Arms, Oars, and What’s Below the Surface

Have you ever felt like you were putting a lot of energy out, but weren’t moving very far?

I just realized that I have been swimming the freestyle stroke “wrong” my entire life.

I took years of swimming lessons as a kid because I loved swimming. In the seventh grade, I tried out for the swim team at my local YMCA. I didn’t make the team, and they suggested I enroll in a class where they taught more advanced swim skills in preparation for tryouts another year. 

But I never got much faster and speed always seemed to leave me so out of breath. 

I got discouraged and abandoned swimming in favor of music. Now, two decades later, an injury was the catalyst for me taking up swimming again.

And I still struggled with speed in the freestyle, as when I did when I was a kid. When I tried to speed up, I would move my arms more quickly. More strokes per lap. I focused on how my arms exited and re-entered the water.

This week, it dawned on me that by focusing on what happened above the surface, I was ignoring where all the power was: beneath the surface.

Swimming “works” by using your body to displace the water. You pull the water in the direction opposite where you want your body to go. All that pulling happens when your arms are IN THE WATER. What happens above the water is pretty irrelevant.

It was a lightbulb moment. How did I never realize this before? When you row a boat, the oars don’t move the boat while they are above the surface; that’s just recovery so they can get back INTO the water. All the pulling and all the power happen while the oars are IN the water.

So I started focusing differently on my stroke technique for the freestyle. Instead of focusing on “how can I get less tired while moving my arms quickly,” I started focusing all my attention to the pull that happens when my arms are IN in the water. How can I create the most resistance, and pull through it? THIS is the key part of the stroke.

And…HOLY POWER! Now my strokes are actually doing something.  I got faster overnight. My heart rate and breathing are challenged, AND I am actually moving. Not by putting out more strokes per minute…..but by putting more muscle and focus into my strokes.

Fewer, more powerful strokes get you farther than more strokes that are less powerful.

There has got to be a lesson applicable to habits in that. I will be mulling this one over. How about you?

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