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Expand your open water skill set by making positive changes to your technique

Alec Richardson is a year-round open water swimmer and coach who does most of his training in Clevedon Marine Lake, but throws himself into the sea as often as family life and the tides of the Bristol Channel will allow him.

Here, Alec provides some tips on how to make positive changes to your technique.

The most powerful skill to develop in improving your swimming technique is a strong awareness of what your body is doing.

There are many elements required to swim well, all of which must work together seamlessly.

Swimming is unique in its difficulties: the water surrounds us, supports us, and resists our intended motion – yet it is also the only thing we can gain purchase on to create that motion.

Throw in the open water environment: the surface moves, the turbulence created by other swimmers changes the density and flow of the water, your body is no longer a stable base from which to coordinate your movements.

There is so much to get right, so much to respond to, and no way we can be consciously thinking about all of it all the time.

Yet expert swimmers continuously repeat a flawless looking stroke without apparently giving it a thought.

That technique did not appear without a great deal of concentration on many tiny details, consolidated over a long period of time and thousands of repetitions.

It isn’t that they aren’t paying attention to their stroke, these experts have taught their mind and body to get on with the job on a subconscious level by working on it through periods of heightened awareness.

So, how do you go about improving your technique and achieving this zen-like state?

Stage 1: Get the right mindset

Seek advice from a coach. Not from YouTube, or books, or your mate who loves telling you what you’re doing wrong.

There’s a place for all that, but a good coach will help you to identify what you need to work on and in what order. Get along to some coached sessions or book a 1-2-1.

Accept that YOU must improve your stroke and YOU must put the work in.

It will be slow and gradual and as your technique begins to change it may not always feel better or instantly lead to improvements in speed.

Be patient, and dedicate a chunk of every swim to the process.

If you have drills to practice, do them, but think about what the drill is for, how it should build muscle memory and sensory awareness.

Do not expect the drill itself to bring improvements. Length after length of repeating it will make you good at that drill, but it won’t improve your swimming without the next part of the process.

Stage 2: Working on your focus points

This takes what your coach has asked you to focus on, the drills you are targeting, and gradually weaves them into your stroke alongside all the other things your body is doing, hopefully squeezing out any bad habits as part of the process.

Focus and concentration really matter here. Let’s assume you have two things to work on, perhaps steady exhaling, and fingertip-first hand-entry.

  1. Set aside 10 lengths to work on your first focus point. On the first two lengths, just push off and get up to a workable speed.Concentrate on your focus point for just four strokes in the middle of the length, then just get to the end as normal.

    For the next two lengths, try to pay attention to your focus point for six strokes in a row, then eight on the next two, and so on.

    Do not try to get it right on every stroke in every length. You risk becoming disheartened by your terrible success rate.

  2. Swim a couple of hundred metres to reset, but tune in every now and then to see if what you’ve been practising has crept in.
  3. Repeat step one for just your second focus point (forget the first one for now).
  4. Repeat step two.
  5. Now repeat step one for both focus points at the same time and don’t expect it to be easy.
  6. Finish your set, just do what you need to do to feel like it’s been a worthwhile session.

Come back a couple of days later and go through it all again.

Expect it to feel like you’re starting from scratch, but trust the process.

Once you’ve repeated this at least five times, check in with your coach again.

Give them feedback on how it’s going, but let them be the judge of its success and allow them to set the next steps.

There are no shortcuts here, no apps or gadgets which can do this for you, but patience and mental effort will pay off.

Of course, when you take yourself outdoors, the water will demand more of you, for which you will need every bit of brain power available to respond and adapt (and that’s a whole new bunch of articles).

But if you’ve trained your core technique to be a beast of habit, then you will be free to rise to the challenge.