The Weakest Links

Elite swimming coach Bill Furniss identifies the most common flaws in style – and advises on how to overcome them.



Wouldn’t you love to sit in on one of Rebecca Adlington’s training sessions, or ask the double Olympic gold-medallist’s coach, Bill Furniss, for his top tips? After all, he’s been working with Adlington since she was 12 years old. TW met Furniss and wasted no time in asking him exactly how each and every one of us can make big improvements in the pool or open water. Now a Speedo coach, Furniss has coached elite swimmers at Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth level. We asked him to identify the five most common mistakes swimmers make. Here’s his pick of the bunch, along with some expert tips for you to work on if you recognise yourself in the descriptions.

1. The mistake: A weak leg kick

“People often think kicking is all about propulsion, but a weak leg kick fundamentally affects body position and has a knock-on effect for the whole stroke,” says Furniss. Using a kickboard, do a kick set after your warmup: 8x50m (with 45 seconds rest after each 50). This should be at a fast pace, using a shallow, strong, steady kick. Don’t do this at every session but, when you choose to do it, make it your key set.

Top tip: a good kick demands great ankle flexibility, something triathletes often lack. To loosen up your ankles, try kneeling down and sitting on your feet with the tops of your feet against the floor. Gently lift your knees off the floor and hold for 10 seconds. Do this four times and repeat on alternate days

2. The mistake: Poor breathing timing

“If your technique or timing is off when you turn to breathe, you risk destroying your body position and your line in the water,” says Furniss. “And you might end up feeling as if you’re running out of oxygen.” Common mistakes are breathing too early (as you’re pulling through the water) or too late (while your arm is in the recovery phase). Think smooth and low as you turn your head, and imagine the timing of the turn is prompted by the pull of your arm underwater. Rotate your head rather than lifting it. Never hold your breath, and breathe out fully as your arm pulls through the water.

Top tip: Holding a kick board or pull buoy in front of you with one hand, practise single-arm freestyle to nail
the timing of your breath.

3. The mistake: Wide arm recovery

“That swinging action – when the recovery phase of the stroke is too wide – gives a lot of unwanted lateral sway to the stroke,” says Furniss. “This will destroy all the hard work you’re putting in to going forward in a clean, straight line.” For a more efficient recovery phase, bend your arms at the elbow as your hand comes out of the water. Make sure you lift your elbows high, and keep your hands loose while the arm is recovering.

Top tip: A drill called trickle-freestyle is great for encouraging high elbows and discouraging a wide recovery. As your arm goes through the recovery phase above water, gently trickle the fingertips over the water’s surface before putting the hand back in as normal for the next stroke.

4. The mistake: Short stroke length

“Most people’s stroke gets shorter as they try to get faster,” Furniss states. “But that’s actually very inefficient. Effort goes up but control goes down, leading to lots of extra resistance as they take more and more strokes.” The most efficient way to swim is by slowing down. Think about the length you’re producing from one end of your stroke (outstretched fingertip) to the other (outstretched toe). The longer you let that long line stay in unbroken contact with water, the further you’ll travel per stroke.

Top tip: Swim an endurance set (say, 10x100m) at a controlled effort of around 85 per cent of your max. As well as timing the 100s, count the number of strokes you take (one arm pull). Maintain this pace,
or even reduce it.

5. The mistake: Inconsistent pacing

“In a triathlon, adrenalin and excitement can make swimmers go off too fast,” says Furniss, “but they often
end up blowing up. And that’s before the bike or the run. Learn to pace yourself well and you’ll have a much more successful race.” Don’t go out too fast in the swim section of a race, no matter how tempting it might be. Start at a slower pace, and then bring a stronger kick in halfway through the swim at the same time as
you start to ramp up your effort.

Top tip: Practise race pace in training by swimming negative splits. If you’re doing 10x100m, increase the pace throughout the set and make sure you swim each 100m slightly faster than the previous one. This will build an awareness and feel for a pace you can maintain.


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