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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Martin

Swim Technique (The Martin Method)

A few weeks ago I said I would write a little article about swimming and particularly about my approach to coaching swimming.


Now first thing to state here is I have not done any sort of coaching qualification for swimming however I have swam for a very long time. I learnt when I was 4 years old, I first competed aged 9 and continued to compete in swimming until my early 20s. I then switched my attention to Triathlon and have continued to swim with that objective in mind. I am still usually one of the first few swimmers out of the water in any triathlon I do, despite not really spending enough time in the pool.

I was ‘coached’ swimming for 10 years from 8 to 18 years of age and then I went to University and started coaching myself and the University swim club. This is when I realised I had been told what to do as a swimmer previously rather than really coached. When I actually had to think about how to get others to swim better I started to think in much more depth about why we do the drills we do as swimmers. I played around with different ideas and theories and when I returned to swimming with a club post university, despite not having had the level of competition to drive me I was soon with my new improved technique quicker than ever especially at front crawl. My PB for 1500m I believe was 17min 30sec. Other triathletes have over the years asked me to coach them swimming and they have always found great benefit from my approach. In 2005 I set up a swim group at the Peake Fitness Health Club at the Stoke by Nayland Hotel and Golf Club whilst working there. The group was made up of about 12 to 15 people mainly triathletes and a few open water swimmers. I trained them once a week generally with an hour generally dedicated to technique work. I encouraged them to train once more each week where they could concentrate on speed. I think I made a claim once that I could coach anyone to swim under 26 minutes for 1500m in a pool. Why 26 minutes I don’t remember, however all but one of the group managed this and he seemed to think he would be better off following a different approach. I coached a couple of them to about 21 minutes and none of these were serious swimmers previously.

The Approach

Stroke Length – This for me is the key factor combined with timing and I will explain timing in a minute. I don’t know if you have ever heard about what you should do in quick sand or mud if you get stuck but basically the advice is try to lay down and spread your weight. Then you don’t sink. Swimming you don’t want to sink so by stretching out making yourself long you sink less you may have done a star float in learners and improvers lessons. You also need to be streamline again this means being long. Water has 800 times the resistance of air. Cyclists spend a fortune on being more aerodynamic. So simply by focusing on stretching from your fingertips of one arm to the toes of the opposite leg we can make our life in the pool a lot easier.

Timing – when you first learn to swim you tend to learn a windmill technique where your arms are always at opposite points in the cycle meaning that there is a point where one arm is underneath the body and the other is up in the air. Thinking about the above we aren’t stretched at this point we are not buoyant and we are not streamlined. The timing should be that your hands pass one over the other just in front of your head, the top hand then pushes forward into stretch through the water as the other arm moves back. This can take quite a bit of practice and there are various drills to help.

Roll – This is extremely important for 3 reasons. Firstly it reduces stress on the shoulders, during the recovery phase if your body is flat you need to bring the elbow behind the shoulder line to get it out of the water not a natural movement just try doing it standing. If the body rolls the arm can be in line with or even in front of the shoulder line which if you try it is much more comfortable. It is also much easier to rotate the shoulder joint in this position. Secondly with the one arm extended in front of the body it improves your streamlining. Thirdly it makes breathing much easier as you barely have to turn your head.

Pull – The S-shaped key hole pull has long been disproved as being effective. You do need to turn the hand to catch hold of the water so that the hand moves quicker than the elbow. From just in front of the head to about chest height your hand and elbow should be in line moving together maximising the surface area with which you pull. Throughout the pull your fingers should not be clenched together but spread in a relaxed manner again this effectively creates a larger surface area. A bent arm as you should now have under the body again creates a greater surface area of sorts as opposed to an arm that is straight. This is because the water cannot as easily escape the area around the body. We avoid pulling back with a straight arm under the body you are wasting energy as you push down not back to start with, this also tends to lift the head and shoulders up which will make the legs sink increasing drag. Thought: if there was a wall in front of you the same height as you and you placed straight arms out in front of you with your hands on top could you push yourself up? If your hands were shoulder width with your elbows bent to 90 degrees would it be easier?

Push – This continues the bent arm pushing up on a wall analogy. Would you stop pushing at your belly button or would you push up as high as you could? So you should finish on an extended arm and your stroke should speed up as you push through as resistance decreases as surface area decreases. At this point you are more or less gliding the front hand is just starting to turn to catch the water and you have rolled with the final push back to enable the arm to come easily out of the water.

Speed – I have hinted at this already, but it is not quick it starts really quite slowly and gradually builds in speed as you work through the movement.

Kick – For most this is just used for balance and to help with the rotation/roll of the body.

Breathing – This should now be easy! As your body rolls as the pulling arm comes back you rotate your head just slightly further resting it on the outstretched arm and because the stroke is long and slow you don’t rush your breathing. The head then rolls back into the water as the body rolls back with arm entry.

Other approaches

There are a number of swim coaching Techniques/Schools of thought about these days the main ones you may have heard of are:

Total Immersion, Swim Smooth, and The Ocean Walker Technique (probably the one most like my technique).

Hopefully you have found my take on swimming technique interesting. You can check out each of the techniques just listed on their websites and they all have YouTube videos. Also check out the one below promoted by Swim Smooth this is stunning swimming.

Whilst I hope you can take useful tips and apply them from the above it is very difficult to put it all together without a coach to watch you and correct you.

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