Splash into swimming with stroke technique tips

Watching these Olympic swimmers from 115-degree heat in Las Vegas makes me want to head over to the community pool and jump in.

Do you ever wonder how those athletes make it look so easy? Many of us feel like we just swam the English Channel after one lap across the pool. The secret is "biomechanics." Biomechanics helps increase productivity while decreasing energy output. It's how we train athletes to jump higher, run faster, throw objects farther and swim longer distances with less fatigue. That sounds like efficiency we could all use.

When I was in college, I worked as a lifeguard in Santa Barbara, Calif. My aquatics director was an Olympic swimmer. Sitting in the lifeguard tower watching her swim lap after lap, day after day, studying her technique, enhanced my own performance as a swimmer. I realized it was all about technique. So I thought I might share some tips to help you make swimming a more enjoyable experience and improved workout whether you are a new or veteran swimmer.

Body position - Keep your body relaxed and in a straight line. Look forward, not down at the bottom of the pool. Your hairline should just crest the surface of the water in front of you. Be sure to wear goggles so you can see where you are going.

Arm stroke - While many swimmers think they are propelled forward by kicking hard, it is actually the arm stroke that does the work. As you begin your underwater pull, instead of placing your hand in the water right in front of your head, reach out in front of you about 15 inches. Break the water with your thumb and first two fingers as you place your hand in the water, and then reach a little more by extending your arm from your shoulder as you prepare to pull. Don't worry about a clean and gentle entry; it takes too much energy. Relax and expect a little splash.

The real key comes next - the pull. Don't make a straight line with your arm stroke, as it will propel you briefly only at the beginning of the stroke, and once that water is in motion, you are wasting energy. Instead, make a large S-shape under your body. This allows you to grip new water and propel yourself the length of the arm pull. As you catch the water, curve your hand inward toward your belly button and then out again by your hip as your hand exits the water.

Breathing - As you reach out to begin your pull, pivot your body when your right arm is fully extended in front of you and your left arm is about to exit the water behind you for its recovery. The right side of your body should be completely rolled under the water. It will create a little pocket over your left shoulder to take in air. Don't turn your head more than 90 degrees to the side. Many swimmers make the mistake of turning their head 120 degrees or so until their entire face is out of the water or lift their head forward to breathe. These techniques exert too much energy. It is also best to breathe on both the left and the right side. This will take some time to learn. Practice and be patient.

Kick - Finally, simplify your kick. Kicking is not meant to propel you forward as much as it's meant to create a rhythm and keep your legs afloat. A fast flutter kick will just make you tired. Instead, keeping your feet slightly submerged, kick periodically, creating as little white water as possible. Practice by squeezing a floatation device between your ankles and swim using only your arms. This will help you minimize your kick and strengthen your arm stroke.

Swimming is great exercise and a wonderful cooling activity during the heat of summer. If you focus on technique just a little, it will make swimming much more enjoyable and much less exhausting. But you must practice like our friend Dory in Disney·Pixar's "Finding Nemo." "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming!"

Anne R. Lindsay is an assistant professor and exercise physiologist at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She conducts research and programming in adult fitness, physical activity, body image and childhood obesity prevention. Contact her at lindsaya@unce.unr.edu.