This blog was originally published by Terry Laughlin on Aug. 24, 2015.
The primary reason the average swimmer converts only 3 percent of energy into forward motion is that our swimming actions are so strongly influenced by basic self-preservation instincts. Concerns about choking and sinking are so primal that they continue to affect how we swim long after we’ve lost our conscious fear and even after we’ve become quite accomplished.
What else could explain why Sun Yang lifts and cranes his head, noticeably twisting his body even while setting a 1500-meter world record?
Though this ungainly moment passes so quickly that you probably wouldn’t notice it on the surface, he repeated this several hundred times during his 1500m world record. How much time might it have cost him to distort his bodyline over and over?
Why does he still do that? It’s most likely this habit began to form when he was still a new swimmer, perhaps 6 years old. Eventually he hid it well enough that his coaches overlooked it. But if a world record holder can still waste energy in such an obvious way, how likely is it for the rest of us to avoid doing so?
My post Most of What You ‘Know’ about Swimming is Wrong! explains how most of the advice we receive about swimming is likely to reinforce our existing wasteful instincts. We’re less likely to critically examine questionable advice when it agrees with what our own instincts already incline us toward.
The converse of this is: Actions that can significantly improve your swimming are most likely counterintuitive. As examples, consider five common myths and their non-instinctive counterpoints.
Myth: To swim fast, you must ride high on the water.
This myth arose because elite sprinters seem to have more of the body out of the water. In fact, hydroplaning occurs only at speeds of 30mph or greater, while no human has ever swum faster than 5mph. What we’re actually seeing is the swimmer cutting a deeper bow wave. This requires so much energy that it’s almost impossible to sustain for more than a minute.
Fact: On average, a human body, rides 95 below the surface. (How much of Sun Yang’s body is below the surface in the picture above ? As he swims 1500m faster than anyone in history!) We swim through, not over, the water. Consequently drag avoidance, not power production, is our most important strategy for swimming faster.
Myth: Keep the water at your hairline. Partially due to influence from TI, this formerly universal notion is finally changing. Why did coaches teach this for so long? They said it would . . . help you ride higher on the water. In fact, the opposite is true.
Fact: The head represents about 8 percent of body mass. So if most of it is above the surface, other body parts must sink. This causes us to kick more, greatly increasing drag and energy waste. Because the head has many cavities, it is quite buoyant. Focus on feeling that your head rests on a ‘cushion’ of water and aligns with your spine —a universal principle of good biomechanics, demonstrated by Katie Ledecky at the World Championships in Kazan Russia.
Myth: Push water back (past your thigh . . . and/or faster in the last third of your stroke.) Various versions of this encourage you to focus on pushing back—whether farther, harder, or faster. For the vast majority of swimmers these actions create far more turbulence than propulsion. They also make you tired because they put the workload on using arm and shoulder muscles, rather than tapping core power.
Fact 1: The most important contribution of the hand and arm is to reduce drag. To accomplish this, focus on using your arms to extend your bodyline and separate the molecules in front of you, rather than on pushing on the molecules behind you. This reduces wave drag–the most significant limiter of Stroke Length and speed.
Fact 2: When focused on propulsion, use your hand to hold your place, instead of to push water back. The world’s best swimmers move the body past the hand. (In fact when Doc Counsilman filmed Mark Spitz in 1968, he was astonished to see that Spitz’s hand exited the water ahead of where it went in.) They can do this because they (i) excel at ‘active streamlining;’ and (ii) apply pressure with great precision–but surprisingly little force–as shown by a study of 1992 Olympic swimmers.
Myth: Kick to keep your legs from sinking. Kick even more to swim faster. Because of our survival instinct to churn the arms and legs, we need little encouragement to overdo this. Nonetheless we hear advice from all sides to kick more and harder. From the swim instructor who hands us a kickboard at our first lesson, to coaches who believe no workout is complete without a set devoted to pushing a kickboard up and down the pool, there’s a universal mania for kicking.
Fact: The legs are awesome at burning energy and creating drag, but almost pathetic at creating propulsion. Doc Counsilman (again) studied the effects of kicking among elite swimmers in the 1960s and found that kicking increased drag, and contributed nothing to propulsion at speeds above 5 feet per second—a thoroughly pedestrian pace for top swimmers. Like the arms, your legs make their greatest contribution by drafting behind the upper torso. Unless your goal is to sprint a short distance, you can hardly go wrong by kicking less. You’ll not only reduce drag and save energy. You also allow your legs to be drive more by core-body action than by fatigue-prone thigh muscles.
Myth: Stroke faster to swim faster. Like each of these myths, I subscribed to this as a young swimmer and it took me more than a decade—from age 38 to about 50–to fully undo the habit. We churn the arms from our first lap. Instinct also seems to suggest that the ‘obvious’ way to swim faster is to stroke faster. Then there are seemingly authoritative voices who tell us that top triathletes or open water swimmers stroke 70 or more times per minute and therefore we should too.
Fact: Swimming speed is determined by a simple equation: Stroke Length times Stroke Rate equals Velocity (SL x SR = V). You need both to swim faster but SL has conclusively been shown to be the foundation–the measure that correlates most strongly with performance.
To swim faster, first establish your optimal SL (measured by strokes per length or SPL and indexed to your height). Reducing drag is the easiest way to do so. Then incrementally increase SR, while maintaining an efficient SL.
The most precise and controllable way is by using a Tempo Trainer, increasing tempo by as little as one-hundredth of a second to ease adaptation. Increase tempo a tiny bit; maintain your stroke count. When that feels natural and easy, make another tiny tempo increase. Before long the cumulative increase in speed—with a long, relaxed, efficient stroke—will be quite significant. And sustainable.
Be Mindful . . .
As each of these stroke thoughts/skills are counter-intuitive, remember that habit, instinct—and most influences you encounter—will pull you back toward wasteful actions. Making these changes permanent requires conscious, purposeful, and mindful practice.
Find more tips like this in the Ultra-Efficient Freestyle Handbook, a richly-illustrated, easy-to-read 140 page guide to understanding freestyle technique in depth. It comes along with 15 downloadable videos and a learning and practice workbook in our Self-Coaching Toolkit.