Understanding how to be efficient in the water
Since hanging up my goggles and retiring from professional swimming over a decade ago, I have been fortunate enough to turn my hand to coaching – a vocation which I love, as every day is different, and no two swimmers are the same. I have coached a wide range of swimmers, from complete beginners who have never put their face in the water, to international standard chasing a 10th of a second PB.
Regardless of the swimmer’s ability, I always say the same thing “efficient swimming boils down to increasing the amount of water you push behind you, whilst reducing resistance (drag).”
Although I would not say physics was my favourite subject at school, I was more of a PE and DT kind of girl, everything I do as a coach is now centred around it. I believe having a basic understanding of physics helps swimmers become more efficient and develops their knowledge of how best to use their energy.
I start with Newton's Third Law of Motion which states that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In swimming this means to propel forwards through the water, there has to be an equal and opposite backwards force. This part of the stroke is usually called the Catch Phase and it is revered by many as the most important part of any stroke (I will return to this is a bit). However, in swimming there is water resistance to take into account, and this is commonly referred to as Drag. Here’s a fun fact for you, water is 784 times more dense than air, so swimmers have far more resistance than a runner does whilst running.
There are four elements that cause frontal drag in swimming which are:
The swimmer’s position in the water
The surface area of their body
The swimming costume that is being worn
The speed at which they are swimming – the faster the swimmer, the higher they are in the water therefore less drag
Now I have explained the basic science behind swimming what do we need to do become as efficient as possible? Here is front crawl technique in a nutshell. I liken developing swimming technique to building a house: you start at the foundations and work up to the roof. In swimming, the head and breathing are the foundations, working up the floors through the arm entry, kick and hip rotation, until you reach the catch phase – the roof of the stroke. Like when you are on a building site, you need to ensure all of the previous floors are cemented firm before you move to the next element of the stroke.
Starting with the head position, keep the head in alignment with the rest of the body. Do not be tempted to overly lift or drop your head, as this will have a negative impact on your body position. Your nose should be at approximately 45 degrees to the bottom of the pool, and when you turn to take a breath, focus on keeping your cheek on the water, like you are resting it on a pillow.
Breathing is important. Try to ensure your breathing rate is even and you are not holding your breath. I regularly observe swimmers holding their breath for long periods of time and as a consequence, they fatigue quicker due to oxygen debt.
Arm entry. There are two elements to this: how and where you put your hand into the water. I will start with how. I was taught to go in thumb first into the water but this puts your shoulder into impingement and over time, it wore away my Bicep Head tendon. So to reduce the risk of injury, it’s important to enter with a flat hand.
My top tip is to think your hand is a letter and the water a letter box; post the top of your middle fingers into the water and extend forward, like posting that letter into a post box. Do not be tempted to point your fingers directly downwards as this will take centimetres off your overall distance per stroke and as a result, you will need to complete more strokes to cover the same distance.
Secondly, where do you put your hands in?
It is important to keep in the back of your mind that you want to position your body in its strongest position biomechanically to start the catch phase. A way to test your body’s natural strongest position is to look where you put your hands when pushing yourself out of the shallow end of the pool. Your hands will be slightly wider than your shoulders. This is exactly where you want to put your hands into the water; at 10 and 2 o’clock to your head.
A point worth considering about the recovery phase, the part over the water: it has no propulsion value so try and relax your arm as much as possible whilst bringing the arm forward. Do not worry too much about having a high elbow. It is difficult to do that if your body is not rotated correctly. If you feel any pain in your shoulder whilst recovering, drop your elbow, allowing your hand to travel lower and wider around the body.
Next part is the hip rotation. If you think of your body as a kebab where the stick goes through your head, down your spine and out the bottom – that is your centre point. You need to engage your core and allow the action to move 90 degrees in total; 45 degrees each side from left to right through your centre point. Using your hips to drive the rotation up the body gives you a greater distance per stroke, thus allowing the angles at your shoulder to increase, setting you up for the catch phase.
Before I finish on the catch, it is important to mention the kick as well. In swimming, the majority of people have an ineffective kick; it causes more resistance than it produces propulsion. So I say, don’t try and kick for power, but kick to balance the stroke. Keep your legs as straight as possible, engage your glutes, point your toes away from you, and think about the kick action originating from the hips and traveling in an upwards action. It is good to think about tapping your big toes together whilst turning your head to take a breath; this ensures your legs stay together and streamlined at the back of the stroke.
Finally, the catch – the roof of the stroke.
This is where over 80% of the stroke’s propulsion comes from. You may have heard of the phrase “early vertical forearm” that refers to the start of the catch phase. It is here where you want to engage your palm and forearm into pressing the water behind you. I don’t like the term “pull” in swimming, as you are never pulling the water. In fact, you are pushing the water behind you to move forward, which brings us nicely back to Newton’s Third Law.
Think of your arm like a rowing boat’s oar; it enters the water, fixes against the water, and through applying pressure, you move forwards. A little mantra I would say to myself over and over is “elbow high fingers low”, which helped to keep arm in the correct position.
In summary, I want to reinforce the importance of building and mastering the technical points in order.
To ensure that you are able to achieve an effective catch, you must build your stroke from foundation to roof in the following order:
Establish a correct head and breathing position
Hand entry is not thumb first and is slightly wider than shoulders
Rotate through your centre point, no more than 90 degrees, making your hips the driving force behind the action
Mastering these elements will unlock the beauty of swimming efficiently.
I hope this has helped you understand the science behind an efficient stroke. If you want more details on coaching, please visit my website for information on upcoming stroke seminars in partnership with Swim Oxford.