Monday, June 4, 2012

Swim Tips: Basics for Efficient Swimming

   Lately I've gotten a lot of questions about swimming, so I wanted to write a brief post on some helpful swim tips.  A few months ago I coached a one on one session with an athlete who's goal was to finish a triathlon by the end of this year - a sprint triathlon.  Like many, his main obstacle was the swim. He simply couldn't make it across the pool without exhaustion, or without swallowing too much water and thus causing severe coughing.  Once we incorporated a few simple tips, he made more than drastic improvements.  Some people have it in their mind that they simple CANNOT SWIM, when reality is they've never really tried to learn a few simple tips that can bring them a long ways. The key is to stay relaxed, work on one thing at a time, and slowly incorporate additional changes in your stroke.         
        I recently started coaching another athlete who told me about his first open water swim ever, where he had no idea how to time his breathing.  Swimming is not as easy as cycling or running, it's way more technical and requires way more coordination, and we can't simply breath whenever we feel like it since our head is underwater at times.  No matter the level of swimmer you are or what issues you have with your swim skills, paying attention to and incorporating a few small things can take you a long ways.
        We're well into triathlon season now, and the lakes in Colorado are finally open for open water swimming - which athletes are realizing is a lot different from pool swimming. There's no black line to stare at anymore, and certainly no walls to cheat push off of.  Open water swimming does require a few different skills than pool swimming, but in general these pointers apply to both pool and open water swimming. In a follow up article, I'll discuss specifics to open water swimming.
  • Exhaling:  Exhaling when swimming is the key to efficient breathing, staying relaxed, maintaining body balance, and keeping you from choking on water. Generally you should nearly always be slowly exhaling when swimming, except for when the head is out of the water, when obviously you're inhaling. Finish your exhalation right before the head comes out. Many swimmers, including some fast swimmers (though not the most efficient ones), pause for a bit when they've put their face back in the water after inhaling, and then blow out/exhale out the majority of their air in a single sudden burst.  If you hold your breath like this, you're not staying as relaxed as you could, since most people tense up slightly when they're holding their breath. It's the body's natural response.                                                                                      For those of you who have the tendency to wait to exhale most of your CO2 until your head is rising out of the water, you're going to have to rush your inhalation as you need to take in oxygen quick enough before the head re-enters the water. Also, if you wait then you're likely lifting your head too high in a subconscious effort to stall a bit longer in order to take in your breath, and any time the head is higher out of the water than need be, it causes the hips to sink and the lower body to drag, thus slowing you down and also tiring you out easier. 
  • Head Position - A head held too high is a very common issue amongst beginner swimmers. As I previously mentioned, a high head leads to dropping/sagging hips and lower body - thus causing drag which affects speed and tires you out quicker. Swim with your face looking very slightly forward but still in the downward direction toward the bottom of the pool. Don't tuck your chin to your chest, it's not necessary - keep the neck muscles relaxed.   (Note: for triathlon swimming, a position that is slightly more forward facing is acceptable, since sighting is a large part of open water swimming as opposed to pool swimming, and the slight forward looking position can aid in frequent sighting, though isn't necessary in pool racing).        
Photo from of proper head position
  • Hand Position - I used to swim with a guy at lunchtime in Santa Barbara at Los Banos del Mar pool, a 50m glorious pool stationed in the parking lot of the harbor.   I vividly remember swimming alongside a particular swimmer who almost always swam in the lane next to me. I'd see across to his lane in my peripheral vision underwater, as I wanted to see where I stood against him - both of us being competitive in nature.  One of the things I always noticed was a big inefficiency in his stroke - specifically his hand entry and position prior to his pull.  He would throw his hand in the water at a decent angle with fingertips slightly pointed forward and downward, though he then performed a swooping motion with his extended arm which would cause his elbow to drop and his fingertips to point upward for the majority of his glide and reach prior to his pull. Essentially, he was almost pushing water with his palm due to the position it was in, instead of slicing through it.With fingers pointed upward his hand was pushing water instead of slicing through it.
photo of Mr. Smooth from

               Many swim coaches have their own theories on exact hand entry positions, but I am a believer in entering with the hand slightly in front of the goggle line/head, while keeping the hand flat  (I'm not referring to parallel to the water here, but rather flat as in opposed to with the thumb positioned upward or downward). Some people will hold their arm out of the water longer in their recovery phase and not enter it as quickly , but actually it is efficient to slice the hand through the water while you're rotating, as long as your fingers are pointed forward to slightly downward prior to the pull phase of the stroke.  You will be able to generate the most power with a flatter hand. (Don't mistake the hand entry position with the pull position. When pulling, keep the elbow extended high underwater, and pull keeping your fingertips pointed at the bottom of the pool.)
  • Finger spread - Underwater, keep your fingers relaxed. There's no need to strain finger muscles to keep them completely glued next to each other, though if they're spread too far apart you won't get a lot of power out of your pull as the majority of water will pass through spaces between fingers.  A slight space between fingers is ok, as long as it is minimal.  Fingers tight together can cause tension in your forearm, which won't help you swim your best. 
  • Under water vs. Out of water - You may have noticed various swimmers, all fast, swimming side by side yet their strokes look very different from your viewpoint on the pool deck. It's still possible to swim fast by looking...well.....not as pretty as someone else, let's say. But remember, what your body is doing underwater is way more important than what it's doing out of the water! The primary focus of your technique work should be making sure what is happening underwater is happening correctly. If your recovery phase of the stroke (the hand seen out of the water) may not appear as pretty as someone else, it doesn't necessarily mean your stroke is wrong. Top swimmers may have different styles of recovery phases (bent elbows, slightly bent, or straighter elbows), and they're all able to swim with good form under the water - a good hand and elbow position and proper pull. The most important thing to keep in mind is what's going on underwater, so focus on that first.
  • Kicking - If you ever do kicking drills with kick boards, or kick on your back with your arms streamline above you, what you're likely thinking about is trying to get to the wall the fastest, or how much your legs are burning! Kicking drills are great for developing a steady kick cadence, leg strength, etc, but in reality the best purpose of a steady swim kick is for body position, not propulsion. Kicking only contributes about 10-15% of your propulsion (for top level swimmers, and for some triathletes it's a lot less!).  The kick should be active to keep your hips and legs from sinking, i.e. body position. The kick should be steady and relatively easy.  Don't let your kick tire you out, which it will if you kick extremely hard in distance swimming (in sprint swimming a harder kick becomes more necessary). Kick from the hips, and don't excessively bend the knees. Keep the legs relatively straight.  Also, your kick should minimize drag, and a lot has to do with ankle flexibility or the ability to let your ankles remain loose and keep the toes pointed backwards, not down toward the bottom of the pool. Unfortunately, a lot of runners and triathletes don't have great ankle flexibility, and swimming sets and drills with fins is what way to help improve this over time.      
I think underwater filming is a very beneficial practice if you can get a hold of an underwater camera. I have one that I use with local athletes.  Video analysis is a great tool for swim technique critique. It's easy to see your flaws, and there are many resources in videos of athletes demonstrating proper technique that you can compare to.  A couple great swim resource websites that I often recommend to my athletes are as well as Both are great sites with various underwater swim videos showing proper technique, as well as drills. Check them out!

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