Chances are if you took swimming lessons as a child you learned techniques that can actually slow you down in the water. That’s right: Thanks to technological advances that now allow experts to view athletes underwater—not to mention elite athletes themselves, who are continually showing us new world-class techniques—we’re rethinking the most efficient ways to move through the water. In other words, it’s time to scrap what you learned as a Tiny Tadpole. “Swimming is perhaps evolving faster than other sports, because we’re now able to look at parameters that have never been studied before,” says three-time Olympian, and three-time medalist, Gary Hall, Sr., technical director and head coach of The Race Club swimming camp in the Florida Keys, who studies swim technique. “For the first time, I feel like we’re now able to look under the hood and examine the small parts that make up the engine. It’s exciting because we’re learning as we go, and our research is creating a new breed of technique coaches.”
Always bending arms in air
One distinguishing feature of the front crawl (aka freestyle) stroke is bending your arm during the “recovery” phase (when your arm is out of the water). Not so anymore, says Jenny McCuiston, two-time Olympic Swimming Trial qualifier and founder of Goldfish Swim School. “Everyone used to think this was the most efficient way to swim, but then a few swimmers came out with a straight-arm recovery and they were actually swimming faster,” she says. While distance swimmers may still benefit from the bent-arm technique, sprinters are increasingly trying the straight-arm recovery, she adds.
“Most swimmers are taught to look forward underwater, and now you want to look down and your head should be submerged after the breath in order to move faster in the water,” says Hall. Find yourself easily out of breath when swimming? These swimming workouts will boost your cardio stat.
Sculling with your arms
Forget the S-shaped underwater pull. “When I learned to swim, I learned sculling, making a quick S-shaped motion as you move forward,” says Douglas Graustein, aquatics regional manager at Life Time Fitness in Royal Oak, Michigan. “Recently, though, we’ve learned that efficient swimming is so simple: If you want to go forward in the water, you have to push the water behind you. I like to call it aqua-dynamics.” When your hand enters the water, point fingertips downward while elbow pops up, then push back. “This applies for backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle,” he adds.
Keeping your fingers together
You may have been taught to keep your hands together like a paddle when moving through the water, but it’s time to scrap that advice. “We’ve discovered that separating the fingers and the thumb increases propulsion through the water more than squeezing your fingers together,” says Hall. Regardless of your form, there are plenty of reasons that swimming is the best exercise.
Making movements too large
The frog kick is now a thing of the past, say our experts. “Now, it’s a much more narrow kick, with a snapping, whip-like motion,” says McCuiston. Rather than a large out-and-in motion with your legs, your knees should only come apart a few inches, adds Graustein. Same goes for your arms. “Your hands should stay in front of you the entire time and when you’re initiating a pull and your hands separate, they shouldn’t go more than shoulder-width apart, so it’s really a much smaller circle than people think,” he says.