Freestyle Head Position: Up or Down?
Getting the best of both worlds with a slight tilt during the stroke cycle
Of all of the freestyle stroke techniques we teach at The Race Club, where to position the head is probably the most controversial. Although most coaches believe that the head should be kept in alignment with the body—keeping the body in the straightest possible position for a low drag coefficient—arguments can be made for keeping the head down and for tilting it up slightly during a crucial part of the stroke cycle.
The controversy stems from a paradox that exists in swimming, between the forces in the water that slow us down (frontal drag) and the forces that keep us going (propulsion). The positions and motions we use while swimming don’t often optimize both forces.
In much the same way modern submarines move more efficiently underwater than on the surface, swimmers move more efficiently when they swim underwater because they reduce their frontal drag. We saw direct evidence of this when breaststroke rules changed to allow the head to go underwater and elite breaststrokers’ times dropped substantially.
The faster a person swims, the more important it is to minimize frontal drag. I call the fastest point in the stroke cycle (hand entry to hand entry) the surge point. In freestyle, the surge point occurs when one recovering hand first enters the water. At this precise moment, the head should dip slightly underwater in order to minimize frontal drag.
The slight submersion of the head for the surge forward can be more easily achieved with the slower stroke rate—around 60 strokes per minute (hip-driven freestyle) such as used by Olympic gold medalist Sun Yang. At this rate, 2 seconds will elapse during the stroke cycle. That’s plenty of time to take the breath and get the head back down, slightly underwater, for the hand entry. With the faster stroke rates of hybrid freestyle or shoulder-driven freestyle, it’s more challenging to get the head down for the surge point, yet still important to do so.
When it comes to optimizing arm propulsion (the forces that move us through the water), the head position needs to be different than it is at the surge point. To maximize arm propulsion, the pulling hand needs to move backward as quickly as possible and with as much surface area as possible.
During the pull, the hand doesn’t begin moving backward until it’s positioned about 1 foot in front of the shoulder. I call this the power point. From the power point backward, the hand will continue to create propulsion until the arm is fully extended. In order to maximize the force of the hand moving backward, the lower back needs to arch some, precisely as it would when doing a pull-up on a bar. With the arch of the back, the head will naturally lift up slightly.
The good news about head position in freestyle is that the surge point and the power point occur at two different times in the stroke cycle. Consequently, swimmers can have their cake and eat it, too. Arching the lower back slightly and tilting the head up at the power point to maximize propulsion, but then dropping the head down to submerge it at the surge point to minimize frontal drag, will result in the best of both worlds.
The reality is that most swimmers look forward all of the time while swimming and never get their heads low enough at the surge point. I believe it’s more instinctive to arch the back during the power point than it is to drop the head for the surge point. It’s also much more convenient to see what’s in front of you and avoid a nasty collision. With the head down, one cannot do that.
And there have been some incredibly fast swimmers who maintained the look-forward position, such as Ian Thorpe of Australia, Ryan Cochrane of Canada, and Federica Pellegrini of Italy. All three are also incredibly fast kickers. Even a barge can move pretty fast when there’s enough power behind it. For the rest of us, it makes sense to tilt the head slightly up at the power point of the pull, but to remember to drop it down for the surge point in order to pick up speed.
If you still need convincing, try swimming 3 x 25 sprint freestyles: one with the head out of the water (water polo style), one looking forward with the head tilted up, and one looking down at the surge point. You decide which way is easier. As for me, I am going the way of the submarine.