Strokes of genius for a smaller splash

SWIMMING WITH DAVID WILKIE; Resolving to be fit in '96, we may grit our teeth and make for the local baths.
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CRUNCHING through a thick icing of snow in the car park of the Magnet Leisure Centre, I wonder how I agreed to this. It's the coldest day of the year, my train from London has just been delayed by freezing fog, and here I am about to don a swimsuit and a pair of goggles and immerse myself in tepid water for an hour.

Yet there is method in my madness; indeed, method is what it's all about. For I'm here in Maidenhead to train with David Wilkie, the breast-stroke champion who dominated international swimming for almost a decade. Brought up (aquatically) in Sri Lanka, educated in Edinburgh and trained on a scholarship in Miami, he won a bronze medal for Britain at the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and an Olympic silver in 1972. Over the next six years he won eight golds.

These days, David Wilkie runs his own health-products company and describes himself as a "recreational" swimmer. Some recreation. At 41, he still swims every day, teaches children and adults, and is heavily involved in fundraising for the sport. Next year (this is recreation, remember) he and other British swimmers will race an American team across the Channel.

"What kind of swimmer are you?" David asks, as we walk to the poolside. It's hard to find a suitable adjective. If he's recreational, I'm notional. In my mind I'm above average, still pathetically buoyed up by triumphs as a schoolboy 20 years ago. It's just that I don't go to the pool much, isn't it? On the rare occasions when I do, I thrash up and down for 20 lengths before staggering, jelly-limbed with exhaustion, to the showers.

Clearly there is room for improvement, and I'm hoping David Wilkie will be able to identify half a dozen weaknesses in my stroke. We're going to focus on front crawl, because that's the fastest and most efficient method of propulsion through the water.

Before we begin, David gives me tips on breast stroke (see panel) and back stroke. In the latter, the key thing is the position of the head in the water. "It should be slightly raised, as if you're sleeping at home with one pillow," he says. After an hour in the water, we'll devise a training programme for a reasonably able swimmer who wants to get fit and improve.


As we stand by the pool, David Wilkie can't help scrutinising the technique of other swimmers. It's 12.30pm, and the pool is filling up with office workers getting some exercise in their lunch break. Most are ploughing up and down using a lumbering front crawl, clocking up 20 or 30 lengths, exactly as I would.

"Look at that guy," says David, pointing to a powerful man making a lot of splash, thumping the water with his arms in a Teutonic kind of way. "He's strong and disciplined, but not making much progress. The woman next to him, who is more relaxed and fluid, is getting a lot more out of it."

For the average swimmer, though, does technique matter? A person who thrashes around inelegantly is still expending energy. Couldn't it be argued that their inefficiency is making them fitter than a more accomplished and streamlined swimmer?

"Of course doing it badly is better than not swimming at all," says David. "You're still getting oxygen into your lungs and feeling the benefits. After 10 lengths of pounding up and down, though, you'll be absol-utely knackered. If you swim more efficiently you'll be able to do 20 lengths, and increase that every time you swim. People who swim inefficiently give up sooner than others. It's too much of a hassle."

There's also the question of "the fitness zone". "Most people have a heart rate of 70 beats a minute," says David, "but to derive real benefit you have to increase that to 150-170. If you plod 40 lengths, you come nowhere near it. You're not working your cardiovascular system. If you can work it, and enjoy swimming at the same time, you'll start to make real progress." And get much fitter.

Enjoyment, says Wilkie, is the key. His philosophy is based on the idea that all people have a natural yearning to do things well. "We thrive on performing to the best of our ability," he says, "and if you don't listen to others or read books you won't get better. If you know you're improving , you feel happier in yourself."

I ask if anyone can learn to swim well; he reflects for a moment before answering. "No," he says, stifling a laugh, as if he has a particular person in mind. "Some people just don't float very well, so they get a mental block. But 99 per cent of people will get better with the right advice."


Now it's my turn to be scrutinised. I ease myself into the mercifully warm pool, fit my goggles and wait for the champion's advice. "The best thing to do is swim two lengths," he says, "not frantically, but at about 80 per cent speed. Let's see how you get on."

I push off from the side and swim what I think is an easy crawl, breathing to the right every two strokes as I've always done. As I turn my head to breathe I can see David Wilkie on the poolside, walking very slowly.

After two lengths I'm out of breath, and David has spotted errors. "Your arm stroke is very rigid," he observes, "the way you were probably taught at school. Relax the hands; don't land them on the water like an aeroplane. Keep them loosely cupped with the fingers slightly apart."

Because of the rigidity in my hands and arms, I'm not achieving maximum reach. My hands are chopping the water sharply, and I'm pulling back towards my body too quickly. "Don't pull back straight away," says David. "Reach forward and glide for a second; allow the stroke to relax and lengthen. The hand should enter the water in line with the mid point of the head at full forward stretch."

Part of my problem may be that I was taught competitive swimming by an ex-regimental sergeant major (seriously). "We're often taught that rigidity means strength," says David. "We're told control is good, but this is about relaxation. If you pull back the water like a machine, a propellor, it won't be efficient. The body is not a propellor. The hands should flow through the water and feel it, as well as pushing it back."


There's another obvious problem David spots immediately. I always breathe on every second arm stroke, turning only to the right. "Breathe every third stroke," he says, "and your body will be more balanced. If you breathe alternately to left and right, you will roll less. Also, breathing every three strokes instead of two puts more pressure on the cardiovascular system. You'll be fitter."

I put this into practice, and it feels terrible. I'm concentrating so hard my rhythm goes completely, and I even find myself stopping in the water to lift my head - something I haven't done since childhood. "It's a common mistake," says David, "but once you lift your head the legs drop and resistance increases. Then you sink. It's tiring, it's inefficent and after a length or two you'll give up. Most kids breathe that way to begin with, which is why they - and adults - should be encouraged to swim underwater."

I ask if there's anything I can do to make ambidextrous breathing less alien. "In terms of giving hints," he says, "there aren't any. It's a question of perseverance, and relaxing into it."


Charitably, David allows me to go back to my normal breathing pattern. After another two lengths, the whole experience has changed. Instead of being a frantic pursuit with breaths snatched in between choppy strokes, it feels more like gliding. "You can't really describe that flow," says David, "but it's something all good swimmers have. It starts in the hands."

Swimming with tight hands, clasping your fingers together so no water gets through, may give a sense of control, but it won't make you move faster. "There should be a little bit of space in between your fingers," my coach explains, "because that means the hands are more relaxed and will go through the water more easily."

The tips of the fingers are where the "feel" starts; David Wilkie uses the metaphor of a bird of prey feeling the air with the tips of its wing feathers. "Think about the finger tips as they enter the water. Be aware of them. Then be aware of your hands; you're trying to hold on to the water."

Hands may be important, but it's the whole arm that pulls the water. "Imagine grabbing the whole of the water in your hand and forearm," says David, "and pulling that lump of water all the way back to your stomach. Then you will have the right image in your mind, the right feel." When the arm comes out of the water the bent elbow should be raised high (that's another of my errors, swimming with a flat arm).


Improving my technique is imaginative work. First, I'm told to visualise myself as a bird of prey, grabbing the entire contents of a swimming pool with my wing feathers. "Now," says David, as I prepare for another length, "think of a speedboat at that magic moment when it starts to plane. When you reach that point you'll say: 'Hey, this is fantastic, this is easy.' Mind and body will be in tune."

I don't share my coach's confidence, and ask what pitfalls I should be looking out for. What are the classic beginners' mistakes, the things people most commonly do wrong?

Using the limbs inefficiently by allowing them to flounder in "dead" water is one of them. To explain what he means David uses another image that's about to alter dramatically the way I think about my body in the water. "Imagine you're swimming inside a big pipe, with a circumference a bit wider than your shoulders. The stroke should be within that circle. When you pull, you don't want your hands to go outside it. That's dead water. The legs shouldn't go too deep either. Your arms should be working in live water, which is the water immediately ahead of you."

There are further tricks of visualisation. "A good swimmer looks very long in the water," says David. "Use the length of your limbs to improve efficiency. Everything under the water should be bent; everything on top of the water long and stretched."


Another thing David has noticed is my over-enthusiastic leg kick. I must have read somewhere that a fast flutter kick is the way to propel yourself, but this is far from the case. In recreational swimming, the legs are more like an engine turning over very slowly; their main aim is to balance the stroke, helping the body maintain the correct attitude. They also act as a kind of rudder, minutely adjusting the direction of your progress. Drive should come from the hips and thighs, not from the knees.

"If you really wanted to power along," says David, "you'd do about six leg kicks to every arm stroke. After two lengths you'd be knackered. What you should aim for is a two-beat leg kick to every arm stroke, cutting down the power you're deriving from the legs."

I have a go at a two-beat kick, and the coordination involved liquefies my brain. Isn't there an easier way to get the rhythm right? At this point, David Wilkie turns into a metro-nome, ticking and clicking for all he's worth to try to explain what he means. I look at him vacantly.

In the end he lowers himself into the pool and does a length of front crawl to demonstrate. His legs appear to be doing no work at all, yet he is powering through the water. Nor is it just pace. The ankle also has to be relaxed. "Imagine kicking a football with the outside of your foot," David says. "It's as if you're trying to kick your feet off. Don't point the toes downwards, but allow them to trail naturally."

It's important to bend the knees, and not make too much splash. "Have in your mind the image of trying to make your foot hit the bottom of the pool - but don't let it go so deep. This increases resistance and slows you down. Remember swimming inside that pipe."


Because I find it so hard to slow down my leg kick, David Wilkie suggests I use a pull-buoy. This is a contoured foam float tailored to fit between your thighs. It provides buoyancy exactly where your centre of gravity is, allowing you to think about things other than staying afloat. "It's cheating in a way," says David, "and you shouldn't become too dependent on it. But swim a length using the pull-buoy and concentrate on your arm stroke and your reach. Forget about your legs for now."

I dutifully swim another length, but it's impossible not to kick like a demon; that's the technique I'm used to. I feel as if the float is slipping from between my legs, and I kick every now and then, half-heartedly.

"That's not really working," David has to admit. "Now I want you to try again, consciously keeping your legs totally still." This is the breakthrough I've been waiting for. Liberated from the business of kicking, I suddenly feel as if I'm surging through the water. Even without my legs, I honestly feel I'm gliding along at twice my usual speed.

Now there is a mood of celebration; my journey through the snow has been worthwhile. I learn about the kickboard, a flat foam board held in the hands to help swimmers concentrate on their leg kick. The most important aid, though, is a good pair of goggles that don't leak or fog up. "If you can't see where your hands are going into the water," says David, "nothing your coach says about it will make any sense. If you can't see, the whole idea of swimming inside that 'pipe' will be meaningless."

If you have long hair, it's also worth investing in a bathing cap. "Otherwise you're going to get a mouthful of water and wet hair every time you turn your head," says my coach. "That kind of thing puts people off."


The main thing with any training is to vary it to avoid boredom. David Wilkie knows about this. "Sometimes we'd do 800 lengths a session," he recalls (that's 40,000m, or 27 miles a day - the equivalent of a marathon). "If you don't vary the stroke, pace and rest periods, you go completely demented." The average recreational swimmer doesn't have to go to such extremes. Avoid mindless ploughing up and down for 40 lengths, and time lengths to monitor improvement. David recommends a one-hour programme as follows in a 25m pool:

600m warm-up: 8 lengths (200m) gentle swim, any stroke, exaggerating the stroke; 4 x 50m relaxed swimming with a pull-buoy at 80 per cent speed, with 30-second rests between each 50m to restore breathing; 4 x 50m with a kick board, practising a deep leg kick, 30-second rests in between.

400m "meat" of the programme: 16 lengths (or 8 x 50m) at 100 per cent effort but with maximum control, 10-15 second rests between each unit.

200m warm-down: Swimming at a relaxed pace without rests in between lengths. Training, says David, should be fun and not become an obsession.


The Handbook of Swimming by David Wilkie (Pelham Books, pounds 12.99).

The photographs and illustrations accompanying this article are taken from Learn Swimming in a Weekend by Sharron Davies (Dorling Kindersley, pounds 8.99). The whole Learn in a Weekend series will be published in paperback in March at pounds 5.99 each. !


'Keep the stroke nice and long,' is David Wilkie's main tip. 'It should be very smooth and relaxed.' To demonstrate, he pushes off from the side and glides effortlessly for a third of the pool's length. When he surfaces, he does just four huge strokes and reaches the far wall. It would have taken me 20 strokes.

ARM ACTION: the first stage is to stretch out flat in the water, with the arms extended fully in front and the legs trailing out together behind.

Now you are ready to 'catch' (or part) the water. Pull back with your arms in a smooth and symmetrical action, keeping the elbows high.

In the 'recovery' (the final stage), the arms are drawn up under the body. Imagine you are squeezing a balloon wedged under your chest.

LEG ACTION: in the first stage, the legs are drawn up under the body. They are 'cocked', ready to kick outwards and backwards, frog-fashion.

Kick with flexed feet, using the soles like paddles. A fluid, narrower and deeper 'whip kick' is now preferred to the more rigid, wider 'wedge kick'.

Finally, legs and ankles are brought back together. (Note that the leg actions here don't coincide exactly with the arm actions directly above).


Front crawl is the fastest and most efficient stroke. The main difficulty is coordinating arm action, leg action and breathing to achieve the fluid, relaxed sequence shown above.

1 When you push off from the side, the key thing is 'reach'. With the front arm fully extended, allow yourself to glide for a second (palm downwards) before starting to pull back with your left hand.

2 As you pull back the water (keeping the hand relaxed and slightly cupped), the right arm is lifted high out of the water, elbow sharply bent. You should be breathing out at this stage.

3 As the right arm stretches forward again, roll your body to the right and breathe to the left. Breathing every third stroke (ie alternately to left and right) helps keep your stroke balanced.

4 The leg kick should be languid (like an engine turning over), with more vigour on the down-kick than the up-kick. The hand should enter the water like an arrow, not land on it like a plane.

5 Bring your right arm down through the water at full stretch. Use your forearm (from elbow to fingertips) to pull back the water, bending your elbow to bring your hand up to your stomach.

6 As an exercise drill to slow down and control your stroke, try allowing one arm to catch up with the other. Keep the front arm outstretched while you bring your 'recovery' arm over to join it.