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Backstroke: relaxation, exercise and energy, the perfect all-in-one stroke
How many of you can say that you do backstroke regularly? Honestly? I’m willing to bet it’s not too many of you. Fears of swimming into the wall or other pool users tend to prevent practice of this most graceful and relaxing stroke. Actually swimming Shaw Method backstroke can minimise the chance of collision, but more of that later. First a little backstroke history ...
Origins of the stroke
It is thought that backstroke has been swum since ancient times. In the early 20th century it was the second stroke to be swum competitively after front crawl and the first time it featured in the Olympic Games was in 1900 in Paris: a men’s 200m race was introduced then.
Harry Hebner, an American swimmer, was backstroke’s first great competitor. He was the Olympic 100m backstroke champion in 1912 and for seven years held the world record. Although I believe the modern backstroke owes much to the Hebner style I haven’t been able to find much information of what that style looked like. Judging from modifications made in the mid-twentieth century it would have probably involved a ‘windmilling’ arm style with straight arm pull through the water.
In the 1940s Australian swimmers developed the bent arm underwater push, which increased the efficiency of the stroke. This propulsive phase is still used today in competition and in the Shaw Method version of the stroke.
Shaw Method backstroke
As you would expect though there are significant differences between Shaw Method backstroke and the traditional version of the stroke swum in competition and your local pool.
Steven Shaw reports that backstroke has been taught by his teachers pretty much from day one. Steven noticed pretty early on that many of his pupils hold a lot of tension in the neck. “We started doing a lot of ‘hands on’ work in the water, similar to the work we did in Alexander Technique lessons on the table, just to get pupils to release the neck. A backfloat position was perfect for this as people tended to hold more tension in that position,” he says. What he found was that when the neck was free swimmers had much more awareness of what their arms were doing, and their backstroke would improve almost immediately.
The key to perfecting your backstroke
So if you want to perfect your own backstroke, a free neck is your first port of call. Practice this in the backfloat and ease yourself into this position by sitting down in the water until your chin hits the surface. Then let your head be pillowed in the water, sweep your arms out to the side and, if possible, so they are by the side of your ears. You’ll find that your feet will naturally leave the floor and you’ll find yourself floating. By the way, don’t worry if you don’t float in a horizontal position. This isn’t important, and actually a slightly diagonal body position is an advantage in backstroke, so let your pelvis find its natural floating point (probably just below the surface).
If you feel your neck tensing in this position you’ll need to work on releasing it. Remember that the water really can support your head so don’t think you have to hold it up with your already overstressed neck.
In the early days of working on your backstroke I suggest practising your backfloat at the end of a swim, it’s a great way to cool down and relax. To regain the feet from this position you’ll need to think about pointing your face at the water, aiming to kiss the surface if you like, tucking the body and sweeping the arms through. If you are worried about putting your face in the water, you will need to work on this first as backstroke is not swum well if you haven’t worked on your water confidence first.
The backstroke leg action
So once you have freed that neck and feel happy floating on your back, you are ready to work on your leg action. Although I said that Shaw Method backstroke is a relaxing stroke it is also a great way to burn calories. One of the reasons is that the leg action is more energetic than in front crawl and contributes to around 40% of the propulsion.
Steven tells me that the main issues with the leg action are tension in the shoulders and a tendency to cycle with the legs. The beauty of backstroke, however, is that you can see what your legs are doing. If you can see your knees breaking the surface you’re cycling, so think about lengthening the legs and looking for a little bit of splash from the toes. Remember that the propulsive part of the backstroke kick is upwards. Once you are able to propel yourself on your back by your leg action alone pay attention to your upper body. Is it tensing up? If so release your shoulders and see how the whole action becomes freer.
A gentle rotation
If you are familiar with Shaw Method front crawl you’ll know that a key component of the stroke is the rotation. Backstroke also uses the body rotation to great effect. Maintaining a neutral head position, and a free neck, you can then experiment with rotating your body first to one side, and then the other. From there you can work from side to the centre (backfloat) position to the other side, maintaining the kick for propulsion. Be careful not to open the legs too widely at this point, as there can be a tendency to start using a scissor-like action.
Now pay attention to your head. “9 out of 10 pupils will move the head with the body, so it is not natural to keep the head still and actually involves some stretching on the muscles on the side of the neck,” says Steven. This is great for those of you with rigid necks from sitting in front of a computer all day, as it helps the neck open up and move.
Introducing the arm action – ready, steady, go
Once you can rotate with ease then you can experiment with the arms. The first thing you will notice is that Shaw Method backstroke does not involve windmilling the arms. “Windmilling is symptomatic of the ‘go, go, go’ attitude,” says Steven. “And it’s not sustainable as you are trying to do a propulsive movement and a non propulsive movement all at the same time.” This means that when you are recovering one arm (the over the water phase) you are also pushing with the other arm (the underwater phase).
In Shaw Method backstroke you start with a leading arm in the water lengthening towards the direction of travel. Say that is the right arm, your body will be rotated with the right side down and the left side up, head neutral of course. Maintaining that right arm in the water your left arm will leave the water thumb up – this is what Steven calls the ‘ready’ phase. When the arm is roughly perpendicular with the water your right arm will bend and your hand catch the water as your body returns to the neutral or central position – ‘steady’. Then your right arm pushes towards your right hip as you rotate to the left and your left arm is now leading you forward – ‘go’. You are now ready to repeat this to the other side.
Don’t forget to breathe
As the arm pushes you breathe out and the inbreath follows naturally in its wake. You may think it is strange to teaching breathing for a stroke when your mouth is free to breathe at anytime, but it is surprising how many people forget to breathe at all when they are concentrating hard on their stroke. “If you think about it, the breathing pattern is not as obvious as it is in the other strokes,” says Steven. “Because you have a choice of when to breathe it becomes confusing and pupils often end up either breath holding or hyperventilating.”
Feel your body opening up
Unlike most of us, Steven swims backstroke as much as he swims the other strokes. “What’s really nice about it is you get this length in the sides – even more so than in crawl – and I feel an extension all the way from my hip right through to the tips of my fingers with each movement I make. It is also great for opening the chest and the back,” he says. It’s a great antidote to being crunched up at your desk all day.
But what of that problem of orientation? How do you ensure that you are swimming straight? The quick answer is to follow something on the ceiling (that’s if you are inside of course) and look for a change in colour of lane ropes to know where the end of the pool is. I would also say that because in Shaw Method you have a leading arm in front of you most of the time usually your hand touches the wall first not your head! And Steven has another tip for navigating the pool on your back: “They key to keeping straight is not pulling harder with one arm than the other.”
So what are you waiting for, get off to the pool and try a little relaxing and energising backstoke. But before you go, here’s Steven’s no 1 tip for efficient backstroke: “Rotate more. Most people swim backstroke pretty flat and that makes it difficult to get your arms in the water without straining.”