Anusha Ganesan, a 28-year-old consultant in Bengaluru, was at a local pool last year when she saw two people swim non-stop for a distance longer than a kilometer, without stopping even once. “It was fascinating to me. That day I set my mind on improving my swimming skills enough to be able to swim really long distances,” says Ganesan, who is toying with the idea of signing up for a 10km swim. Whether you already know how to swim or are a newbie, if you want to swim long distances such as those involved in triathlons like Ironman, the only way to achieve it is by improving your swimming economy.
You could employ the breast stroke but it is among the slowest and requires a lot more strength and endurance. The best stroke for long distance swimming is the freestyle, says Nisha Millet, former Olympic swimmer and founder of the Nisha Millet Swimming Academy. “To improve your freestyle and make it more ergonomic and efficient, you will have to do a lot of drills such as bilateral breathing, kicks, arm movement and also work with accessories such as kick-board, pull buoy, paddles and flippers. All these drills help you improve your stroke and endurance as well as build swimming strength in your muscles,” she says.
The drills help you work on each component of the swim individually, and then, when you jump in for the swim, it all comes together thanks to your training and from muscle memory. This ensures that you are swimming better and with a lot less effort. So here are the drills that you need to perform to improve your freestyle:
Bilateral breathing: This is a drill that would help you strike a rhythm with your breathing, thereby improving your technique. Start with practicing this drill while walking in the pool with your head down, and performing the arm movement. Breathe in at every fourth stroke through your mouth, and then exhale slowly through your nose with the head down while moving your arms. Breathe in again on the other side at the fourth stroke, and exhale underwater through your nose.
After you perform this while walking, try it while swimming. By alternately breathing on both sides, you reduce the strain on one shoulder. Twist just enough so that your mouth is above the water line and you are looking at the top of your shoulder and not the sky. In advanced stages, this drill is conducted with pull buoys and also with fins.
Head-up kicks with a kick board: This is to build the strength in your legs and make the kicks more effective. Hold a kick board, keep your head up and kick while keeping your legs straight and relaxed. Next, you could perform the scissor kicks with one arm on the board and the free arm performing the stroke. Breathe to the rhythm of four strokes on one side. After this you can perform the head up kicks drills by holding the kick board vertical to the water. This increases the resistance and helps you build strength. Advancing further, you can combine bilateral breathing with kicks while holding on to the kick board. This improves your rhythm and strength in your legs.
Arm pulls with a pull buoy: Place the pull buoy between your thighs and hold it in place while performing the pull motion with your arms and breathe bilaterally. This drill isolates your arms, just like the kick board kicks drill isolates the legs. This drill helps you build strength in your arms and refine the pull movement. Make sure your finger tips enter the water first with your elbow high. Once the hand enters the water, push it down and brush your thigh with your thumb. This slows down the stroke and helps your glide better and farther, thereby improving your swimming economy i.e. covering longer distance with fewer strokes.
Dog paddles: When you start out, sustaining the freestyle for long distances is very difficult. So, swimmers are advised to do the dog paddle whenever they are tried in the middle of their swim to cover the prescribed distance. The dog paddle helps build strength and endurance in the limbs while also making you comfortable staying out longer in the water.
Kicks and swim with flippers: Flippers are an aid that helps improve the power of your kicks, and let you swim longer with the same effort when compared to swimming without flippers. While using flippers you need to kick from the hips, but keep the ankles relaxed and incorporate a slight bend in the knees. Use the flippers for drills with kick boards and also while swimming.
Paddles: Paddles on your palms increase the resistance in the arm movement and help build strength. Your hands must enter the water with the paddles facing the floor of the pool. While using paddles for the pull drills, make sure your elbow is bent during recovery and remains underwater. If you attempt to keep your arms straight for long durations, you might end up with a shoulder injury as it requires a lot more strength to pull through the water with the added resistance of paddles.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.