SCMP Monday, July 16, 2001

Keeping Fit - Water work


Most of us like to swim in the summer; the problem is, many of us haven't taken a swimming lesson since school. At best, we plough inefficiently up and down the pool. At worst we flail about trying to keep our hair dry. If you think your swimming style could do with a little work, read on for some basic hints on correcting the most common errors.
Freestyle: ''Many adults have very inflexible ankles, which is a great disadvantage to powering through your kick,'' says Sheena Ashford-Tait, a British Amateur Swimming Association teacher. ''Keep a long leg, but without over-pointing your toes.'' Your leg should be almost straight, but not rigid. Your knees should be soft, but not bent. When you kick, make sure the whole leg is working from the hip, and engage your gluteus (bottom muscles) and quadriceps (thighs). Your foot should be floppy, and slightly pigeon-toed. ''You want to be able to feel the water circulating in between the toes,'' says Ashford-Tait. You should be using the front of the foot as a lever, flipping the water (unlike in the breast stroke when you use the underside of the foot).
As for the arms, lots of people over-reach. ''Many people swim with too flat an arm, meaning the elbow drops, causing a weak lever,'' explains Ashford-Tait. When you bring your arm out of the water and over, your elbows should be tilted at about 45 degrees, with your thumb facing down and fingers together. Then the arm reaches out and pulls back underwater in a strong action, towards the body and around the hip. Your fingers cut through the water, thumb-side first, rather than slap down. The real power comes from finishing the stroke by using your tricep muscle (in back of your arm).
Lots of people have trouble breathing when they swim freestyle. ''Never use your nose!'' admonishes Ashford-Tait. Instead, you should blow bubbles through your mouth while your head's underwater. You can either breathe out explosively, just before you breathe in, if you're sprinting, or gradually by ''trickle breathing'' for long-distance or recreational swimming. Some people try to inhale and exhale when their head's out of the water. This takes time, and the less time your head's out of the water, the better. Try not to breathe on every arm recovery. Set up a rhythm or pattern that suits you, breathing every three or four arm pulls. Your head should be positioned so that your eye level is at about 45 degrees up from horizontal. You shouldn't be looking directly at the bottom of the pool. (If you do, you can't see where you're going). Don't turn your head too far back when you breathe, just slightly to the side. The roll of your body should take your head around, enough to clear the mouth from the water, without swinging your head to look up at the sky. This will improve your streamlining.
Breast stroke: Although this method is slower than freestyle, and many people think it's more relaxing, it still provides an excellent workout if you do it well.
The old-fashioned way to swim breast stroke, still favoured by elderly women, is the wedge kick. This is the one that makes you look like a frog and takes up the entire lane. But this is the 21st century, and space-saving methods are in vogue: time to employ the whip kick. Tuck your knees in, shoulder-width apart. Your knees drop towards the bottom of the pool, your ankles almost touch your bottom. Then, with your knees still facing straight downwards, snap your legs out almost straight, in a narrow V-shape.
You should feel it in the groin. (This is why you should never swim breast stroke until you've warmed up properly with freestyle. Warming up with breast stroke can result in a most unfortunate injury.)
Then whip your big toes together. Make sure your kick is symmetrical: many people suffer from a screw kick, which will disqualify you in any competitive event and doesn't do your body alignment much good either.
With the arms, once more, big is not necessarily better. ''The pull shouldn't be too wide, or go further than the shoulders,'' says Ashford-Tait. ''Think: mixing the pudding bowl, not polishing the table.''
Emphasise the glide and, if anything, hover in the glide position before pulling back strongly (mixing the bowl) using your shoulders (deltoids), arms, and chest (pectoralis) muscles. Then shoot your arms forward again. If you glide well, the effort you expend will be less, and you'll maximise your speed and efficiency using the body's momentum. Your fingers should be together but not rigid.
In breast stroke, the water should be at eye level or just above, to ensure streamlining. (Racing regulations have changed in recent years, and now allow you to swim with the head totally underwater.) Don't crane your head upwards: this causes what is known as profile resistance. The strength of your pull should be sufficient to lift your head and shoulders out of the water without having to take your neck out of neutral position. As with freestyle, exhale under water by blowing bubbles through your mouth.
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