Get Low to Go Fast

When making stroke corrections with our athletes, we almost always tackle any resistance related issues prior to propulsive issues. With the water being around 700 times more dense than air, being “aero” is critical if one wants to swim fast. To understand the “Get Low to Go Fast” concept, it’s important to first study the relationship of speed to resistance. Hydrodynamic drag forces on the body moving through water are proportionate to the velocity SQUARED. So as you get faster, drag is increasing exponentially. This is important because it means there is essentially a terminal velocity that you can swim based on the amount of drag that your body produces. In our experience, you can’t out-train or out-propel large amounts of hydrodynamic drag. This is one of the reasons athletes can train for months or years without improvement.

When looking at hydrodynamic drag produced in a swimmer’s stroke, we look at two things: 1) Alignment and 2) Orientation. Alignment refers to the angle of the body relative to the surface and the frontal surface area produced. Ideally, the body should be nearly parallel with the surface with the eyes angled mostly down. For most, having a feeling of swimming slightly downhill produces the parallel body alignment that we are looking for.¬†We like to think of the body moving through a tube. The smaller the tube, the less resistance created. ¬†Alignment issues are so common because for most, it doesn’t feel better to cut resistance. The pressure created by that drag gets interpreted by our brains as speed. If you were to stick your head out the window of your car on the freeway, your brain would interpret the pressure of the wind as speed. Pull your head in the window and you feel like you are moving slower. Keep this in mind as you seek an efficient alignment. Good technique is not always intuitive.

The second and, in our opinion, most often misunderstood principle is that of orientation. This refers to the depth of the body relative to the surface. When I was a youth swimmer (late 80’s early 90’s), I remember believing that being high in the water was a good thing. I can remember a coach commenting during my taper, “You look good today. Really high in the water.” Hey thanks coach! But, when you watch modern day elite distance swimmers, it is apparent that they really don’t swim high in the water at all. In fact, they seem to be seeking more depth. Check out the following clip of Sun Yang, the current men’s world record holder in the 1500 meter free:

If you pause the video, you can clearly see his head is 100% submerged as is most of his body minus his recovery arm.

Not convinced? Check out the following video of Katie Ledecky, who just had a clean sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 freestyle events at the World Championships.

Look familiar? Once again, you can see her come up slightly for the breath and then drive herself below the surface during the non-breathing part of her stroke cycle.

So why do the two fastest distance swimmers in the world do this? Two reasons:

  1. The body can move faster underwater than it does on the surface. If you haven’t been paying attention to the world of competitive swimming, the fastest stroke is no longer freestyle. Underwater dolphin kicking is faster and so fast that FINA (the world governing body for swimming) had to make a rule that basically says you can’t be underwater past the 15 meter mark on each wall. Before they wrangled this in, swimmers began crushing world records kicking underwater and not actually swimming the stroke they were intended to swim. Modern day submarines move faster underwater than they do on the surface. Surface tension and the turbulence created there increases drag even though part of the body is moving through air.
  2. Swimming high in the water reduces propulsion. This concept is the area that I think is not understood by most athletes. If an athlete is swimming higher in the water than the level their body naturally floats, they had to exert a force to create that lift. More than likely, it came from pushing water down toward the bottom. Push water down and you create lift. But, aren’t we supposed to have a vertical forearm or high elbow during the pull? You betcha. Here lies one of the most misunderstood problems in freestyle swimming.

Over the years putting our teaching system together, it became apparent that it is imperative to fix an athletes orientation prior to trying to to fix any pull issues. If an athlete is swimming higher than their natural float position, it is virtually impossible to get them to attain an early vertical forearm position (we will address pulling mechanics in a later post). This is because they are unknowingly trying to create lift with their arms which detracts from their ability to use their arms for propulsion. The more an athlete is out of proper orientation, the more they drop their elbow and press down. A swimmer’s arms should be used 100% for propulsion with 0% going into lift.

So, what does this mean to you? If you have ever been told you “drop you elbow” during the catch phase of the stroke, you more than likely have an orientation problem that needs to be addressed first. Focus on getting aligned and then swimming in your natural float position driving yourself forward under the surface with each pull. We have found that by fixing orientation first, the forearm becomes more vertical without even addressing it. Swimming in your natural float position opens you up to attaining that ideal angle of attack on the water where 100% of your pull drives you forward where you want to go.

I know what you’re thinking…”Why do I swim so much faster in my wetsuit which obviously creates lift?” The answer goes back to the first concept we teach: Alignment. The primary reason people move faster in their wetsuits is that it lifts the legs and artificially creates a parallel alignment. If you can swim faster with a pull buoy than without, this is another sign that you have an alignment issue. This is why the world’s best triathlon swimmers don’t gain the same benefit as beginners when wearing a wetsuit. They already swim with good alignment.

During your next swim, think about relaxing and finding your natural float position. Focus on maintaining that position as you pull and you will find your forearm angle improve significantly.

To receive these blog posts via email, be sure to subscribe at the top of this page.


The Fastest Way to Get Faster Without Getting Faster

With a busy work, family and training schedule it pays to maximize your available time and focus on things that will elicit meaningful returns. One of the most valuable things that you can do to cut time off your swim is basic but often overlooked: SWIM THE RACE LINE. If weekly open water workouts teaching hundreds of athletes have taught us anything, it’s that humans were not born with the innate ability to navigate an open water course. We have seen many proficient pool swimmers squiggle all over the course and even get turned around and swim 180 degrees in the wrong direction. When it comes to navigation, athletes seem to fall into one of three categories:

1) The Nascar Driver (blue line in fig. 1). For some silly reason, we have the inclination to view a race course like we are in a car going 200 mph. We tend to round off the course hence we blow through a corner due to the ludicrous speed we are traveling. The fact is that if you are a top pro, you are only going about 3 miles per hour. If you look at a pack of racers and look down the race line between two buoys, you will see 90% of the athletes on the outside of that imaginary race line. The swimmer in the diagram below swam 1.3 miles.

2) The Squiggler (red line in fig. 1). These folks tend to swim outside the race line as well, but move all over the place with small course corrections veering from right to left. The swimmer in the diagram below swam 1.4 miles.

3) The Pro (green line in fig 1). The best and most experienced athletes look at the course as if there was a cable strung from one buoy to the next and try to keep their nose right over that line. This swimmer swam 1.2 miles (ok, nobody’s perfect but we see our best athletes swim within 2% of the race line).

open water incorrect navigationFigure 1 (Ironman Lake Tahoe Course)

We have found that the average middle of the pack athlete swims 10% to 20% over the set distance for a given course. Let’s do the math on that really quick. For a 1.2 mile half IM swim, they are swimming 1.38 miles. So for someone that is a 45 minute swimmer, they will add 6 minutes and 45 seconds to their effort! That is the average mind you, with many athletes adding much more. How much training and technique work will it take you to make up for going from averaging 1:28/ 100 yards to 1:47/ 100 yards? The better bet is to learn to swim the race line. The good news is anyone can learn to navigate in open water by following the tips outlined below:

1) Practice on a course. One of the worst ways to practice is to go out by yourself or with a buddy and swim to the other end of the lake and back with no buoys and very little navigation. Find some buoys out on the water (or bring your own) and do lots of laps on a smaller course. This will force you to hone your navigation skills. Bring a watch and time your laps to make your session 1000X more interesting. We typically set our training course around 300 meters. So in a 3000 meter workout, they are going to do dozens of buoy turns and get lots of feedback regarding their ability to navigate the course.

2) Swim in a pack. Swimming among a pack of bodies is a totally different experience. You will get pushed sideways, sight and see nothing but a foot and add a whole new set of distractions that swimming by yourself can’t replicate. If you are going to race in a pack, you need to practice in a pack.

3) Know thyself. Most people have a tendency to yaw one direction or the other. Those that breath on one side tend to do this more than those that have some kind of bilateral pattern. To figure out which way you tend to wander, swim towards a buoy and go 50 or so strokes without sighting. We have seen people end up at the buoy they started at doing this drill. Once you know which way you tend to veer, adjust your internal compass between sighting strokes to keep yourself swimming straight.

4) Clear the fog. Foggy goggles can lead to a frustrating mess of a swim. The best anti-fog made is also extremely cheap and easy to come by: Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. Head down to your local drug store and buy a trial size bottle, put a extremely tiny drop in each goggle, rub it around and completely flush it out so there are no more suds. They say no more tears…they lied. Be sure to clean it all out and you should have crystal clear vision for your swim.

5) Know the course. If the opportunity presents itself, get out on the course prior to the race. Many race directors set the course a day before, so get out there for your warm-up swim and take a second look as you go around each buoy. Study the angle you need to turn and look for landmarks above and behind the buoy to help you navigate. Remember, almost every race starts in the morning when the sun is low so there is bound to be a leg where you are going to be starring into the sun. Figure out which leg that is and find large fixed objects to keep you on track.

The great news here is that if you are the middle of the packer described above, you can take several minutes off your swim time in a few well designed training sessions. Combine that with a solid progressive training plan and getting your technique dialed and the sky is the limit. Think you can’t get faster in the swim, think again!

To receive these blog posts via email, be sure to subscribe at the top of this page.