Counsilman, who coached Indiana University swimmers and the U.S. Olympic men's teams in 1964 and 1976, pioneered the use of an underwater motion camera, strain gauge devices to measure a swimmer's propulsion and other tools to collect efficiency and effectiveness data.
Counsilman, who died this year, discovered that the freestyle kick is not propulsive. Use it gently and with as few as two beats per arm cycle, he advised, simply to keep the hips from sinking and for balance. Body roll, from the hips through the shoulders and head, makes breathing easier and is essential for avoiding rotator cuff strains.
After the arm finishes a stroke, it should be lifted out of the water with the elbow held high and close to the body. (No forearm-flinging, please!) The pulling hand is most effective in a relaxed position with fingers close to each other but not glued together. The pulling arm should be bent and pass under, not straight alongside, the body.
Counsilman's 1968 book, "The Science of Swimming," brought these and other concepts to a more general audience. In 1979 the Red Cross began to modify the techniques it taught to instructors.
Over the next 10 years, successive versions of the Red Cross manual gradually incorporated the changes swimming coaches were using. The current manual, videos and DVDs -- have been prepared with the help of USA Swimming, the governing body for competitive swimming in the United States. The YMCA teaches similar techniques; its materials have been vetted by the American Swimming Coaches Association. Many of today's instructors have been trained through Red Cross or the YMCA.
The changes, such as slowing your kick or recovering your arm elbow-up and close to your body, may seem small, but incorporating them into your swimming can make an enormous difference. That's because swimming, like golf and skiing, is a technique sport.
On land, people expend about the same amount of energy whether they run or walk a mile. But exercise in the water is different, said Joel Stager, professor of kinesiology at Indiana University and director of the university's Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming. Because water is a thousand times denser than air, "a swimmer with poor technique expends three or four times the energy to cover the same distance. That means that a slight woman with a well-honed stroke that barely ripples the surface can outdistance the muscular fellow kicking and beating the water to a froth."
Technique also trumps a lack of natural buoyancy, in case you're a "sinker" who thinks you're fated by your build to struggle in the water. While it is true that some people naturally float more easily than others (it's one benefit of a little extra body fat), many lean-bodied competitive swimmers do not float well.
The bottom line is that if you learned to swim before 1980 and haven't had a lesson since then, it's a good bet your technique needs a tuneup -- or a revamping.
There are three major approaches to improving your swimming technique: lessons (either group or private), stroke clinics and Masters swimming.
If you are uneasy in the water and struggle to swim more than a length or two, group or private lessons may be the best approach. Donnie Shaw, aquatics director at the National Capital YMCA in Washington, reports that for many adults, "overcoming fear and learning to relax in the water is a real challenge. That can take some time."
One common swimming error that is easy to fix and makes a world of difference, he adds, is remembering to always exhale completely while your face is under water.
If you can swim several consecutive laps without a sense of panic, a stroke clinic can fine-tune your technique be a good solution. Typically, such clinics meet once a week for six to eight weeks.
If you can swim about 30 laps, even if slowly and with rests, and want to refine your skills, a Masters swimming club may be for you. United States Masters Swimming is a national organization whose 43,000 members are associated with more than 450 clubs. Lap swimmers with a wide range of abilities join in order to swim with others at a set time and place. Some have highly structured workouts and active poolside coaching; others are informal and camaraderie is the most important draw.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Updating your swimming technique can make it not only easier, but, the writer attests, downright pleasant.
(Noel Hendrikson/ Veer)
In an article in the May 25 Health section, a statement about the rarity of muscle strains resulting from swimming was mistakenly attributed to Katie Moore with the American Physical Therapy Association. The statement was made by Karolyn Bauer, president-elect of that group's Aquatics Physical Therapy Section.
Learning How to Swim
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Transcript Allen Muchnick, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation was online to discuss bike safety.