By Ken Cluff
Jul 29, 2015

Learning to Swim

swimming_coverI learned to swim in an irrigation canal running through my Dad’s farm when I was a kid. I swam great doing the doggy-paddle but that was it. When I got a little older my brothers and I would go to a swimming hole in the Provo River bottoms. We had a rope hanging from a tree to swing out over the river and dropped in, but I still could only doggy-paddle back to the bank. I’ve always fought to keep afloat. This inability to swim properly was one of the greatest insecurities of my youth.

Feature Swimming

Swimming Merit Badge

When I became a Boy Scout, I had a Scoutmaster that grew up a competitive swimmer and convinced me and the other Scouts that it was a life skill we needed. In other words: of all the potential skills you should learn, swimming is one of the most important. I can still hear him instructing us on necessary skills needed to become a good swimmer. He wasn’t going to let me or any of the other Scouts off the hook with poor swimming techniques.

First he had us keep horizontal by keeping our heads in line with our spine. He said we should be looking down and to drive our arms underwater rather than swimming on the surface.

Then he said to propel forward with the least effort, focus on shoulder roll and keeping our body horizontal for least resistance. He showed me how to use my legs; a small flick serves only to help turn my hips and drive my next arm forward. This was the technique that allowed me to conserve energy and go longer distances. Think of swimming freestyle as swimming on alternating sides, not on your stomach.

My Scoutmaster had me streamline my body throughout the stroke cycle through a focus on alternating “streamlined right side” and “streamlined left side” positions and consciously keeping my bodyline longer and sleeker. He had me stretch my extended arm and turn my body to breathe.

For those who have rock climbed or done bouldering, it’s just like moving your hip closer to a wall to get more extension. To test this: stand chest to a wall and reach as high as you can with your right arm. Then turn your right hip so it’s touching the wall and reach again with your right arm: you’ll gain 3-6′′. Lengthen your stroke distance and you travel further on each stroke. It adds up fast.

swimmingHe told me to penetrate the water with my fingers angled down and fully extend my arm
well beneath my head. Extend it lower and further than you think you should.

This downward water pressure on the arms will bring your legs up and decrease drag. It will almost feel like you’re swimming downhill. He had me focus on increasing stroke length instead of stroke rate. Attempt to glide further on each down stroke and decrease the number of strokes for a given distance.

Throughout my life now when I’m in the water I practice these swimming skills. I train myself to perform these movements and not swim just for exercise. If I find myself strained, then I’m not using the proper techniques. I then need to stop and review rather than persist through the pain and revert back to my old bad habits of my youth.


Varsity Scout Swimming Activity Pin

It’s difficult to remember all of the mechanical details while swimming. I short-circuited sometimes trying to follow several rules all at once. I found most useful to focus on keeping my lead arm fully extended until my other arm comes out of the water. This encourages me to swim on my sides, extend my stroke length and to stay streamlined.

To summarize this technique remember to:

  1. Keep horizontal with head inline with spine
  2. Focus on shoulder and hip roll with alternatesmall leg kicks
  3. Focus on alternating “streamlined right side” and“streamlined left side” positions
  4. Stretch your extended arm and turn your body to breathe
  5. Penetrate the water with your fingers angled down and fully extend your arm well beneath your head
  6. Focus on increasing stroke length
    Ken Cluff
    Author: Ken Cluff | Editor, The Varsity Vision Newsletter
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