9th March 2017.
Every swimmer knows that while grasping the basics of the pool is easy, mastering the more technical ways to move through the water is difficult. There's a reason Olympic swimmers spend many hours a week in the pool, after all; there's a lot to practice to compete on a global level. For swimmers who hop in the water for their health or as part of a smaller competitive scene, though, the same need to develop exists ? albeit on a smaller scale. Improving your swimming strokes will not only enable you to exercise more efficiently, but it will also make the entire activity more enjoyable as well.
Today let's focus in on one of the more technically challenging moves: the backstroke. The freestyle and the breaststroke take practice to get the movements right, but at least you can see where you're going! With the backstroke, the entire process can take some adjustment before you feel comfortable. Many swimmers struggle to execute a technically proficient backstroke. In fact, you might waste tonnes of energy and effort every swim session if you haven't worked on your backstroke in a while. Let's look at how you should approach this difficult manoeuvre and what you can practice to improve your abilities.
Perfect the positioning of your head and legs
For many of the other swim strokes, athletes must concentrate primarily on the way they move their body, not where it is in the water. With the backstroke, however, the situation is different. If you don't have good posture in the water, you'll find it's hard to stay afloat and even harder to breathe comfortably. Bad
posture is one area where many swimmers struggle when first tackling the backstroke. One would think it's simply a matter of pushing off and staying on your back. However, proper form involves pushing back against some of your body's natural instincts.
Without the ability to see where you're going, your inclination is to tilt your head further back into the water so you can see forward (even if it is upside down). Tilting your head back too far is inefficient and liable to result in severe discomfort over time. Instead, imagine you are taking a nap in the water. Your head should be straight back, cushioned by the water as if it were a pillow. Keep it still and steady ? you should aim to keep your vision steady throughout the stroke. In this position, you can breathe more easily, and your body position naturally helps keep you afloat.
Pay attention to leg positioning, too. Without a good kick, you'll find the rest of your stroke is tough indeed. Your legs should be stock straight but parallel to the water's surface. Too much splashing indicates that you're over-extending your kick. Don't break the plane except with the tips of your toes. Otherwise, the rapid flutter you achieve with your quadriceps won't be as effective at moving you from one end of the pool to the other.
Finding the right rhythm to maximise your breathing
Once you've found the right position for your backstroke and you can breathe easily, it's worth thinking about exactly how
you're breathing during the stroke. Unlike other strokes which require very precise
timing to avoid inhaling water, such as the breaststroke, the backstroke is more forgiving. Because your head remains above water at all times, you can breathe as much as you like. Easier breathing is useful when your body demands every molecule it can get during a tough final leg. However, breathing too much or too little can still be a problem. As you practice in the pool, focus on your breathing, and start trying to time it in sync with your stroke. How?
When you're swimming
hard, you can start to hold your breath reflexively. To avoid this, think of your breathing as a part of your body's movements. As one of your arms moves past your head and into the water, breathe. As the opposite arm enters the water, exhale. With this method, your breathing becomes an integral part of your stroke. Correct breathing enhances your focus, keeps your body supplied with plenty of oxygen, and allows you to concentrate on improving the rest of the stroke. While it can take some practice to breathe at the right time, learning this technique will help facilitate gains later.
Developing better arm control for smooth strokes
Let's move on to the other major component of the stroke: your arms. While your legs will provide you with speed, your arms give you the impulse necessary to keep cutting through the water. For many
beginners and even some more experienced swimmers, this presents many challenges. Often, swimmers use the wrong movements for the arms. For example, you shouldn't feel like you must pull your arm out of the water; instead, the rotating motion of your shoulder should help pull it through the motion.
As your arms travel above your head, keep your palms facing out so your hand slices cleanly into the water when it makes contact. Once underwater, turn it towards the pool bottom and let it act like an oar, pulling itself downward. Use your muscles to pull your arm back into position to leave the water again. While it sounds complicated, there are plenty of instructional slides and videos out there to help you visualise each step. Once you master the arm movements, you've nailed down all the basics of the stroke. Now it's time to think about how to practice developing them further.
Do some drills to nail down the skills you learn
Doing drills in the pool will help you understand what specific motions should feel like while also aiding you in nailing down how to perform them consistently. With as technical as the backstroke is, this practice can be essential. What drills will help you improve the most?
Start with arm drills. One very effective way to learn the proper movement is to perform the stroke with just one arm. Do about 20 to 25 strokes with one arm (keeping the other near to your body), working on finding the path of least resistance through the water. After one set, switch to the other arm. Repeat as necessary until you feel comfortable using both arms at once.
Visiting the shallow end of the pool and getting a grip on the siding is a good way to practice your flutter kicks. Find the right position and practice keeping your legs straight. Practice kicks until you can keep yourself perfectly horizontal with a minimal level of splashing. Finally, try combining these together into several laps worth of backstroke only. Cycling through these drills repeatedly will help you gain mastery over this skill.
Spend some time out of the pool working on technique, too
As with many other swim strokes, training on dry land can help you improve in the water as well. If you feel a particular weakness during your stroke, you may need to shore up your muscles with some strength t
raining. For example, the shoulder and chest muscles receive a serious workout during the backstroke. Stretches, barbell lifts, curls, and other weight room exercises can help strengthen these muscles for the extra "oomph" you need in the pool.
Leg fatigue is a real problem for many swimmers, too. Try squats, leg presses, and even running. Not only will the latter provide you with some dry land cardio activity, but it will help make your legs more resistant to fatigue. When you need to dig deep, these activities can contribute to creating energy stores to tap into later.
Can you set a new personal best in the backstroke?
Properly executed, the backstroke is a surprisingly graceful move. Though it can take you a lot of work nailing down exactly how to execute it correctly, the improved fitness and ability that comes from practice is its own reward. Spend some time refining your body positioning and remember to focus on developing a good, reliable breathing rhythm. Once you've found the right movements for your arms, it's "practice makes perfect," as they say.
Overall, improving your backstroke ability can even lead to improvements in other strokes. For example, gaining better breath control can help with regulating timing during the freestyle, when one can only breathe at certain points in the stroke. With enough effort, you could soon be breaking your records. Why not try a session of backstroke practice next time you hit the pool?