When you see fast swimmers in the water the big thing you notice is how smooth they make it look. There are no hiccups in the stroke, no jerky breaths—just a balanced stroke that powers them cleanly across the surface of the water. In other words, what they have is some smooth, free-range rhythm. Here are three tips for helping you to improve your freestyle stroke rhythm.
Timing your breath without somehow affecting your stroke is something even elite swimmers struggle with. When we turn our bodies to breathe a wide variety of things happen with our freestyle stroke—we cross over at the beginning of the hand entry. Our ankles bump into each other, leading us to missing a couple beats of kick. And any rhythm that we were in tends to get shattered, or at the very least interrupted. There are a heap benefits to using a swimmer’s snorkel, but my favorite one is that it allows you to get into a good rhythm. By having your face down staring at the bottom of the pool you don’t need to worry about jerking your head to the side in order to breathe, disrupting your stroke. It’s simply one less thing to worry about when you are swimming—with the snorkel on you can concentrate more fully on getting your stroke into rhythm.
Most beginner swimmers aren’t too keen on swimming long course, especially when it comes to doing kick work. The preference of short course and the added recovery that double the walls provide goes for advanced swimmers as well—right up to the end of my national career I always preferred swimming short course. But when it comes to developing that sense of rhythm short course forces us to hit reset twice as fast. You know the feeling—you get up to speed, finally find your stroke, but then you are sailing under the backstroke flags and it’s time to turn, leading you to have find that rhythm all over again. Over the course of a long course length you can build and hold on to a more rhythmic stroke for longer.
Bilateral breathing is helpful for swimmers and triathletes for a few reasons: you better balance out your stroke, you evenly work the muscles in your shoulders and back (muscle imbalances are one of the leading causes of swimmer’s shoulder), and as it relates to the matter of rhythm, breathing to each side better helps you find that groove. It’s natural to want to stick to a strong side. Particularly when breathing to our off-side doesn’t feel as fast, doesn’t feel as smooth, and throws off our rhythm. But the reality is that if you want some of that hot blooded rhythm you are going to have to be able to breathe (and subsequently roll—research has shown that swimmers roll 4% less, with 11% less shoulder abduction on their ‘weak’ side) to both sides.