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,