Swim Pretty

When you watch an elite athlete at work—in triathlon, snow skiing or gymnastics—they all have one thing in common: their actions appear effortless and their motions are smooth and pretty. Every movement is choreographed, and no energy is wasted. Last month, in my inaugural column, I used the word “pretty” a few times to describe good swimming technique.

Think back to watching Michael Phelps swim at the Olympics, or glance down at the fast lane during swim practice. All of these talented swimmers have smooth strokes, streamlined body position, steady kicks, a stable core and good hip rotation, which are all aspects that help a swimmer glide through the water with minimal resistance. Notice how I did not mention any of the following: flailing arms, scissor kicks, splashing, thrashing, high-head position, sinking hips or anything else that detracts from the “prettiness” factor.

From the ends of your fingers to the tips of your toes, think about every movement you make and ask yourself, “Is this pretty?” Are your hands entering the water above your head by slapping the surface and sending up a big splash, or are they gracefully knifing into the water barely creating bubbles? When you turn to breathe, are you tossing your neck, shoulders and chest to one side and lifting your whole head out of the water to take a gasping inhalation? Or are you calmly turning your face to the side, keeping one eye in the water and drawing a quick, but sufficient, breath? What about your hips? Do they wiggle their way down the pool or rotate directly in line with your shoulders to give your arms a longer reach and better catch before starting the pull?

Core strength is not just important for cycling and running. A proper swimming stroke gets all its power from the torso and mid-section. Even the kick starts at your hips. Driving yourself through the water with your knees, causes lots of whitewater and splashing (which also deters fellow swimmers from sharing a lane with you). Small, fluid kicking motions from your hips with a relaxed knee, a strong ankle and a pointed toe is what you want.

It just so happens that a swimmer’s efficiency in the water has a direct correlation to the “prettiness” factor, and efficiency in the water is what makes you swim fast. Not brute strength, not raw power, not intensity, but rather efficiency, defined as the degree to which something is done well or without wasting energy.

Every movement you make in the water should contribute to your forward movement through the water. Any movement that forces your body up and down, side to side or backward is wasted energy. In school, we learn that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. By applying that principle to triathlon’s first sport, we arrive at the following theorem: the fastest way to swim across the pool, or to the next buoy, is in a straight line.

That straight line begins at the center of the top of your head. It then travels straight down your spine and comes out between your legs. Imagine a long metal bar through the centerline of your body, like a giant shish kebab. You cannot bend this bar, but you can rotate around it. When your right arm enters the water above your head, you can no longer wiggle your hips to the right to increase your reach. Instead, the bar forces you to rotate your body in order to extend your shoulder forward. As a result, your right hip rolls toward the bottom, the tops of your legs are facing the side of the pool and your left arm smoothly exits the water below your hip, on the high side of your body.

The same thing happens during the stroke cycle for your left arm. It enters above your head and your whole body rotates to the left. With that bar running along your spine, there is no way your head or hips can move out of perfect hydrodynamic alignment.

All the while, your legs are helping you along with a steady flutter kick. They maintain your balance and keep your hips at the surface. The fastest and straightest line applies to your path and your body, but it also applies to your position in the water. The surface of the water is where all swimming actions take place. If your head, arms and shoulders are up there doing all the work, shouldn’t your legs attend the party?

When your legs follow the line of your body, they don’t have to break through more water. You will go farther and faster using the same energy when you narrow your body and reduce drag. Practice pushing off the wall in the tightest, longest streamline possible. See how far you can glide without kicking. Remember where you stopped and try to glide farther the next time. Try this from a dive too.

If you start improving your swimming efficiency, you will get faster. You may not get stronger or feel like you are going faster, but trust the clock. Swimming cleanly and “prettily” will increase your lead into T1 and get you there with less effort. This means you will have more energy for the other two thirds of the race. You might even see the result before your next race. If more people are willing to share a lane with you at practice, you know you are heading in the right direction!

Take your time with learning this – as with any skill. The point is that drills are there to make you smoother, stronger, more efficient. Make sure you hit all those target points!

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here!

See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!

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