Elements of Good Freestyle Mechanics by E2MULTISPORTS swim coach Suzy (cakes) Casas. For a lot triathletes, mostly those who are not former swimmers, swimming is the hardest discipline to master. An athlete can swim frequently for years and not make significant gains if the technique is not there. Who wants to waste all that time and energy? Swimming is a very technique-driven sport. Unlike running and cycling, where the body is grounded, many elements must work together for the body to be streamlined and in a good position to move effectively through the water. What it comes down to is maximizing propulsion and minimizing drag, and learning to work with the water, not against it!
Head and Body Position
Improper head position is one of the more common swimming errors. Contrary to popular belief, head position is highly individual – there is no right or wrong way to do it, only what works best for the individual swimmer. While muscle, fat, bone mass, and height, all effect how one sits in the water, a swimmer should aim to be as parallel to the surface as possible in order to minimize frontal resistance and drag.
Think of your body like a see saw in the water. When your head is too high, your legs drop, resulting in frontal resistance that makes swimming harder. If you are looking straight down, your head will dip underwater and create resistance as well. Holding the head in a neutral position at the water level can prevent the hips and legs from dragging, and is ideal for any swimmer.
Good head position is vital for good body position. From the front view, a swimmers body should also rotate or roll, shoulders and hips, roughly 45 degrees on its long axis. Good body rotation is very important to swimming for several reasons. It facilitates easy arm recovery and allows for a full extension, which allows you to set up an effective catch and pull. The pull is where nearly all of your propulsion comes from! Good rotation also reduces pressure on the shoulders and minimizes the chance for shoulder injury. “Flat swimming” which is a lack of body rotation while swimming, is usually accompanied with short, choppy strokes that result in a lateral sway or “fishtail” movement of the body which also creates drag, and results in a shortened recovery, wider entry, and less opportunity for strong pull and propulsion. Without rotation and proper arm recovery, the resulting shoulder pressure could lead to tendonitis and rotator cuff injury. Proper body rotation relieves that pressure and allows for an easier arm recovery. Balanced rotation facilitates an easier arm recovery, symmetry in the stroke, and also good breathing technique.
A high head and an over-extended bead position are common errors in breathing technique. In the pool, where most swim training is done, breathing only requires that you turn your head enough to clear the mouth from the water for a quick breath. Only one goggle needs to come out of the water! Good head position will create “bow” wave of water during swimming, and that bow wave creates a small pocket on either side of your head.
With good body rotation, one can breathe from this pocket by simply turning the head slightly rather than turning it too much, or lifting it. This will help prevent over-rotation of the head or lifting it up and breathing in a mouthful of water while the legs dip and create resistance and drag.
Also, make sure you are not holding your breath under water! It is important to fully exhale your breath as you swim! Carbon dioxide build up created from process of breathing, is what results in shortness of breath and the need for more oxygen. So expel your breath fully. When not breathing, you are still rotating on your long axis with every stroke, but your head should remain mostly straight in a neutral position. Practicing bilateral breathing will help maintain symmetry and it is helpful for navigation in the open water. Being able to breathe easier will make swimming that much easier and enjoyable.
This is the most critical part of swimming and where the most propulsion can be gained. The difference between average swimmers and elite swimmers is a highly polished catch and pull. A proper catch and effective pull will move you forward with less effort – precious energy and time can be wasted if it is not done efficiently. There are several things to consider. There is a lot of literature and debate regarding stroke path patterns (the old school “S” pull versus the more contemporary straight pull) but the consensus is that most elite swimmers (who have the most superior catch and pull) demonstrate a more curvilinear stroke path.
Having a good entry and pull technique is key. Hands should enter the water straight out in front of you, hands in line with the shoulders, fingers and thumb first, at a slight 45 degree angle. Imagine a spear entering the water.Avoid slapping the hands flat on the water.
Proper hand placement during the entry phase is important. Imagine a line in the center of your body, going from your head to your toes. Hand entry that crosses over this line puts significant pressure on the shoulders and creates a fishtail movement, which creates drag. A wide entry makes it difficult to full extend and generate power for the pull. Other errors to watch out for are over-extending and over-gliding. Swimming should be fluid, so watch out for dead spots. During the pull phase, always remember that you want to make sure you are pushing water BACK behind you – this is where your propulsion comes from! A high elbow pull, traditionally called Vertical Forearm Pull, is generally considered to cause less resistance and drag than a deep straight arm pull. Developing a good feel and hold on the water will also aid in a stronger pull. Learn to get a good feel for the water! Also, strengthening your swimming muscles in the gym will also power your stroke even more.
Kicking does not yield as much of your propulsion. For triathletes especially, who often don’t have an efficient kick, too much kicking can come at a high cost in terms of working at a higher heart rate and/or tiring the legs out before the bike and run.
As triathletes, we want to keep our legs as fresh as possible. However, this is not to say disregard your kicking technique entirely! A well-balanced and timed kick is essential to maintaining balanced and properly timed swimming. Good kicking is generated from the hips, not from the knees, so remember not to bend your legs too much, keep them relaxed and allow your ankles and feet to flex. Ankle flexibility is a key component to a strong kick.
This is the 5th element that ties everything together! Proper timing of stroke, breathing, and kick will result in good position and fluid swimming with maximum efficiency. Most importantly, it allows for sufficient time for breathing and less gasping for air. If your stroke, breathing, and kick are all out of sync, you won’t go anywhere and will be wasting your energy! Since everybody is different, all athletes will have subtle differences in their technique. Because we cannot see ourselves swim, and there is often a gap between what think we are doing versus what we are really doing, investing in a coach for a visual analysis is worthy consideration. Whether you are looking to up your race game or simply looking to gain confidence in the water, a swim coach can provide a visual analysis and immediate feedback to help you address the unique subtleties in your technique and implement the appropriate corrections into your swim workouts.
Suzanne Casas is a USA Swimming Coach L1 and can be reached for 1 on 1 sessions and video analysis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org E2 Multisports based in San Antonio, Texas 30+ years background swimming competitively at the novice, age group, club, high school and masters level. Endurance athlete since 2008; has raced multiple distances of triathlon since 2011, including an Ironman finish.