Textbook Technique And Why It Doesn’t Exist #SwimTechTues

Textbook Technique And Why It Doesn’t Exist #SwimTechTues

It’s not lost on me that the title of this post will raise some eyebrows. The title shouldn’t be taken too literally; I do feel there are ideal approaches, methodologies, and “rules” to consider when coaching any part of your swim stroke

I do believe there are some universal tenets to coaching body postion, good kick or a powerful pull that will not only allow a client or athlete to enjoy all its benefits, but to do so in a fashion that won’t increase their likelihood of injury.

I’m interested in making people fast and strong, but I’m also interested in the long-game. It wouldn’t bode well for business (or my reputation) if all of my client’s swim strokes looked like this:



To that end, with regards to universal tenets for freestyle – and swimming as a whole:

Get the body high in the water – preferably with a straight back

Keep the legs long and hidden behind the body

If you’re following these three golden rules, you’re doing a better job than most. It’s sad, but true.

However, golden rules aside, there are many intricate, more nuanced things to consider person to person. One’s comfort and happiness in the water comes to mind. We can’t hold someone who’s scared of the water to the same standard as someone who’s been a competitive swimmer for 17 years.

Likewise, someone with a vast and delicate history of shoulder or back issues is not going to take the same path as someone with a “clean” health history. And, of course, other factors come into play such as goal(s), movement quality, and anatomical/structural differences between individuals.

There are many, many fantastic resources out there that help to break down anatomy, assessment, biomechanics, joint positions, and what’s considered ideal swim technique. I have my biases as to what I feel is correct – as does everyone – but it’s important to take every resource with a grain of salt, because…

[Tweet ““Textbook technique only exists in a textbook.””]

Textbook technique, in the real world, is every bit as much of a myth as barefoot running being the answer to all your running problems, or buying a £10,000 bike being the reason you WILL ride like a pro cyclist.

What we read or deem as “ideal” on paper, while often a great starting point for many people, doesn’t always translate to real-life. As coaches it’s important to understand this. Anytime we corner ourselves into one-train of thought or that any one thing applies to everybody, we’re doing the industry – and our athletes – a disservice.

A Real-Life Example

A few months ago I started working with a guy who had real shoulder issues and swimming was aggravating them. He was frustrated because no matter what he did (or who he worked with), his shoulders got sore.

When people are starting a session, I like to be a fly on the wall. I want to see what their default movement patterns are. I let the athlete do a 100m warm up at his own pace, and while his stroke wasn’t the worst that I had seen, I could see why his shoulders were bothering him.

We established that his range of movement and flexibility around the shoulders wasn’t great – and yet he was trying to keep his elbows super high while reaching so far that his elbows and shoulders were collapsing into the water. Added to this the athlete was rolling all the way round onto his side to try and get air in, breathing every third stroke.

2 of the things this gentleman was doing are things that many people will read/hear and try to emulate; the long stretched out stroke and the high elbow recovery. Bilateral breathing also requires more oxygen/relaxation than many athletes can maintain.

However non of those things ABSOLUTELY HAS TO HAPPEN. Just because Michael Phelps or Ian Thorpe have high recovering elbows and long loping strokes, doesn’t mean that you should. Instead, work within the bounds of what you as an athlete – or the athlete in front of you can do.

With the athlete above, I got him to engage his core. This helped keep his whole body high in the water requiring less rotation to try and breath. I had him take straight arm recoveries meaning that his arms were far more relaxed. Equally it helped to stop over reaching meaning that he maintained control and forward momentum, without stressing his shoulders.


I hope people can appreciate the narrow-mindedness of this type of thinking. To expect everyone to fit into the same scheme or way of doing things because that’s what YOU prefer to do (or because a textbook told you to do so) is about as narrow-minded as it comes.

No one has to breathe bilaterally.


No one has to swim with a high elbow recovery.

No one has to kick 2 beat kick even though they are a triathlete.

And no one has to start watching Planet Earth on BBC. Except, yes you do.

I’d argue a “good” coach understands and respects that everyone is different, and that he or she will be humble enough to put their own personal biases in their back pocket and appreciate there is no ONE way to perform any stroke or part of the stroke. Cater the style to the athlete, and not vice versa.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here! Remember, you can always get your swimming reviewed in  the endless pool with our video swim analysis packages.

See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!

Should You Learn Bilateral Breathing? #SwimTechTues

Should You Learn Bilateral Breathing? #SwimTechTues

Have you been told or read that you should learn bilateral breathing? Do you know what bilateral breathing is?!

What Is Bilateral Breathing?

Bilateral breathing is breathing to both sides. It normally equates to breathing on an odd number of strokes – 3, 5, 7 etc. It CAN be really useful in keeping your stroke even and help you maintain a straight line as you swim. Additionally the swimmers who tend to get shoulder/neck injuries and problems tend to be the swimmers who only breath to one side – a feature of poorer posture and reliance on one side doing the majority of the work.

[Tweet “Breathing to one side CAN potentially increase the risk of overuse injury”]

However I’d argue that breathing bilaterally is not a necessity and could potentially hold athletes back in the water. Especially with (but not confined to) new swimmers, there are so many things to try and focus on that breath control becomes really difficult, and trying to hold on to breathing every third stroke results in very quick fatigue.

In most sports, we don’t have to work very hard to get oxygen. But in swimming, specifically in freestyle , we have to turn our head to get air.

Maintaining good posture and a straight spine will keep your stroke as smooth as possible while breathing.

Cycling or running at maximal exertion requires between 50 and 60 breaths per minute. If you are swimming anywhere from 400 metres to 2.4 miles, chances are your stroke rate is 50 to 60 strokes per minute. If you are an alternate breather, breathing every third stroke (1:3 ratio), your respiratory rate is only 20 breaths per minute. A swimmer taking 60 strokes per minute and breathing to one side on every stroke cycle (1:2 ratio) takes only 30 breaths per minute, far below the body’s chosen rate.

So it’s not surprising that maintaining bilateral breathing can potentially be a challenge!

[Tweet “Breathing bilaterally severely reduces your body’s chance to get oxygen.”]

When coaching I prefer to focus on making sure that the swimmer in front of me has a balanced stroke – that both the left side and right side are doing the same thing, that the core and spine are staying straight and not bending round to one side or another. From there you can ensure that general breathing technique is good. The next step is to make sure that when breathing, you don’t let your hand cross under your body. My favourite drill is to swim with out breathing, and slowly reduce the number of strokes between breaths. Try to maintain the smoothness as you add in more breaths per length!

Obviously it is a great asset to be able to breath to both sides; specially in open water where waves, wind or bright sunshine could make breathing one way more difficult.

[Tweet “Breathing bilaterally is a useful skill but not a necessity.”]

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here! Remember, you can always get your swimming reviewed in  the endless pool with our video swim analysis packages.

See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!

Make Breathing Easier #SwimTechTues

Make Breathing Easier #SwimTechTues

Breathing While Swimming

One of the biggest questions and comments I get when people come for swimming lessons with me is about breathing: I just find it so hard to breath/I can’t get enough air in/I keep swallowing water etc.

There are three things that I get people focussing on when looking to make things easier:

1) Breathing out under water – if you don’t exhale properly, you won’t be able to inhale.

2) How you get your mouth out of the water to breath – we have to override our body’s natural instinct.

3) Timing of your breathing – nothing says swallow water like breathing at the wrong moment!


Breathing out under water

Breathing out under water

If swimming and being in water is new to you, get used to just being able to breath out under the water. Take a lungful of air, sink under water/hold onto the poolside and breath out. This may be tough to start with if your chest feels tight, that’s perfectly normal. If that is easy, repeat it over and over – breathing out under water, come up, inhale, sink back under. The more comfortable you can be with this rhythm, the easier it will be when you swim.


Breathing technique

If breathing out (and in!) isn’t a problem, then stage two is making sure that your head is in the right position. In the brain there is a part called the Amygdala. This part of the brain is part of our fear sensors, and is the part of your brain that will “remind” you that you need to breath, especially if you’re not comfortable! Unfortunately, the automatic setting for our brain to do this is to lift your head straight up. The reason I say unfortunately is two fold. Firstly, lifting your head will undoubtedly result in your hips dropping below the surface, meaning that you lose momentum and with it stability. Secondly, lifting your head upward doesn’t really lift your mouth out of the water until you’ve moved it a long way. Added to this, it makes it easier for water to go up your nose – when your head is down, body is flat in the water and you move forward, it’s pretty difficult for water to reverse direction to go up your nose…

To get breathing easy, we want to make sure that we are rotating/rocking the hips and shoulders – so we don’t swim too flat, and create a nice space to breath into. Secondly we want to think about turning our chin toward our shoulder (to bring our mouth out of the water), before returning to looking down. It’s easy to practise this movement, standing up. Simply look over your shoulder. Try raising your eyeline and then looking sideways – this becomes harder, so, even more reason to keep the spine/neck neutral, and just twist your head to the side to breath.

I really like to get athletes doing side kick to practise the breathing position, because it really puts an emphasis on good body position and turning the head to breath. It’s an extreme position to be in – you’ll never get this rotated while you actually swim – but it gives you a chance at slow speed to get stable, be controlled and get used to the skill. If this is difficult still to turn your head to the right position, you can break the drill down further and do it “backstroke style” to start with. To do this, adopt the same body position but rather than look down, look straight up toward the ceiling, with the back of your head almost resting on your shoulder. As you get comfortable, get used to turning your face down into the water to breath out. The more used to the drill you get, the less you need to turn your head to breath. Ideally you want to keep one eye/goggle in the water at all times – but you can work up to this.

Bilateral Breathing

Try and keep one eye in the water when you breath, less movement means less disturbance


Timing your breathing

Finally in learning to breath a little easier, timing your breath is really important. If you breath at the wrong time in your stroke, you’re liable to slow yourself down a lot, or even take on water.

The cue that I like to get swimmers focussing on is trying to breath early in the stroke. I find that a lot of athletes who are new to swimming or not so comfortable in the water try to breath only when their hand is out of the water and recovering. By this time it’s a little too late and breathing gets a little rushed.

Instead of waiting until your hand exits the water, try and imagine initiating the roll of the body and turn of the head as your hand presses by under your nose and chest. By the time your mouth actually breaks the surface, your hand will be at the back of your stroke, but this will give you ample time to inhale and rotate your face back to look at the bottom of the pool.


Obviously all these little bits take time to refine and practise, to get comfortable with – work your way down the list and get practised at each stage before moving on.

Beyond this you can then think about explosive breathing or trickle breathing – all out in one go or a steady stream of air coming out of your lungs, whichever suits your style of swimming and physiology. But first and foremost make sure that you’re in the right position to do either!

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here! Remember, you can always get your swimming reviewed in  the endless pool with our video swim analysis packages.


See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!

Optimal Freestyle Head Position #SwimTechTues

Last week we looked at how posture really can affect body position, control and the ease at which you swim. This week we just focus on one of those elements – where your optimal head position is.

There are four things that head position will affect in your swimming – freestyle or otherwise.

  1. General body position and balance in the water will change
  2. Breathing can be altered – its far easier to turn your head to the side with a neutral spine
  3. Looking too far forward too much of the time causes tension in the neck and shoulders
  4. If you’re wetsuited, you’re more likely to rub your neck and cause a rash.

As mentioned in previous blogs, every individual is different, and their own optimal head position will be different again – due to flexibility and personal buoyancy. However the majority should have a relatively large similarity in that the spine should remain fairly neutral to some degree, and things should be relaxed!

Head position

Swimming looking down – maintaining long neck and back

Alternating Head Position

Swim a length of freestyle with your eyes looking straight forward. Notice what happens to your hips. And notice the amount of effort it takes.

Next swim with your eyes looking straight down, keeping your neck long. Focus on the tiles…and notice what happens to your hips.

Swim half a length looking forward…

…and half a length looking at the bottom, with the neck relaxed and head in neutral.

Compare your speed…and the ease with which you swim.

You can also try this doing streamlined kick, changing your head position:

Do a length with your ears tight between your shoulders kicking, looking down.

Follow this up with a length keeping your eyes looking almost up toward your hands.

Next do a length “surf kick” with your chin on the surface surfing the water. You can even do a length changing between the 3 head positions.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here! Remember, you can always get your swimming reviewed in  the endless pool with our video swim analysis packages.

See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!

Breathing While Running #RunFormFriday

Just before you crest a hill or reach the end of a speed interval, your lungs go into overdrive. Your breath becomes shallow and rapid. You think if only you could pull in more air, you could surge up that hill or maintain your pace. But the more your chest heaves, the more you struggle. You may even end up exhausted, bent over, gasping for air.

Breathing While Running

Runners think about training their heart and legs, but they rarely think about training their lungs. A strong respiratory system can improve your running. It’s a simple equation: Better breathing equals more oxygen for your muscles, and that equals more endurance.

Just as we strength-train our hamstrings and calves to improve our ability to power over hills, we can tone the muscles used for breathing. Exercise improves the conditioning of the diaphragm, the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen, and the intercostal muscles, which lie between the ribs and enable you to inhale and exhale. When you take a breath, 80 percent of the work is done by the diaphragm. If you strengthen your diaphragm, you may improve your endurance and be less likely to become fatigued.”

This was backed up by researchers from the Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance at Brunel University in England, who recently measured fatigue levels of marathoners’ respiratory muscles and leg muscles. They found a direct link-runners whose breathing was the most strained showed the most leg weakness-and concluded in their study that the harder the respiratory muscles had to work, the more the legs would struggle in a race.

The key to preventing lung-and leg-fatigue is breathing more fully. When you take deeper breaths, you use more air sacs in your lungs, which allows you to take in more oxygen to feed your muscles. When I’m running, I concentrate on taking slow and deep breaths to strengthen my diaphragm.

Most runners are “chest breathers”-not “belly breathers.” Try and run a mile at a pace that gets you blowing a bit. Then  stop and place one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest and watch. The lower hand should move with each breath, while the upper hand should remain relatively still (usually the opposite occurs). Every time you breathe in, your belly should fill up like a balloon. And every time you breathe out, that balloon should deflate. When you chest breathe, your shoulders get tense and move up and down. That’s wasted energy-energy you should conserve for running.

Chest breathing can be a hard habit to break-especially while you’re preoccupied with keeping pace or calculating splits. One way to make the switch easier is to work on belly breathing when you’re not running, and the skill will eventually carry over to your running. To make this happen, some elite runners turn to Pilates, a program originally developed as a rehabilitation program for World War I soldiers. Pilates aims to increase flexibility, strengthen the core, and improve breathing. “I try to do Pilates twice a week,” says 2004 Olympic marathon runner Colleen de Reuck. “It stretches my intercostal muscles and lengthens my spine, which helps my breathing and my running.”

As always, I encourage your comments, experiences, and questions about breathing while running in the comments section. See what’s up next week for our #RunFormFriday tip! For more in depth understanding on how to put this into practise, get in touch and we’ll see how we can help!