Swimming well is all about feel. Feel for the water. You have probably heard many swim coaches say it, it is so cliché, but it really is true. Do you know what it means? And, more importantly, do you know what ‘feel’ feels like?
For me, swimming well feels like I’m riding on top of a wave. It feels like I’m in control of the water. When I swim well, I feel cool water moving past my underarms at just the perfect speed. I feel like I’m holding the water, and it is holding me. It does not always feel easy or effortless, but for me, it does feel crisp and clean. My movements are purposeful, but not forced, relaxed, but not careless.
‘Feel for the water’ is often described as the ability to ‘catch’ the water. Some swimmers and coaches might refer to ‘feel’ as performing the catch & pull properly: getting a high elbow, fingertips pointing to bottom, and pressing on the water in the right direction. I agree with that, because if you have a good catch you are more likely to move through the water faster, but I think good feel for the water is also so much more than that.
Good feel for the water does include finding proper catch and pull mechanics, but also includes knowing how much pressure (strength) to use in those positions, to propel your body through the water. There is a fine balance between too much strength in your pull, and not enough. If you apply too much, or not enough pressure in the catch, you end up slipping and spinning your arms right through that water. Good feel means finding the right amount of strength to anchor your hand in the water, and move your body forward. It includes knowing what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like when you have that figured out.
To help develop feel for the water:
1) Experiment: During warm up, drill sets, and cool down, play with various ways of swimming through the water. Try some of these fun activities:
- Swim along the bottom.
- Try swimming backwards (feet first).
- Scull in as many different ways as you can.
- Dolphin kick big, dolphin kick little.
- Swim head up.
- Play with corkscrew (one backstroke pull / one freestyle pull).
- Practice handstands in the water, learn to flip turn.
Why? Because learning to move your body through the water in various ways will teach you how to work with the principles of swimming such as: buoyancy, pressure, drag, lift. Get comfortable in the water in as many ways as you can, and you’ll learn how the properties of water can work with you. You’ll also develop a feel for what works, and what doesn’t, and learning to feel what doesn’t work, is just as important as learning to feel what does.
2) Find a distance and speed that you think you can swim well, and by well, I mean strong, smooth, good technique. It might be 50 to 100m at a time, or maybe right now it’s early season for you, and it is 25m at a time. If you are a newer swimmer, it might just be the first 4 – 6 strokes off the wall, while you have momentum from the streamlined push off.
- Swim your chosen distance 8 – 10 times, with enough rest in between that you start every repeat fresh, but not so much that you cool off between reps. 10-30 seconds should be enough.
- Effort should feel fairly easy for the first 1 to 3 repeats, and you will end up working at a moderate effort for the rest. If it feels really hard, and you are out of breath, it’s not right, and you need to take a step back and work on technique, or at a shorter distance.
3) Use your senses, while you swim the above described set. Not all at the same time, pick one!
- Pay attention to what you see when you swim. Do you see feet of the swimmer ahead, the black line at the bottom, or something in between? Do you see above and below the water at the same time when you breathe, or the ceiling? Do you make a habit of looking for the pace clock? Can you see any parts of your arms during the pull phase at any time, what parts, when? Do you see bubbles, where are they coming from?
- Pay attention to what your swimming sounds like. Can you hear bubbles? Can you hear your kick thumping, or your entry slapping, or slipping? Does your swim rhythm have a soundtrack?
- And of course, pay attention to what you feel. Do you feel air, or water, on the back of your head? Top of your head? Can you feel your heels at the surface? Do you feel water moving past your body, where, how fast is it going? Do you feel tall, relaxed, strong?
You don’t have to think about ALL of that, in fact, it’s better if you don’t. That’s way too much! What I want you to take away from this, is to turn on your senses while you know you are swimming at your best, and pay attention to one or two things that you feel/see/hear. It’s all about collecting information while you are swimming well, and remembering those cues while you train to swim longer distances.
Hop in the pool a few times a week and swim. Figure out what your swim is supposed to feel like. Remind yourself frequently what it feels like to move through the water, to hold the water, and to let the water hold you. There is no better month to frequently feel the water than February, see you at the pool!