Maximizing propulsion, minimize resistance, and swimming with great timing are key to swimming fast
For swimmers of any age to improve, they need to know exactly what to work on to improve their technique. This series will distill swimming down to its critical components, focusing on what really matters. Although it doesn’t seem like it, swimming fast is quite simple, if you’re able to accomplish these three things:
- Maximize propulsion
- Minimize resistance
- Swim with great timing
Although not easy to achieve all at once, these three components can be broken into digestible parts and then reassembled. The concepts apply to all the strokes, which will be explored in detail in subsequent articles. This introduction includes the common solutions for achieving each of these objectives.
To improve speed through the water, strive to create as much propulsion as possible. This means using your limbs to move water backward so that you can move forward. To move as much water backward as possible, here are three things to work on.
Maximize surface area of the arms and legs
Use as much of your limbs to move water backward as possible. When using your legs, use as much of the foot to push backward as possible. When using your arms, use hands, forearms, and even upper arms to move water backward. Whenever you’re swimming, think about how you can better position your arms or legs so that your limbs are best positioned to move more water backward by using more of the limb. Pay attention to the limb paths that allow you to feel pressure on as much of your arm or leg as possible. Can you feel it on your forearm? Can you feel it on your whole foot and shin during breaststroke? If you can, you’re using a lot of surface area.
Maximize pressure on the arms and legs
Feel as much pressure as possible when you’re pulling and kicking. Focus less on where you’re feeling pressure and more on how much pressure you feel. Increase the pressure you feel by accelerating your limbs as you pull or kick. Make it more of a gradual build versus an instant application of pressure. When you’re swimming, pay attention to limb paths where you feel the most pressure on your arms or legs. In addition, pay attention to how the amount of pressure changes depending on how you accelerate your limbs underwater.
Maximize surface area and pressure for as long as possible
Once you get a feel for using as much of your limb as possible, and you can feel high levels of pressure, work to increase the duration you can achieve those sensations. Remember, more pressure equals more water being moved. The longer you can move a lot of water, the faster you’ll be swimming. When you’re swimming, ask yourself the following questions: How long can you feel high pressure on the whole limb? Can you extend that duration? Do you ever lose pressure on the water during your stroke? How can fix that? Are you able to start feeling high levels of pressure earlier in the stroke cycle? Can you feel more pressure later in the stroke cycle?
The term streamline is often used in reference to the position achieved after the start or pushing off the wall. But streamlining is occurring during every aspect of the stroke cycle because your body becomes more and less streamlined at every instant. You must move out of this streamline to some extent to create propulsion with your arms and legs. However, faster swimmers can do so in ways that minimize the impact on whole-body streamline. Here’s how to minimize the amount of resistance you experience as you move through the water.
Move the spine straight through the water
To swim fast, you need keep the spine as straight as possible, just like the smooth hull of a ship. If you’re moving through the water with a crooked hull, you’re limiting your speed. Although rotations and undulations are good, avoid bending sideways or having too much up and down motion when moving through the water. Pay attention to how much your spine is out of alignment when you swim. Are you arching too much in either direction? Are you bobbing up and down? Are you swaying side to side? Can you find a way to reduce that movement?
Minimize the impact of breathing on body line
Poor breathing is a killer of spine alignment. Most swimmers breathe too high, causing their hips to sink, or they pull their head way out to the side, causing the body to bend to the side. Can you find a way to “hide” your breath? Can you find a way to breathe without moving side to side? Can you find a way to not move up and down so much? If you can accomplish any of these tasks, you’ll find yourself moving through the water more efficiently.
Minimize the impact of your arm recoveries on the body line
Another major challenge to keeping your body in line is the recovery of your arms. If you’re swinging your arms way out to the side, you’ll wiggle through the water. If you’re swinging them high out of the water, you’ll be pressed down under the water. If you’re arm recoveries are asymmetrical, your body will twist. Pay attention to how your arm recoveries are affecting your swimming. Can you feel it? Can you change it, even slightly?
Swim With Great Timing
Fast swimming looks effortless. This effortless speed arises from exceptional stroke timing, rhythm, and coordination. Fast swimmers do the right thing at the right time. Basic principles inform how to do the right thing at the right time. Each stroke has its own requirements for effective timing, but here’s an overview.
This applies primarily to the long-axis strokes, backstroke and freestyle. When it comes to rotation, it’s not about how much rotation you create, but how well you time the rotation. The main goal is to ensure your rotation is timed with your hand entry. As your hand drives into the water, your shoulders should be reaching the end point of their rotation. Your hips should be following along with your shoulders, although they tend not to rotate quite as much. Are your rotations too early or too late?
In the short-axis strokes, breaststroke and butterfly, there isn’t side-to-side movement. Rather, there are undulations, which are up and down. As with rotation, there should be enough undulation, although more is not always better. The top of the undulation should occur when you breathe in both breaststroke and butterfly. The bottom of the undulation should occur after breathing, when your chest presses down, at the same time your arms get fully extended in the front. That’s the key timing moment: Press your chest when your arms are extended. Are you timing the front of the stroke correctly?
Timing your arms and legs is critical in breaststroke and butterfly, moderately important in freestyle, and minimally important in backstroke. Do you feel your arms and legs working together, or are they working against each other? If it’s the latter, there’s a timing issue at hand.
A timing issue with breathing can cause a loss of body position and slow your stroke rate. It’s hard to breathe early as it will be difficult to get your head out of the water in time to take a breath. In most cases, breathing late is the issue. Are you able to able get your head back into the water well before the completion of the arm recovery? Are you breathing late or is your breath taking too much time?
Put it All Together
Regardless of the stroke, swimming fast consists of maximizing propulsion, minimizing resistance, and optimizing coordination. In all strokes, you maximize propulsion by moving large surface areas for as long as possible with the strongest muscles of the upper body, minimize resistance by reducing the amount of movement away from streamlined positions, and appropriately time the arms and the legs to make movement rhythmic and efficient. These general principles can be used to improve all your strokes.
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