Body Rotation is one of the key ingredients to a fast freestyle swim technique. At The Race Club, we believe a swimmer should rotate the shoulders maximally during most races. One of the most important drills we have found in teaching swimmers how to rotate their body for freestyle swim technique is the body rotation swim drill. In this swim drill we use fins and a snorkel to allow the swimmer to focus on the act of rotating. The swimmer rotates their body aggressively so that the shoulder is vertical after 6 kicks. Turn the body slightly or slowly and you won’t feel much increase in power, turn the body quickly and aggressively and the increase in speed will be dramatic. You can also try this drill with 12 kicks or for a real challenge try every 3.
We use many dryland exercises at the Race Club to improve our body rotation in the pool . Bicycle Sit Ups are a great exercise we regularly incorporate into our dryland as well as Roundhouse Boxing. By using the core for these exercises one can feel a stronger connection in the pool and lead to a faster freestyle swim technique. Learn the secret to improving your rotation by learning this drill and these dryland exercises in this #swimisodes
Frontal drag is the number one enemy of the swimmer. Swimming is arguably the most technique sensitive sport on the planet. With water being some 800 times denser than air, the frontal drag forces that slow swimmers down come into play at much slower speeds than all other sports on land. For that reason, in order to become fast, we must learn how to reduce frontal drag as much as possible.
There are three types of frontal drag; friction, pressure (form) drag and surface (wave) drag. Researchers have shown that all three can contribute significantly to the slowing of a swimmer. In any given medium, including water, the frontal drag forces of an object are determined by its shape, its surface texture (friction) and its speed squared. Here are ten good ways to help reduce frontal drag.
- Keep the body aligned. A curved body creates more frontal drag than a straight body. While some curve in our body is needed in order to create more propulsion, such as during the hip undulation in the dolphin kick, it is important that we bend, but not break the body. Too much curve or too much angle of one of our appendages sticking out causes an enormous increase in frontal drag. Keeping the body aligned requires having a tight core.
- Keep the head down. Keeping the head down helps keep it in alignment with the body, but more importantly, a head down also can help reduce surface or wave drag. There is actually less drag underwater than on the surface of the water (think of a submarine), because we eliminate surface drag. Frontal drag is proportional to our speed squared, so ideally, we would like to see the head submerged during the fastest point in the stroke cycle, which I call the surge point. All four strokes have a surge point where the head should be underwater, even if it is slightly so.
- Pull underwater with a high elbow. In the pulling motion of all four strokes, the upper arm is the ‘bad cop’, causing most of the frontal drag. By keeping the elbow nearer to the surface (except it backstroke) and more in alignment with our body’s motion, we can reduce, but not eliminate, the frontal drag caused by the forward motion of the upper arm during the pull.
- Wear the fastest technology racing suit possible. The records set in 2008 and 2009 convinced all of us that the suits really matter. Even today, the best suits help reduce friction and keep the body tighter to reduce frontal drag.
- Shave all the hair from your body. Although this is generally not done (or recommended) until post puberty, when significantly more hair grows on the body, shaving the entire body will reduce friction and make us slicker and faster.
- Streamline off the start and all turns. Getting into the tightest streamline possible creates a huge advantage when you are moving fast. The fastest point you will reach in a swimming race (about 15 mph) is when the fingertips touch the water off the starting block. The second fastest is when your toes leave the wall on each turn (6-8 mph). At either time, because of the exponential relationship between speed and frontal drag, you had better get into the tightest streamline possible.
- Keep your kick tight. In freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, the kick must be tight in order to help reduce frontal drag. With the former two, that means not bending the knees too much and in breaststroke, it means keeping the knees at or inside the hips.
- Double cap. Covering up that thick head of hair and creating a new surface for your head with the reduced friction of silicone is another good way to reduce drag. Most athletes today will double cap, leaving the goggle straps between the first and second caps. The outer cap should be a thicker silicone material to maintain its smoothness.
- Wear low profile goggles. Racing goggles should be strapped on tighter to the face and are a little smaller and sleeker than larger training goggles. The less they protrude from your face, the better.
- Point your toes. One of them most common mistakes made on the start is not pointing the toes at entry. A German study recently showed that a relaxed foot creates 40% more frontal drag than a pointed toe. In general, the less splash one makes on the dive entry, the less frontal drag. The other common strokes where the relaxed foot causes more frontal drag is at the end of the breaststroke kick and the down kick in dolphin. In either case, keep the toes pointed backward to reduce drag.
If you successfully comply with all of the above, you will graduate from being a swimmer, one who slogs through the water, to become a much faster ‘swipper’, a swimmer that slips through the water. Let’s hope you become a ‘swipper’! (Click here to find out what a swipper is)
Yours in swimming,
There isn’t an elite swimmer out there that doesn’t excel in what we call The Fifth Stroke or dolphin kick. Many are talented kickers, but all fast swimmers work their kick a lot. Dolphin kick not only requires tremendous leg strength, it demands the whole body to move to create maximum propulsion.In order to become a faster swimmer, the dolphin kick deserves a lot of training attention. In short course, for good kickers, the underwater dolphin kick is more a part of the backstroke race than is the backstroke swim itself. So one needs to train using this technique often to improve the backstroke races. Of course, with this technique a swimmer can improve in all four strokes, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. That is why the dolphin kick is called the Fifth Stroke.
In this third #swimisodes on The Fifth Stroke, we examine how to kick dolphin kick on your back and why it helps develop on faster swim kick. Olympic gold medalist Roland Schoeman has an extremely powerful and fast dolphin kick. He trains considerably using this technique, both with fins and without fins. Although he works the up kicks very hard, providing about 80% of the total propulsion, Roland is careful to quickly pull the feet downward firmly after each up kick. Doing so, he avoids excessive frontal drag from the feet not pointing backward and he creates a bigger vortex, augmenting the propulsive force of the following up kick. Basically, the turbulent water going back and propelling a swimmer forward from their powerful up kick can be used on the less powerful down kick, if it is a quick and technique efficient kick. It may be easier for you to use the dolphin kick backstroke technique with a nose clip to avoid water going up the sinuses. Practicing dolphin kick underwater on your back is a great swim technique to improve your backstroke, as well as all four of the other strokes.
#swimisodes World champion backstroker, Junya Koga demonstrates a backstroke swim drill also known as ‘6 kick switch’, that will help you appreciate the importance of this extreme rotation from one side to the other. Developing a faster backstroke swim begins with learning to use fast, strong body rotation.The energy from this quick body turn couples with the force from the underwater pull, resulting in more distance per stroke. The rotation of the body to the side in backstroke also places the shoulder in a stronger mechanical position to generate a greater force during the pull.
Using this backstroke swim drill at The Race Club, we also teach the swimmers to relax their hands and wrist on the recovery. This little known relaxation practice plays a big role in enabling the arm muscles to recover better for another strong underwater pull. In backstroke and in freestyle, many swimmers keep their hands and wrists stiff during the recovery and never give their arms a chance to recover enough for the next underwater pull. Doing so will quickly lead a swimmer to exhaustion.
For both of these reasons, you should practice the fast backstroke swim drill to develop a more powerful and sustainable backstroke swim.
Michael Phelps has been finishing his IM and Freestyle races with Dolphin Kick freestyle, a swim technique we have been practicing at the Race Club for years. All sprint freestylers use a high stroke rate. Learning how to turn over the arms quickly is not always that easy. It takes strength, endurance and practice. At The Race Club, we have used the dolphin kick freestyle swim technique to teach swimmers how to sprint faster. With this swim technique, the swimmer uses the freestyle pull timed precisely so the hand enters the water with the down kick of the dolphin kick. When synchronized with a strong dolphin kick, this technique enables the swimmer to move very fast. When timed well, the dolphin kick forces the swimmer to use a faster pulling stroke rate.
When Michael Phelps uses this swim technique his stroke rate goes from around 75 to over 100, this could be the reason for his victory over Ryan Lochte. The dolphin kick freestyle was also used by Olympic Champion Michael Klim from Australia, in the final meters of his lead off 100 M freestyle on the relay at the Olympic games in Sydney in 2000. At that time, he spurted ahead of American Anthony Ervin and set a new world record.
For either sprinting or finishing IM or freestyle races, practicing the dolphin kick freestyle drill may boost your speed especially towards the end of the race when lactic acid and fatigue kick in and, like Phelps, it may help you win some races. Don’t try the dolphin kick freestyle technique in a race without practicing it first, but with a good dolphin kick, this technique can increase your stroke rate and speed. A faster stroke rate will usually result in a faster swim and will conform more with the law of inertia.
Once we understand how important it is to obey the law of inertia in the water, how do we really know if we are? Each of the four strokes demonstrates peaks and troughs of our body’s speed during the swimming stroke cycle. In freestyle and backstroke, there is a right arm peak and trough speed and a left arm peak and trough speed. In fly there is a peak for the first down kick, which occurs while the hands are pulling underwater, and a peak for the second down kick, when the hands are recovering over the water. In between each peak is a trough. In breaststroke, there is a kick and pull peak and a trough that follows each.
At The Race Club, through the technology of the velocity meter, we measure a swimmer’s velocity, acceleration and deceleration at all times throughout several stroke cycles. It enables us to identify and quantify all of the peak and trough speeds. When synchronized with video, it also enables us to identify stroke deficiencies, such as poor kicking or pulling motions or head and body position that magnify the differences between peak and trough speeds. The velocity meter enables us to make corrections in technique that we could never identify from the deck nor from an underwater window without also understanding the impact they have on body speed.
After performing many of these studies on great and not-so-great swimmers, we have come to appreciate what the ‘desirable values’ are for the differences between peak and trough speeds in each of the four strokes. Backstroke is the most conforming stroke with a difference between peak and trough speed on each arm of .35 meters per second or less considered to be very good. In freestyle, the difference between peak and trough speeds for each arm should be .5 meters per second or less. In fly, we often see a difference range of 1 to 1.5 meters per second or more between the peak and trough speeds. In breaststroke, since we are starting from nearly a dead stop before beginning each kick and the kick provides the majority of propulsive forces, we want to see a big increase in speed, or a large difference between peak and trough after the kick. Breaststroke is analogous to doing a standing dunk under the basketball net.
Certainly in freestyle and backstroke, minimizing the difference between peak and trough speeds conforms to the law of inertia and makes us more efficient swimmers. The question is how do we do that?
In both strokes, there are really only three things we can do to conform to inertia. First, sustain a steady six-beat kick. Second, increase the stroke rate, which lessens the ‘down time’ of our pulling propulsion. Third, reduce frontal drag in all aspects possible; better head and body position, proper elbow bend and arm position and a tighter kick. For example, in a study of my freestyle pull (no kick involved), I found that in the three tenths of a second between the peak and trough velocities of each hand, the deep arm pull caused a 40% drop in body speed due to increased frontal drag versus a 25-30% drop in speed with the high elbow pull (less frontal drag). The amount of work required to overcome a 10% difference in body speed on each and every pull is overwhelming. The speed cannot be sustained for long with the deeper pulling motion.
For starts and turns, conforming to the law of inertia generally means not waiting too long to initiate the dolphin kicks off the wall or entry. Or it means keeping the kicks fast and tight and transitioning to flutter kick before the breakout….all designed to help sustain our speed.
In summary, don’t ignore Galileo’s discovery and Newton’s first law of motion. Inertia is vital to our success as swimmers. If we learn to conform to it, we might just win some races.
Yours in swimming,
The definition of inertia is the following: a body in motion wants to remain in motion, while a body at rest wants to remain at rest. It was first described by Galileo and later incorporated into the first of Newton’s three laws of motions. What does the law of inertia have to do with swimming? Lots.
Another way of looking at inertia is that it is far more efficient to keep a body moving at the same speed than it is to start it and stop it, or even slow it down, repeatedly. Because of inertia, we get better gas mileage on the freeway driving a constant speed of 70 mph than in town, averaging 35 mph, with lots of starts and stops.
As coaches, I think we often get hung up on the word ‘efficiency’. Efficiency is defined as the number of calories we burn to travel a certain distance in the water; in other words, it is our ‘gas mileage’ in the water. While that is important, efficiency per se does not win races. No one asks the winner of the Indianapolis 500 how the gas mileage was during the race. They don’t care. They just know that he or she got the checkered flag. The same goes with swimming. In order to be swimming fast and win races, we have to burn lots of calories. We simply cannot afford to waste them on unproductive motion.
In the sport of swimming, two of the four strokes conform more to the law of inertia than the other two. I call freestyle and backstroke the ‘freeway strokes’ and butterfly and breaststroke the ‘stop and go strokes’. It is partly due to inertia that the latter are either more difficult or slower than the former. Nonetheless, the law of inertia applies to all four strokes, as well as to starts and turns.
The reason that freestyle and backstroke conform more to the law of inertia than breast or fly is that there are more propulsive efforts occurring during each stroke cycle, particularly with a six-beat kick. In other words, there is less propulsive ‘down time’. The amount of propulsive ‘down time’ is important because as long as we are moving forward, frontal drag has no ‘down time’. That is, with our non-streamlined shape, frontal drag is working to slow us down at all times and quickly. Therefore, the only way we can keep a constant speed is by maintaining constant propulsion, which doesn’t happen with any stroke.
There are three ways to get on the freeway and maintain speed while swimming freestyle and backstroke; six beat kick, increased stroke rate and reducing frontal drag. At The Race Club, we focus on the importance of inertia and how each individual can try to best comply with our universe’s laws that rule us in the pool.
Yours in Swimming,
Swimming fast is a skill that demands great strength and stamina. Yet swimming is neither baseball nor boxing. One cannot hit the water like a ball crushed over the center field wall or knock it out in the first round. One cannot simply power through the water. To swim fast, one also needs great timing and swimming finesse.
What does finesse mean with respect to swimming fast? In water, where frontal drag forces are so compelling, swimming finesse means learning to swim with the lowest possible drag forces. It means pulling with an arm motion that may seem totally inept or awkward, yet works better. Finesse means timing the powerful, but rarely appreciated coupling motions of body rotation and arm recovery to augment the pulling and kicking forces. Finesse means using a surge kick, a strong down kick that occurs shortly after the opposite hand entry, in order to increase the body’s speed when its drag coefficient is low, another timing issue. It also means dipping the head slightly underwater after the breath, at the same crucial time of maximum body speed. Finesse means avoiding the temptation to dig your arm deep into the water and muscle yourself across the pool. In swimming, finesse means using your brain, not your brawn.
The nuances of swimming fast are not easy to learn. Some require extraordinary flexibility, such as in the ankles and shoulders, in order to implement. All require great strength in the legs, core and upper back in order to sustain well. Yet, if we do not learn to finesse our freestyle, we will all succumb to the drag forces, much sooner than we would like.
While swimming is not very forgiving with respect to technique, there is some margin for error. It’s just not much. I call the permissible angle or bend of a swimmer’s body or limb motion the ‘threshold’ for frontal drag force. Bend your knee 35 degrees for a kick and you may be ok. Bend it 60 degrees or more and you come to a screeching halt. Drop your elbow on the pull by more than a few inches and the frontal drag forces go up a lot. Bending the knee more or dropping the elbow more results in more powerful propulsion. Unfortunately, getting to those positions causes so much frontal drag that the additional propulsive forces can’t overcome it. Don’t forget the law of inertia. Each time we slow down more, it takes a lot more force (and energy) to get us going again. The key to finessing your freestyle is to know what the thresholds are and to learn to swim within them.
One of the best tools I have found for learning more precisely where these thresholds are is the velocity meter technology. With the velocity meter, we measure your body speed (and acceleration/deceleration) at all points through your swimming cycle and synchronize them with video. By doing so we can measure your peak and trough velocities for both right and left arm strokes repeatedly. You would be amazed at how very small deviations in technique lead to significant changes in speed in a very short period of time, tenths of seconds. With this technology we can identify exactly where the mistakes in swimming technique are being made and often repeated over and over again and how big a price is being paid for them in terms of loss of speed.
In my swimming career, which has spanned some 55 years and included 3 Olympic Games, most of my best swims were not the most exhausting. In fact, those feelings belonged to some of my worst swims. It wasn’t the exhilaration of setting a PR or even a World Record that made me feel as if the race was easier. I may have been physiologically or mentally more prepared on those great days, but I can also assure you that I swam with more finesse. I swam smarter races.
At The Race Club, we teach swimmers how to finesse the freestyle, how to swim smarter and faster. No matter what your age or experience level, you can still learn how to finesse your freestyle, to swim faster with less effort, and to feel really good after your race. Are you ready for that?
Yours in swimming,
Note*: This article has been updated as of 10/11/2017.
Mobility and Rotation
Flexibility is a huge part of a swimmer’s ability. In freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, there are two joints that require extraordinary flexibility in order to excel, the shoulders (particularly extension) and plantar flexion of the ankle.
Obviously, the former helps in the pulling motion and recovery, while the latter helps in the kicking speed. Flexibility is extremely important in developing a strong breaststroke kick.
In breaststroke, the two most important areas of mobility are in the lower (lumbar) spine and the hip, particularly with external rotation. A flexible lower back enables the swimmer to elevate higher during the pulling motion and create more coupling energy both for the pull and the following breaststroke kick. The external rotation of the hip enables a swimmer to create more surface area of the instep during the propulsion of the kicking motion.
The Good Fight
At The Race Club we often say that swimming is a sport of tenths of seconds, millimeters and degrees. What is meant by that is that there is a small margin of error between getting it right or not. There is neither a lot of forgiveness nor mercy in the water. Breaststroke kick is a good example of that.
For every additional degree of external rotation in the hip, I would estimate that the propulsion from the kick increases by 5 -10 %. In other words, if one were to increase the external rotation of the hip by 5 degrees, one would achieve 25 to 50% more propulsive force with the same amount of effort, just by increasing the surface area of the instep pushing backward. To me, that seems worth fighting for.
The Internal Hip Rotation Test
There are three very simple tests to evaluate your swimmers’ mobility and potential to have a fast breaststroke kick. The first two are the hip tests, one for internal and the other for external rotation. For internal rotation, we recommend testing the swimmer in the W squat position. We do NOT recommend this position be used for stretching nor exercise, as it can place too much strain on the knee in swimmers with poor internal rotation.
The swimmer squats on a padded mat with the knees on the ground as close together as possible. The knees are bent with the feet behind, near the hip, turned outward rather than backward, simulating the exact position a swimmer will be in prior to initiating the propulsion from the breaststroke kick. If a swimmer is able to get his/her bum on the ground comfortably in this position with no pain, then the swimmer has good internal hip rotation.
The External Hip Rotation Test
To test for external hip rotation, have the swimmer sit on a chair or bench and cross the legs with one ankle on top of the thigh of the other leg. Dorsiflex the foot of the bent leg to protect the knee. Then, with arms stretched straight overhead, have the swimmer bend forward at the waist with a straight back, allowing the arms and hands to fall toward the ground. A swimmer with a good external hip rotation will be able to put the palms of their hands all the way to the ground. A swimmer with limited external rotation in the hip will not even come close.
For those with limited hip flexibility, the same stretch can be used daily, holding the position for a minute or longer on each side, in order to improve the external rotation. There are many modifications of this hip stretch and just like in swimming technique, some work better based on the individual. Later, I will describe a good stretch to improve internal rotation, but do not use the W squat for that.
My coach, Doc Counsilman, had me walk around for hours with what he called ‘alligator shoes’ on. These were a pair of high top Converse All-Stars nailed to a board angled at 45 degrees to the ground. The hope was to increase my ankle dorsi-flexion by lengthening the gastrocnemius muscle and tendon (calf and Achilles tendon). Unfortunately, that is like stretching a Trans-Atlantic cable….and I never did get much faster. We were just focused on the wrong place. The hip, which is a ball and socket joint, is a much easier place to increase mobility than stretching the Achilles tendon and gastrocnemius muscle.
Back Flex Test
The other test I use for breaststroke is to evaluate the flexibility of the lower back. First allow a proper warm up to loosen the low back and strengthen the core. Then, hold down the ankles of a prone swimmer and have them arch upwards with the upper body as far as they can. Olympian Rebecca Soni, can bend her body to nearly a 90 degree angle. Or one can do a back pushup, which requires considerable spinal flexibility and arm strength. The closer the swimmer can bring their hands toward the feet on the ground, the more flexibility is present in the lower back. There are modifications to begin increasing low back flexibility to slowly work up to these back bending exercises.
A strong breaststroke kick is key to swim the stroke fast. As much as 80% of a swimmer’s propulsion in breaststroke comes from the kick. The power of the kick depends on having a large surface area of the instep accelerating quickly backward, coupled with the energy of the upper body pressing forward and the head snapping downward. To do well, both motions require extraordinary flexibility in the back and hip, plus strong legs and core.
Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick
Do these three simple mobility tests for each of your swimmers. If your swimmers don’t have enough hip mobility, either develop a stretching/dryland program whereby they can develop more, or don’t focus on the IM or breaststroke. Either option is acceptable. Just don’t expect them to swim fast breaststroke without having this type of flexibility.
Yours in swimming,
*This Article Was Updated 10/11/2017:
I would like to thank Adrien, CrookedDonald and Lizamuch, SwimSwam readers, for correcting my errors on the previous breaststroke evaluation article. While standing (knees extended) the hip externally rotates to point the toes outward, while with the knees bent or flexed, as in the breaststroke kick, the hip moves opposite (internally rotates) in order to point the toes outward. The test we recommend for external rotation of the hip is still a good one to test with, however, as most fast breaststrokers will have increased flexibility for both internal and external rotation. The updated revision suggests a way you can test for both.
– Gary Hall, Sr.