You’re a triathlete — ﬁt, strong and lean. You’ve been swimming 3- to 5-times a week, racking up the yards. You’re getting fitter and faster…you’re psyched. Then one day you have a scheduling conflict and drop in on the evening Masters with the age group kids next to you…and you’re getting smoked by 12-year-old kids. How can that be???
Well, that kid probably started swimming when she was six and has been training 9-11 months a year for half of her life to the tune of 4-8k per workout. You’ve been swimming for 1-3 years, logging maybe 10k a week!
Your problem is simple: you’ve been training your swim like a triathlete, concerned with intensity and volume. Instead, you need to train like a six-year-old, learning the basics of proper technique.
Here are our Seven Swim Technique Keys to help you take your swim to the next level. We can’t promise you’ll ever catch that kid in the water, but at least you’ll be on the fast track to getting better!
Swim Technique Keys
1. Horizontal Body Position:
We swim by slipping our body through the water. Reducing frontal area and drag are critical to faster swimming. A horizontal body position, with your body moving smoothly across the top of the water, is effectively swimming through a relatively narrow tube: the tube is the same diameter from your head to your feet. If you have poor horizontal body position, if you drag your hips, legs and feet, the diameter of this body tube becomes much bigger and creates more drag. This requirement for horizontal body position is absolutely fundamental to effective swimming and is a “Do Not Pass Go” issue.
2. Lungs as Fulcrum:
We have several balancing tools to help us achieve a horizontal body position: arms, head, lungs, and an effective kick. Everything happens around the fulcrum of your lungs. Imagine your body is a teeter-totter, with your lungs as the fulcrum or balancing point. The more “stuff” you can put in the front of your lungs the more you’re able to counterbalance your heavy legs. So rather than trying to kick or force our legs up to the surface, use buoyancy and leverage to simply ﬂoat them to the surface. This is free speed with virtually no energy cost.
3. Front Quadrant Swimming:
We want to keep our arms in front of our fulcrum as much as possible, to act as a counter balance to our legs. This style of swimming is called Front Quadrant Swimming. In addition, the longer you keep your arms extended in front of you, the longer you maintain a long body axis. Think of a long, sleek sailboat versus a squat dingy. A long, streamlined body is more hydrodynamic, and therefore slips through the water more readily.
4. Body Rotation along this Body Axis:
You are swimming front quadrant, using our arms as balancing tools and maintaining a long, streamlined body axis. You now rotate your body along this body axis. This rotation is rotary power that originates in your core. In addition, when you rotate your body along this axis to set up the pull, you do two things:
- First, since you’re turned over on your side, presenting less frontal area to the water, you are more hydrodynamic.
- Second, you’ve positioned the large muscles of your lats and chest to participate in the pull, not the weaker stabilizer muscles of your shoulder joint.
If you are swimming “ﬂat,” with very little body rotation, you’re presenting lots of frontal area to the water. You’re also pulling with the small muscles of the shoulders and delts. Not only are these muscles small and weak, they’re also not made to pull. They are designed to stabilize the shoulder. By relying in these muscles to pull and provide power to your stroke you are increasing your risk of injury.
5. Breathing as Rotation, not Head Lift:
If we didn’t have to breathe, swimming would be much easier! But you are a new, inexperienced swimmer and you’re a little freaked out about it. You want to get to that breath as soon as possible. The air is up and the water is down. You instinctively want to lift your head up to the air to breath. You do this by pushing down on the water. This is exactly what you DO NOT want to do.
- Rushing the breath means that you’ve started your pull early. You’ve now taken your arms, your very effective balancing tools, out of your front quadrant and moved them closer to the lungs, your fulcrum. Your legs begin to drop.
- At the same time you’ve lifted your head up towards the air. Anything above the water pushes something else down. This forces your legs to drop more, increasing drag.
As an inexperienced swimmer you MUST realize that your method of breathing (“Push down, lift my head so I can get to air NOW!”) is completely counter to what you should be doing and is the source of your problems.
Instead, you want to:
- Maintain front quadrant as long as possible.
- Roll your head towards the air with your body as it naturally rotates.
- Breathe with one goggle out of the water and with zero head lift. Imagine there is spike driven through the top of your head to your spine. Your head simply rotates along the axis of that spike…it does not lift.
- When you do begin to pull, your hand is directed rearward, not downward. Pushing downward creates lift, forcing the head up and dropping the legs.
The ability to maintain front quadrant swimming deep into the breathing stroke is absolutely critical. Many triathletes learn to swim great front quadrant on their non-breathing strokes, only to fall apart when breathing.
6. Kick in the Tube:
Horizontal body position creates a small tube. Rotation along our long body axis reduces the frontal area of the tube further and allows us to transfer the rotary power of our core into our pull. Finally, a narrow kick (no wider than the tube) with ﬂexible ankles keeps everything inside the tube and more streamlined. Triathletes with a running background typically have very tight ankles, making it difﬁcult for them to point their toes and keep their feet inside the tube. If you have tight ankles, try sitting on your feet while you watch TV, gently stretching your ankles.
7. 70% Body Position, 30% Propulsion:
Notice that we haven’t once spoken about what you probably thought was the key to faster swimming: grabbing more water with a stronger pull. For you, the adult swimmer/triathlete, swimming is 70% body position, 30% propulsion. It doesn’t make sense to talk about putting a bigger engine into a barge. Turn that barge into a long, streamlined hull first…then work on putting a bigger engine into it.
In summary, for the majority of triathletes, swimming faster is akin to learning to play a musical instrument – a skill that’s learned and improved through focused technique instruction and practice, not by banging on the piano keys for hours and hours. Put down your training hat and focus on learning how to “play” your swim technique correctly!