Backstroke is a 'long axis' stroke, like freestyle. These strokes are called 'long axis' because the body rotates along a line extending from the head to the feet.
Body position is key in backstroke – you want the hips, shoulders and head all in the same line. Your head should be in the 'neutral' position, which means that your head is in same position as it would be if you were standing at attention.
It is interesting to consider some "pros" and "cons" of the two long axis strokes.
Backstroke "Pro's" vs. Freestyle: Head stays in neutral position all the time, no need to rotate the head to breathe as in freestyle. Also, you are free to breath at any time while you're on the surface.
Backstroke "Con's" vs. Freestyle: While swimming backstroke you are blind in the direction you are going. In freestyle you are looking at the bottom of the pool, where there is a stripe down the center of the lane, a good reference to keep us going in a straight line. There is a "T" on the pool bottom near the end of the lane which we can use as a reference point for the flip turn. In backstroke we are looking upward. There could be a ceiling up there, or open sky. When we're circle swimming in practice we can use our peripheral vision to sight the lane line. When we're racing and have the lane to ourselves it can be more challenging to go straight, particularly outside. A word of caution: if you are inside and there are beams on the ceiling it is tempting to use them as a reference and follow them down the length. This can be a (big) problem if it turns out the beams on the ceiling go in a slightly different direction than the swimming lanes! In backstroke there are (or should be) flags hanging above the pool – they are five yards from the end of the pool in a 25-yard pool, and five meters from the end of the pool in a 25-meter or 50-meter pool. So the flags should be about 1.4 feet farther from the wall in a 'meters' pool vs. a 'yards' pool. But again, be careful – I have seen 'meters' pools where the backstroke flags are five yards from the wall. The bottom line is: If you are swimming backstroke in a pool that's new to you, especially if you will be racing, get the feel for that pool and its backstroke flags by practicing during warm-up.
While doing backstroke body position drills we always want to keep our body straight and parallel to the surface. So, if you are starting to sink while doing any of these drills, try to sink with your complete body parallel to the surface. Not as good would be to have your head up and feet down or visa versa.
Note on kicking: while doing these drills the water should appear to 'boil' at your feet. If you're not making any bubbles at all, your feet are too low. If your feet are coming well out of the water, you should lower them so they barely break the surface. Another thing to check for, particularly for newer swimmers, is that the knees should not be coming out of the water during the backstroke flutter kick. If they are, you are bending your knees too much – there is only a slight bend in the knee during flutter kick. If you find you have this problem, kicking with fins (Zoomers or long fins) can help – and they also help increase ankle flexibility.
Another note, while doing these drills – RELAX! Although you want to keep your body straight and parallel to the water surface, you want to be comfortable and relaxed, not stiff and tense.
- First drill: kick on back with your hands at your side. Keep head in a neutral position. Keep body straight and on the water surface.
- Next: kick on back as above, but rotate body from side to side – mimicking the rotation in the full backstroke. The shoulders and hips move together, as if the trunk of the body were a telephone pole. While doing this drill, the head should remain perfectly stationary. As an added challenge, take your goggles off and rest them on your forehead. You should be able to do this drill without them falling off.
- Next: repeat as above, but in addition alternately raise one arm at a time out of the water, to roughly a 45 degree angle with the water. When your right arm comes out of the water, your right shoulder and right hip rotate upward. When you return the right arm to the water the body goes flat again. Then when you lift the left arm, the left hip and shoulder rotate upward. Note: this is more challenging than it sounds – experienced swimmers found this drill challenging!
Note on the shape of the backstroke pull: Those of us who swam through the 80's will remember the 'arm wrestle' style pull. The idea was that you enter the water with your pinkie finger, rotating that side down to get strong catch (good so far), then after the catch do an 'arm wrestle' type motion pull. The problem with this visualization is that it can cause people to bend their elbow too soon, creating an effect similar to the dropped elbow freestyle pull. A newer was to visualize this is the "dunk your little brother or sister pull – which is a good visual but you can replace it with something more politically correct if you want :-)". The entry is the same, but after you initiate the catch think about grabbing that dunk-able object and throwing it toward your feet. The elbow bends a little bit, but it doesn't bend too early and it doesn't bend too much.
Work on a continuous motion from the entry to the catch to the pull and straight into the recovery.
- Drill: Push off on your back in a streamlined position. Pull one arm through the water and recover that arm so that it is perpendicular to your torso pointing straight up to the ceiling and pause that arm there, kick for several seconds. Now pull the other arm (the one that's presently still in line with your body, pointing to the far end of the pool) through and enter the arm that's pointing to the ceiling into the water. The pulling arm will go 270 degrees and stop when its pointing toward the ceiling, with the other arm now in line with the body pointing to the far end of the pool. Pause and kick, then continue. (editor's note: I found this a great drill to work on backstroke catch; the pause on the entry helped with catch and the feel of transferring energy from the body roll to the pulling arm).
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