ELEMENTS OF THE STROKE:
BALANCE: freestyle is swam from side to side, rotating around a central axis which remains stable. Shifting sides means that you will be forcing your core muscles to balance your body so you can apply more force with your extremities. This core balance also allows us to engage more muscles and create more power on each rotation of the stroke. Here are drills to work on core stabilization and rotation:
-Side kick with one arm up front and the other arm on your side, keep the head in a neutral position and your chest facing the wall.
-Side kick with both arms down. Same concept but more challenging.
-Side kick with both arms to the side and rotating every six counts. This will challenge you to keep control of your body as you turn from side to side.
-Dryland: planks in all positions are a great way to activate core muscles.
FLEXIBILITY: the greater range of motion, the easier it will be to achieve greater distance per stroke and better angles to apply force. The shoulders are a special area of concern so emphasis on increasing mobility around this ball and socket joint should be a priority. While kids will have an easier time developing range of motion, every healthy adult has the capacity to do it.
Another necessary element is the ability to plantarflex the ankle joint which means to point your toes without discomfort. Runners in particular have a hard time pointing their toes in the water due to the imbalance in range of motion created by the amount of dorsiflexion while running. Ankle flexibility is key to allow for kicking to propel the body forward instead of holding the body hostage by working as an anchor.
Finally, the ability to press the chest and achieve a long, extended position will allow for greater distance per stroke and capacity for greater core involvement. Working on flexibility and joint mobility is not only beneficial it is necessary in order to achieve correct biomechanics. Yoga and other flexibility programs are very useful for swimmers. In our Wellfit Swim Class, fellow coach and Yoga Instructor Keith Keblacha has designed an specific yoga routine that works on all these key areas.
COORDINATION: this can also be thought as timing. If one arm is trying to surge forward, wouldn’t it make sense that the other should be pushing back? What about the legs, timing a set of beats per stroke is necessary to establish a rhythmic pattern. Depending whether the swimmer is sprinting, swimming a 200 or a mile the ratio of kicking per stroke usually falls between 6 to 2 kicks per each armstroke. Not having a rhythmic pattern makes the swimmer feel off and limits is potential for a good propulsion. Great drills to develop coordination are the catch up stroke and kicking drills that incorporate armstroke such as the overkick and counting to 6 before every stroke. Breathing to both side will also encourage the body to be coordinated and balanced on both sides.
POWER: this last element is all about acceleration. How much water can you move in the least amount of time?. Or to be more precise how far and how fast can you propel your body forward with each stroke?. If a swimmer tries to work on acceleration without developing proper biomechanics or first then the outcome will be wasting energy. It will as if we were trying to pedal as fast as possible on a bicycle with the wrong gear. It can also put pressure in the wrong places and develop injuries. Power should be developed as the last piece of the puzzle but a must have none the least in order to achieve fast swimming. Here is one of my favorite drills that work on acceleration:
-Zero acceleration drill: this is a modification of the hyperextension drill (you can see this drill on the Video section of chicagotrainer.net). It involves catching the water up front and pushing it back with as much power as possible and then letting the stroke glide up front. Glide on each side until you achieve zero momentum (zero acceleration) and then take the next stroke and repeat. This will allow you to see how much power are you indeed capable of producing with each armstroke. The key is to decrease the momentum on each glide to force the swimmer to start from zero and produce maximum rapid force each time.
Another way to improve power is through a dryland program that puts emphasis on applying power to a biomechanically correct freestyle pattern with the help of bands. In our Wellfit class we teach swimmers to breakdown movements and then put them together as a whole while working on a careful mix or power development and muscle endurance.
THE COMPONENTS OF THE ARMSTROKE
The freestyle armstroke is a circular pattern around the shoulder joint. We can call each phase by different names, we must identify them as independent units in a continuous pattern. Here are the phases:
-Pitch and Catch: the arm starts up front with shoulder and elbow extended. It the abducts (moves outwards) to allow for greater acceleration and create a anatomical position that will allow flexion of the elbow without shoulder impingement. The elbow as it flexes should remain high to further set up the next phase of the stroke. The goal of the pitch and catch is to grab the water ahead and anchor the arm to be able to surge forward. This phase is also know as the “anchor” or the “high elbow catch”. Common mistakes include:
+Not abducting the shoulder, in other words no pitch.
+Pushing the arm downwards without a pitch and catch. This has prove effective for some very powerful short course sprinters but even those swimmers revert to a high elbow catch when swimming longer distances.
+Droping the elbow to initiate the catch. This action will ensure that the arm will be slipping through the water and not live to it power production potential. It is one of the most common mistakes in the freestyle stroke and a must to correct if maximum efficiency is a desired outcome.
-Power Phase: right after we catch the water we must press it back to produce the forward surge we desire. This is the least complicated phase but requires strength and muscular endurance. The power phase begins after the catch as the elbow is in a flexed position bringing our arm closer to our center of gravity and therefore in an ideal position for strength production and power application. This phase ends with arm reaching the hip with maximum velocity. There is no need to follow up the full elbow extension with further shoulder extension because this will produce the body to move downwards. The goal in freestyle swimming is to produce movements that will ensure that the body moves through the water in a forward pattern with the least amount of resistance.
-Recovery: the recovery phase begins with two movement which are shoulder extension and elbow flexion. As the power phase ends the swimmer’s goal is to position the arm back in front using the path of least resistance. The position of the body (how extended it is) and shoulder joint mobility and flexibility will affect this movement. After the arm is out of the water on a flexed position, the swimmer rotates the shoulder keeping the elbow bent about 90 degrees and brings it forward. After the arm is brought forward it begins to extend before it enters the water and finishes the extension in the water. Entering the water with arm fully flexed will create maximum resistance at the moment of extension. Doing the opposite will cause the swimmer to overreach and make the pitch and catch more difficult to accomplish. Nonetheless, there are some very fast swimmers that enter the water with the arm fully extended. This action however is not recommend for most beginner, intermediate and even advance swimmers.