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home » swim dogma

The contentious debate about swim form continues. Those that have been immersed tell us we must get on our side and glide; those that have not been baptized with this dogma should continue to focus on form, power, and turnover.

To apply form techniques used by elite swimmers—to the rest of us—is taking it out of appropriate context and flawed logic. A world class swimmer who has incredible power per stroke, and can easily kick 100 under 60-seconds, can afford to glide for a split second. Note that this same swimmer may have put in swim training days of up to 20k (yes I know of swimmers who have, and 10k per day is typical). For the average triathlete swimmer I coach 20k might be covered in 2 weeks.

Watch video of several different elite swimmers of different sizes, competing at different distances, filmed underwater. While the angles of arms for the most effective stroke are quite similar, the range of glide time and stroke frequency is immense. Yes, the largest and most powerful swimmers typically do use a relatively slow stroke frequency (especially for distance events) and split second of 'front quadrant' glide time, but most of the smaller swimmers do not. For those competing at sprint to mid-distance, no glide and up to 40% faster stroke rate is common. Some of them are moving their arms as fast as Lance pedaled to his Tour de France time trial wins.

Assuming a swimmer has minimized drag and optimized form, speed comes down to how much force per a unit of time the swimmer can generate. And there's more than one way to achieve maximum power output. Again I use the cycling analogy: when a certain German cyclist and American cyclist battled it out in a Tour de France time trial, the German would hold a cadence of 85-90rpms while the American would hold 110-115; an example of two very different approaches yielding essentially the same result.

The notion that fast swimming can be "effortless," and that we need to get completely on our side to minimize drag is misguided. Fast swimming hurts just like fast cycling and running, and no elite swimmer rolls completely on their side during a stroke cycle. If the goal is not about speed and you're just swimming for general exercise, it really doesn't matter what you do in the pool as long as it's a satisfying workout! But if you goal is speed smooth technique must combine with high power output to go fast.

To say that swimming on your side "like a fish" creates less friction is false. Your buoyancy in the water is equal to your body weight in water. In other words you will displace the amount of water equal to your body weight, no matter whether you're on your side, or face down. The variable is how much friction there is as you move through the water, and in fact elite swimmers create so much power that while face down there can be some lift at high speed much like a hydroplane lifts. For you and I this is not a significant factor though; streamlining should be our focus.

To glide with arm stretched out front is to get a break while slowing down, kind of like being on the bike coasting up a steep climb. You may laugh, but water has so much friction that it's a valid analogy. Back to the example of the elite swimmer who can kick 100 faster than I could ever sprint 100, this person can afford to glide for a split second. I cannot.

Worse than losing speed while gliding, all you can do with an arm stretched out in front of you with elbow locked is push down toward the bottom of the pool. The most common swim injury is a rotator cuff sprain or tear, and that is the cause. With arm pushing toward bottom of pool it's like laying face down on the floor in that same position and trying to lift your body weight off the ground with the one arm above your head. The small muscles around shoulder must do the work and they don't have that kind of power.

A powerful stroke is similar to a chin-up, then a dip. These moments use the most powerful muscles below shoulders (mostly lats), and I've never heard of these muscles straining or tearing. The key is not to lock out your elbow at start of the stroke so you can immediately begin by pulling toward your body, not pushing down. Also, instead of stretching your arm out in front near the surface, enter the water at a slight downward angle as your finish extension. This sets your hand and arm in a position where you can start pulling immediately. It also makes sense to enter the water a little deeper because this is closer to the depth your hand/arm unit will need as your body passes over it.

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