The fundamentals will set you free
Over the last few decades a lot of changes have been made to the way we approach swimming and coaching the freestyle stroke. And we’ve learned that techniques we would never have thought to be efficient have proven to be exceptionally so in some swimmers. Once we believed that fast swimming could only be achieved by having a perfectly symmetrical stroke, which includes bilateral breathing. However, Aussie distance great Grant Hackett breathed almost exclusively to one side. And what about Michael Phelps? His giddy-up freestyle is hardly a technique we would have embraced 30 years ago.
Across the swimming world, including Masters swimmers, there are many examples of those who have what might be described as unorthodox styles, which makes it hard to be definitive as to what is best. What we do know is that fast and efficient swimming comes down to reach, rotation, and relaxation for posture and minimizing drag forces while maximizing propulsive forces.
This article describes what we currently believe to be the solid fundamentals that pertain to most freestyle swimmers. Your best bet is to find a knowledgeable coach and discover what works best for you, based on all of the things that you bring to the sport.
First we’ll focus on what we call the foundation. This is also called aquatic posture and body position in a number of different circles. Then we’ll look at propulsive forces and drag forces, and then at variables such as rhythm and timing.
The Foundation: your position on the water
We used to teach age groupers to keep the waterline right at their eyebrows. Swim lessons and well-meaning parents encouraged this flawed practice (“Make sure you look where you are going!”)
Someplace around the center of your chest is the center of buoyancy. It’s where the lungs are kept and they’re full of air. Think about your chest as the fulcrum of a teeter-totter. If you lift the head on one end, the opposite end—the hips and feet—will have to sink, thus dragging your lower body through the water. Some folks with a high stroke rate do have their hips up with their head up, but this is because of the flow of water past the body surfaces, not because of an efficient position. There are also those swimmers with a very strong kick and a high head position. However, much of that kicking energy is being used to maintain that position rather than adding to propulsion. Seems like that energy should do something else for you rather than just hold a position.
So where should me’ head be? We advocate relaxing the neck to a neutral position. If you carry a lot of tension in your upper back and neck you are recruiting muscles to do work that do not help you swim better or faster. We do paint the black line on the bottom of the pool for a reason. Similarly for triathletes and open water swimmers, your visibility is diminished, so holding a higher head position really serves no purpose at all.
Going back to the teeter-totter analogy, when your arms are at your sides and we consider the center of your chest as the fulcrum, then the teeter-totter is not even. However, stretch both your hands in front of your head, and suddenly your teeter-totter is balanced. This is one of the main reasons we see so many great freestylers pass their hands in front of their heads.
If your neck is relaxed and your hand is passing in front and your hips are still sinking, you may want to try “pressing the T.” The T is an invisible letter T formed by lines bisecting your chest and running from collarbone to collarbone. Press that down towards the bottom of the pool slightly until you feel the balance where the head, shoulders, hips and feet are all on the same plane.
There are a lot of things that do not translate into the world of swimming from other sports. For example, almost all other sports allow you to push on something. Whether it’s the ground, a bar, a pedal or another human, that application of strength is often the most important variable. Swimming is different. The water could care less how much you can bench or what your Max Vo2 is. It will simply get out of the way while you struggle. As a matter of fact, you can get a great workout in the water without ever going anywhere … it’s called water aerobics.
Freestyle is about maximizing the pressure on the water in the direction opposite to where you want to go. The primary structures we use for this are the hands and forearms. The propulsive forces on the front end begin with the catch. Often called early vertical forearm or EVF, what this really means is that shortly after entry, you get your fingers pointed to the bottom of the pool and your elbow up for a high elbow catch. This engages the surface area, your “paddle,” from the tip of your middle finger to your elbow, including the fingers, hands, wrists and forearms. Although fingers are relaxed, any break in the wrist weakens your paddle and reduces propulsion. The muscles used to finish the movement are the latissimus dorsi or lats. These powerful “flying squirrel muscles” are what drive the EVF.
The details are a little subtler. As you reach forward to catch with your hand and forearm, the elbow joint is in the wrong spot as you rotate over on to your side. It will need to be rotated so the point of your elbow is facing towards the sky. This allows the forearm to bend and get that early catch. At this point you’re really anchoring the hand and forearm and pulling yourself over it. It’s also of critical importance to accelerate the hand as you pull yourself over it. This is where the velocity is preserved.
There are other subtle considerations. Elite freestylers tend to make sure that their forearms and hands stay as perpendicular to the direction of swimming as possible. That means keeping the forearm vertical as the elbow bends. As the arm finishes, the pitch of the hand changes to keep it vertical as long as possible as well. Many refer to this as late vertical forearm.
The hand path is typically straight back. Johnny Weissmuller used to say it was more or less grabbing an armful of water and throwing it back. We have experimented with the S-Pull and similar sculling motions, but the lateral movements of the hands tend to produce sideways forces rather than forward propulsive force. Many fast swimmers do have a slightly elliptical hand path, as they search for where they can “hold” the water best.
Most coaches talk about a high elbow recovery for freestyle. We advocate this as well but with additional explanation. When we look at where your elbows are we’re really looking at where your upper arm from shoulder to elbow is relative to the surface of the water. We couldn’t care less about whether you have a straight arm recovery or a more traditional elbow-above-the-hand recovery, but rather where the mass you are lifting out of the water tends to be relative to your center of buoyancy.
What does this mean? Simply that you are rotating and carrying the center of that mass as close to the center of buoyancy as possible. This means the hip and shoulder rotate as one piece and the rotation is very high. The upper arm gets to almost vertical for most efficient swimmers, regardless of style.
The moment the weight you are lifting out of the water gets further away from the center of buoyancy, a compensating movement happens—your hips or legs move in the opposite direction, producing the dreaded wiggle, in which you serpentine down the lane. During the recovery, gravity is in play when you bring that arm out of the water so pay attention to where it is relative to the center of the chest; the closer the better.
As we move through the water, any movement outside of what we call the drag shadow actually slows us down. What is the drag shadow? It’s a column of water that is moving with you as you swim due to friction from your surfaces and the water. It is basically how much room you are taking up in the water and how much wiggle you have. If your posture and movement are long, smooth and skinny, then you have a small drag shadow. If there is an angle to your aquatic posture or excess lateral movements with your hands and body then it is bigger. Large shadows are slower. You may be thinking about swimmers who are physiologically prone to a wider drag shadow who swim fast. They are skilled at making themselves as small as possible in the water, minimizing their drag shadows.
Minimizing drag in the catch means looking at where and how your hand enters the water. Some folks enter thumb first and others fingers first. Either is fine as long as it is in line with the shoulder. If you enter thumb first it is important to make sure that when you catch, there is not an angle to the hand. This makes for the water slipping off your hand rather than holding the water. Most common error here is overreaching, placing your hand in line with your head rather than in front of the shoulder. This lateral movement is common among people that swim flatter with a wider recovery.
Efficient kicking is a core driven activity. It is initiated from the hips and lower core and finished by the toes. Think of the knee and the ankle as being connected with a single rubber band. Keeping the lower body loose is key.
Amplitude (how big) and frequency (how fast) are also important. The amplitude should be inside your drag shadow. Anything outside creates a braking force and slows you down. Frequency is a bit trickier. For some it is six kicks and others two, three or four. The best way to determine this is trial and error. How well your upper body and lower body work separately and together—how well synchronized they are—will help determine your ideal frequency. You don’t want to be twisting against yourself and working harder, so taking the time to figure this out will pay off in a more efficient freestyle.
The timing in freestyle is not something that is generally talked about beyond having the hands pass in front and stroke rate, but there are a few other elements beyond this. As you reach forward to your ideal catch position, it’s important to know where your head and shoulders are. If you’re in your breathing cycle, it’s critical to get your face back in before you initiate the pull. It’s virtually impossible to rotate the elbow and shoulder up to the early catch position with your face out of the water. In addition, the rotation allows for drag forces to be reduced as some of the mass of the body is lifted out of the water reducing the drag shadow.
What does it all mean?
There are a lot of fast and efficient ways to swim freestyle, but there are also a lot of small errors that can lead to slow and less efficient swimming. If you find yourself stuck on a plateau and need a little tweaking, consider some of the ideas we mentioned. Your best bet is always to find a knowledgeable coach who can work with you in person.