How can I Swim Faster?
It’s pretty much the question every swimmer I’ve ever coached has asked, and probably the reason you’re reading this. The answer is always the same.
“It’s easy, you only need to do 2 things”,
“ great!” they always say “what 2 things?”
“The only way to swim faster is to increase propulsion and/or reduce resistance.”
The usual response is a blank expression as the cog’s turn trying to make sense of what I’ve just said. Clearly I’m being facetious as I know that’s not the answer they’re looking for, but humour is a great tonic to help overcome the demands of competitive swim training.
The serious point I’m trying to make is that if we constantly focus on these 2 areas we embark on what I like to call ‘The Journey’.
All those who love to swim are on ‘the journey’, from Michael Phelps to the fitness swimmer who just wants to be the best he or she can be.
I call it the journey as it has no end. The science of swimming is constantly being improved and updated. We are starting to understand more, about the forces at work as we propel ourselves through water. With each new scientific breakthrough or star swimmer trying something new, techniques change and our knowledge increases.
Each swimmers journey is as unique as you are, and every swimmer can swim faster by application of these ‘2 things’ i.e. increase propulsion / reduce resistance.
What every swimmer needs to know is exactly where about you are on ‘the journey’ and exactly what you need to do to increase propulsion and reduce resistance. The best way to find your point on ‘the journey’ is to see exactly what it is you’re doing now. Proper video analysis is the only way to do this. So stop wasting time and effort training in stroke errors call me now and we’ll embark on your journey together.
So how do you increase propulsion, and what in fact is it that propels us through the water? The truth is it’s never been completely explained. Over the years some weird and wonderful theories have gained popularity (if you’re interested search the paddle wheel or vortex theory and how the forces of lift and drag effect propulsion). The one universal law accepted by most as the major force in propelling a swimmer forward and what all swimmers need to consider is Newton’s III
|“||Lex III: Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi.||”|
|“||Law III: To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction: or the forces of two bodies on each other are always equal and are directed in opposite directions.||”|
It seems obvious if we want to go forward we must push the water backward. After completing many hundreds of video analysis’s I’ve seen that the vast majority of swimmers push and pull the water in a multitude of other directions. It happens because the bio-mechanics of our limbs makes it difficult to push directly backward when our limbs our extended into a streamline position. Until we see what directions our limbs are pushing the water at the moment it’s very difficult to develop a better understanding of applying this law to your swimming. Great swimmers have a highly developed sense of awareness to position the limbs in such a way so that the greatest surface area of limb possible is facing backwards.
Rule 1 Build the stroke around the swimmer
In my lifetime what we thought we knew about swimming has changed beyond recognition and I have no doubt it will change again and again. This is why on this site I don’t talk very much about put your hand here or put your head their, if it’s what you need when I see your stroke clearly I will, the internet is full of sites talking about perfect technique as though we’ve reached the pinnacle of human achievement and they fundamentally have the answer that will cure your swimming forever. Well that approach seems to sell a lot of books and DVDs and it does work for some but to reach your swimming potential your stroke must be built around your uniqueness. Some swimmers have power, some rhythm others may have a great kick, vastly different styles and techniques will be effective for these swimmers forcing them into a prescribed style is not the right thing to do. The key is to build the stroke around the swimmer not the other way round.
Rule 2 Push more water backwards
What doesn’t change is the fundamental relationship between increasing propulsion i.e. pushing more water back and swimming faster. I’ve seen great swimmers get it wrong in parts of their stroke. When great swimmers get it right bronze becomes gold, when the rest of us get it right we become a better swimmer and the “journey” goes on.
The Front crawl is traditionally the fastest most efficient stroke and as front crawl or freestyle as it’s known in competitive swimming is by far the most common stroke I’m asked to analyse, we’ll deal with that here.
i, Use your forearm not just your hand.
The vast majority of amateur swimmers I’ve analysed use there hands as their ‘paddle’ and not the hand and forearm together, nearly everyone says I thought I was doing that, if you do, my advice is to find out for sure as very few do. According to research the forearm can contribute between 27% and 38% of the total propulsive force of the arm stroke for some it may even be more. If you aren’t using your forearms start now.
Stand up put both arms one hand on top of the other in the air in a streamline position, keep you arm straight at the elbow, as you let one arm sweep to the side so that it’s inline with your shoulder line. Look at the palm of your hand, your finger tips should be pointing forwards slightly so your palm is starting to face directly to the floor the key here is to bring the hand down as the elbow rises up to align hand and forearm to the floor while your elbow is still above your head if this movement is easy for you, your on your way to achieving whats become known as EVF or Early Vertical Forearm or a high elbow catch it’s nothing new Counsilman knew it was important in the 1960’s.
Your not alone if you have difficulty moving your arm like this, your asking it to move in way that before now you’ve never needed to do. Your brain must create a new neural pathway to allow combinations of wrist flexors, elbow flexors, pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi to work together as one while the muscles in our shoulders and core stabilize and protect us from injury. So no mean feat.
Applying propulsive force in the correct direction is vital for efficient front crawl. The catch is essentially the point at which your hand and forearm are in a position to apply force in the right direction. At this point and not before a great swimmer applies propulsive force as the hand begins it’s acceleration backwards.
Video swim analysis of great swimmers shows very few bubbles around the hands at the point of catch, because great swimmers don’t apply force before the point of catch so aren’t causing unnecessary turbulence. Next time your in a quiet still pool try and look at your hands (not easy but just possible, clearly a video swim analysis is the better way to find out) if bubbles are spinning out everywhere, your not catching well. Slow your stroke on entry and downsweep/outsweep concentrate on keeping your elbow above your hand and only apply force when it’s in the right direction. Once you’ve mastered the correct catch position the next step is to ensure that the hand enters the water at such an angle so it can accelerate forward and downward to reach the catch position quickly.
iii. Hand Acceleration. (and forearm and in some the upper arm).
From the point of catch until the hand reaches the leg, just before it begins to move towards the surface and the direction of the propulsive force will then be focused upward (remember Newton). A great swimmers hand will accelerate backward. The ability to accelerate the hand backward is not just about strength or more accurately power, it’s also a skill that must be learnt and practiced. Video swim analysis shows some great swimmers accelerate the hand and forearm diagonally backward in a series of pulses slowing then building with each direction change, traditionally known as an S pull. Video swim analysis of other great swimmers shows the hand and forearm accelerate almost in a straight line backwards. Common among all great swimmers is reaching maximum hand velocity at the end of the propulsive phase and not before.
All hand and arm movements in swimming are from slow to fast not just the underwater propulsive phase. During recovery we must slowly lift our elbow and hand out of the water when the elbow is high enough and the hand is just by the head, a great swimmer will accelerate the hand into the catch position. I see a lot of swimmers taking far to long to reach the catch position. They slowly feel out the water in front of them trying to make the perfect catch this causes a swimmer to drop the elbow and more often than not the finger tips will be above the wrist making the international sign for STOP. They do this at the time the other arm is in the propulsive phase causing major resistance. At least 9 out of 10 amateur triathletes and masters swimmers I’ve analysed do this. Now don’t blame your coach the way light is refracted by the water and waves of a pool, make this difficult to see well from above the water line another reason why underwater video stroke analysis is so important in swimming faster.
To be a good swimmer, you must allow learning to develop naturally. Listening, feeling and experiencing are more important than simply plodding up and down the pool in the hope you’ll be faster by pushing on.
Swim for improvement every time you’re in the water and soon your times will drop, not to mention that you’ll enjoy your training more.
The key for any person wanting to swim faster is how to separate what’s important from what’s not, or more specifically what’s relatively unimportant for you at your current stage in the swimming journey.
First, keep it simple and don’t crowd your mind with a series of step by step instructions concerning the minutiae of an exact textbook technique.
I see swimmers like this all the time who have been ‘over coached’, often by themselves, from one book or another. The stroke often can look quite good from a distance but a second look shows the movements to be robotic and unnatural.
Follow a general stroke pattern, but allow your natural rhythm and coordination the freedom to feel and experience different stroke techniques. Only then can you discover the best technique for your particular strengths and weaknesses.
It’s obvious to most that certain physical factors make variations in technique essential. For instance, the shorter your height the faster your stroke rate needs to be to remain competitive and the level of flexibility in your shoulders will determine the kind of arm recovery you can achieve.
That said, you’ll never reach your swimming potential or even become a good swimmer by defying the basic elements of good stroke mechanics.
Always remember it’s easier to reduce resistance than it is to increase propulsion. The best way to reduce resistance is to work on body position and streamlining. This should be the number one priority for all swimmers.
The importance of streamlining was drilled into me for more than 30 years by my father at our family swim school in Liverpool. Our beginners aren’t taught to kick or pull until this skill is mastered. Mastering the basics is the key to swimming well.
Swimmers often think that what’s most desirable is to be high in the water but it’s more important to be level with the surface of the water than it is to be higher than the surface. Swimmers shouldn’t try to artificially raise their body position but instead work with the body’s natural buoyancy.
If your head, buttocks and heels are out of line, you’re swimming uphill. After analysing 1000’s of swimmers the vast majority are.
There can be many reasons you’re not level or streamlined, the most common are:
Position of the head either too high or too low – Many swimmers also lift the head to breathe keep the forehead submerged and tuck the chin aiming to keep one eye in the water. Great freestylers characteristically have great head control. Minimise the movements of your head and you will swim faster.
Insufficient exhalation or breath holding – This causes the chest to be artificially high and so a resulting drop of the heels occurs. It’s also important to point out that lots of swimmers don’t do this. Strong, smooth, constant exhalation is vital to swimming well, never hold your breath.
Lack of ankle and or hip flexibility – this causes a swimmer’s toes to point to the floor.
Poor posture & Shoulder flexibility- for instance, drawn forward shoulders is a particular problem for a lot of strong cyclists who’ve spent many hours tucked into an aerodynamic position does not help a swimmers streamlining and alignment. It’s very important to draw the shoulder blades together and back as though standing to attention or taking a proud posture.
Inertia – often swimmers come to a stop when breathing or by ‘pushing down’ at the front of the stroke this causes the legs to drop bringing the heels out of line. Often swimmers will perform an energy sapping scissor kick to get overcome the inertia and get the stroke moving again.
Bending the knees on the upsweep as you kick – Not only does this drop your hip and cause huge resistance but it also draws the quad and hamstring muscles into the kick sapping huge amounts of oxygen in the process.
Small improvements in body position will have an instant positive impact on times, think of how much faster you swim in your wetsuit, swim truly level and streamlined and an improvement of the same order of magnitude is available without any increase in strength or fitness.
Catch deeper pull shallower
Surface water is also usually moving so the hand slips through without providing any propulsion. This is clearly not desirable but it’s very rarely explained to swimmers in all but the very best programs.
So how deep should you catch, well as with everything in swimming it depends on the swimmer. Your level of flexibility, buoyancy, posture and body position will determine the best depth of catch for you.
To find yours a great drill to use is the front skull, youtube has plenty of video examples of this drill. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVAUtm3apic
Start the pull at a depth that allows you to propel yourself forward, this is often at a depth of around 30cm from the surface. Scull then swim a few strokes trying to return the hands directly to the desired position.
Getting this right will also help with your hand entry which should be fingertips first and accelerating forward and downward. Sculling correctly should be mastered by all swimmers.
Some people have a natural feel for the water, the rest of us can develop feel for the water by learning to scull. Knowing the difference between the feelings of propulsion and slipping is a vital skill for all swimmers spend some time learning how to scull and all your strokes will improve.
If you’re catching deeper how do you pull shallower?
Keep your elbows up at the front of the pull, whether they pull in an elliptical way also known as an s pull or a more modern directly back style. Great freestyle swimmers keep the elbow high at the front of the pull.
This is pretty much universally accepted as the most economical manner to apply force in the correct direction, back. Not only does this high elbow allow swimmers to direct more water with more force backwards, but if correctly timed, it acts as an anchor to drive the body past using the rotation of the hips, trunk and shoulders.
If you never considered this aspect of your stroke try the next time you swim, position the elbow as high and as far forward as you can comfortably manage then visualise yourself launching past ‘the anchored arm’ as the hips, trunk and shoulders rotate and the opposite hand accelerates forward and downward to catch.
A good way to master this high elbow catch is to rest your elbow on the lane rope while standing. Using the rope as a pivot press the forearm and hand down into the water until it’s vertical and ‘anchored’. Pay attention to how the elbow remains high and firm and the shoulder pops forward. Transfer this to your swimming and your PB’s will soon be shrinking.
BELOW ARE SOME IMAGES TAKEN FROM THE ANALYSIS OF THE SAME SWIMMER.
In this picture the same swimmer has a straight elbow, this is quite common when breathing. The lead arm often drops as a counterbalance to overcome over rotation and a late breath.
During our corrections session this is the same swimmer beginning to get to grips with a high elbow position and much faster swimming.
Try the three different elbow positions yourself, knowing how different these positions feel will help ensure you maintain a high elbow position in your stroke.
It’s worth pointing out that your level of flexibility will determine how high and far forward your high elbow can be, the position above should be achievable for most. Again give it a go and you will feel the difference.
As with comedy, timing in freestyle is everything.
In open water, a stroke offering constant propulsion from the arms is particularly desirable. This is why you see the vast majority of the elite triathlon world swimming with a high turnover straight arm recovery.
A long gliding stroke in a pool is one thing, but in open water, conditions often make gliding impossible. Which is one reason why great pool swimmers aren’t always great open water swimmers.
I’m not going to talk any further about the pro’s and con’s of a high elbow recovery compared with a straight arm in this article.
As I mentioned earlier certain physical characteristics often make the decision for us, but for those who can choose it’s a personal thing, try a different style of recovery and see how it feels is my advice.
After experiencing it for yourself you can then draw your own conclusions.
In classic freestyle, the hand enters as the other arm completes the insweep. The same is true in more modern direct freestyle, press down with the forearm and hand keeping a high elbow then anchor and launch as discussed above.
Imagine a line in front of you, across the top of your head. The area between there and the fingertips at extension is sometimes called the front quadrant. The idea is to keep only one hand and always one hand in this area.
However, it must be said that lots of competitive swimmers have and do swim with variations to this timing often with the hands coordinating somewhat further forward like a ¾ catch up type stroke.
A great drill to help with your stroke timing is the slow recovery with hesitation drill, if you’ve never seen this youtube video of Dave Scotts 3 favourite drills take a look.
To avoid a pause when you breathe, the timing of the breath is vitally important.
Often swimmers breathe too late and feel rushed while taking a breath. So, aim to breathe away from the entering hand to minimise any pause and keep up the rhythm of your stroke.
A good drill for helping with your breath timing is the UNCO drill it’s not really for beginners and you should maybe try it wearing fins the first time you try.
If you’re struggling with your freestyle or have been stuck at the same pace for years, go back to basics work on skills like sculling and streamlining. Make sure you keep your elbows high when you catch and brush up your timing. If after doing all this you’re not getting faster get your stroke filmed and see for yourself if you really are getting the basics right. I know once you do times drop naturally and enjoyment increases. I see far too many triathletes who worry about the swim and struggle to motivate themselves to train in the water. Master the basics and learn to enjoy the water you’ll swim much better for it.