There are four phases to the freestyle swim stroke: the catch, the pull, the exit and the recovery. If you do a web search how to improve your swim stroke, you’ll find oodles of technical advice and plenty of conflict. Which isn’t really very helpful when you want to learn how to go faster in the water.
One point of agreement is that keeping your body long and streamlined can help you to increase your distance per stroke. In the freestyle stroke, you’re swimming on your side as much as your front, so how can you create more length in the water? By showing your upper body what it feels like to be long both laterally and horizontally.
There are many yoga poses which promote torso lengthening, but I feel this one is ideal for swimmers and triathletes, as here you can isolate the upper body more easily (and still get a sneaky hamstring and abductor stretch!). It’s done in 2 parts – firstly as a side stretch, and then as a forward reach. This 2-part stretch will help you to focus on creating length in your upper body from your hips to your fingertips, and to be aware of engaging the larger muscles in your back, so that you’re using more than just your arms when you reach forward and pull through.
Kneeling Lateral Stretch (Gate Pose)
- Kneel and take the right leg directly out to the side, pointing the toes down and grounding your foot.
- Check your torso alignment – hips facing forward, left buttock over left knee, and torso straight
- Place your right hand onto your right thigh and raise your left arm straight up, palm facing inward, touching the side of your head with your inner arm.
- Slowly lean to the right, allowing your hand to travel down your leg as far as is comfortable on your shin. Your left arm should now be reaching towards the right. Keep your torso directly over your leg – don’t allow your butt to push back or shoulders to roll forward.
- Focus on lengthening your left side from hips to fingertips.
- Hold for 30 seconds, or 12 relaxed breaths.
- Gently return to upright – bend your right knee to assist if your hamstrings are tight.
- Repeat to the opposite side.
Practise note: If keeping your leg straight is difficult for you in this pose, bend your knee enough that you take the strain off your hamstrings.
Kneeling Forward Reach (Gate Pose variation)
- From the above starting position, turn your right foot so that the toes now face forward.
- Lean forward and place your hands on the ground below your shoulders.
- Keep your hips high and in line with your left knee and continue to stretch your arms forward as far as possible.
- Don’t let your head hang off your neck – keep your ears level with your arms (unless you’re flexible enough to rest your forehead on the floor as I do in the photo).
- Now lengthen your upper body from your butt all the way to your fingertips. At the same time draw your shoulder blades strongly down your back.
- Hold for 60 seconds, or 20 relaxed breaths.