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:
- 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.
- 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.
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