it: when you push your straight arm down into the water, guess what? That water is going down, and that’s not where you want that water to go,” he says. “Keep your elbow aligned with your body instead and then push; that way, your forearm is the one collecting the water, and you’re pushing it behind you instead of down.”

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