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How to be a better swimmer

Want to swim like Mike — as in Michael Phelps? The upcoming Summer Games and the popularity of triathlon have some adults wishing for more than the ability to keep their heads above water. Swim instructor Derrick Milligan says the freestyle can become second nature. Here are a few of his tips:

Go downhill. "As humans we're most comfortable being vertical, but being vertical in the water puts you at a pretty large disadvantage," Milligan said, "so we need to learn to be balanced in a horizontal plane." View your body as a seesaw. Lean into your lungs so that the hips, legs and feet tilt toward the surface. "That allows you to be even in the water, and with that, there's a lot greater success with getting people from no skills to highly skilled. A lot of this stuff has a domino effect."

Roll the body rather than lift the head. When you inhale, the head should roll with the torso and hips. "If the head is late, not in time with the torso and hips, that can throw off the rhythm of breathing, increase drag, and over time it's going to fatigue you," Milligan said. If your body is uphill, that will affect breathing too; you'll have to kick harder.

Kick less, but better. Novice triathletes and unbalanced swimmers often overkick, using an energy-draining eight-beat kick rhythm, where they kick four times for every hand entry. Milligan recommends a two- or four-beat kick. A drill to improve the flutter kick: You're vertical in relatively deep water so your feet can't touch bottom. If you kick only from the knee down, your body will start to drop. If you drive from the hips and the leg is whiplike (proper technique) your body will rise. "Relax through the ankle. That's really key." Locking the ankles can produce leg and foot cramps.

Don't hold your breath. "Even an elite swimmer can fall short of their potential if they're not exhaling properly into the water," Milligan says. If you don't exhale into the water, when you roll for your inhale, you'll hear two sounds as you rush to exhale and inhale. "We ought to print T-shirts, 'Air is good.' "

Degree of difficulty: Medium, if you know how to swim — you just have to practice these tips. (If you don't, time for a beginner's class.)

wdonahue@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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