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by Terry Heggy

September 28, 2016

Consistent attention to detail pays off in speed

For proof that little things matter, check out Maya DiRado’s 200 backstroke finish in the Rio Olympics. Inspiring!

Excellence is not accidental. While we might be able to perform any particular movement properly during a focused drill, it takes tons of practice to ensure that those skills become so ingrained we’ll perform them flawlessly when the pressure is on. DiRado didn’t impulsively decide to lunge for the wall for the first time in that one race; she developed the habit of finishing hard through years of practicing great touches.

Some of my favorite swimming advice came from Tufts University standout Jim Lilley, who is known for his consistently awesome turns. “The secret is to never do a poor turn,” he says. “Even in warmup or when you’re exhausted—hold your streamline, take your underwater kicks, and keep your head down through the breakout.” Then, smiling knowingly, he says “I know; it’s really hard at first. But you get used to it, and eventually it’s just what you do.”

We become our best by practicing perfection in every aspect of swimming. Let’s discuss a few excellence habits we can develop for interacting with swimming pool walls.


As you come into a wall:

  • Hold your head position; don’t bend your neck to look for the wall. On backstroke, count your strokes from the flags. On the other strokes, look for the cross on the bottom.
  • Practice the breathing and kicking strategy you use in a race. Can you elongate your final stroke to get there faster, or should you add a quick, short stroke? Are your legs providing the thrust to launch the turn or finish the race?

When I swam on the Wichita Swim Club, our motto was “We’re tough from the flags in,” which meant that everyone on the team was constantly thinking about what it took to get into the walls efficiently. Nobody wanted to get caught nonchalantly drifting into the wall during any workout set.


Turns are an opportunity to pick up speed, not to take a rest break. Imagine the wall as a hot potato, and get away from it as quickly as possible. Don’t waste time trying to orient yourself parallel to the surface before you push off; you can always roll after you leave the wall.

  • Always do two-hand touches on breaststroke and butterfly. (Following stroke rules must be just as habitual as good form.)
  • Keep your eyes to the side or the bottom to maintain your alignment and streamline. Don’t distort your line by looking up at the opposite end of the pool.

When you finish, reach for the wall like you mean it. Visualize Maya’s lunge, and stretch yourself out for every inch of extension, and do it for every single repeat in every workout set!

Push Off

Your pushoff speed is faster than you can swim. You push off the wall hundreds of times during every workout, so this is where you can gain a real advantage by seriously practicing perfection. Think about these elements each and every time you leave the wall:

  • Drop. There’s less resistance below the surface, so submerge yourself before you push.
  • Streamline. Keep your hands together, head down (squeezed between your arms), core tight, and toes pointed. If you’re surfacing inside the flags, you’re not streamlined enough.
  • Kick. For some people, dolphin kick is more effective for speed off the wall; for others it’s flutter kick. For a few (especially those with poor ankle flexibility), kicking off the wall might not be effective at all. If you’re not sure which category works for you, have your coach time and measure you to determine your best off-the-wall kick approach. You’ll improve as you focus on improving your kick, so you may need to re-test yourself from time to time.

Break Out

The best breakout* is one where you begin your arm stroke at the precise instant you have slowed down to the speed at which you swim. This timing will vary depending on the effectiveness of your kick, your confidence in your breath control, the length of the race, and your current level of fatigue. The only way to nail the breakout timing under all conditions is to practice your best possible breakout technique every time you come off the wall.

  • Dial in your depth. Do your streamlined kicking deep enough underwater to avoid surfacing too soon. But don’t go so deep that you have to expend energy swimming up to the surface. Buoyancy will push you upward, so use your leg power to drive you forward.
  • Regulate your rhythm. Begin your breakout stroke slightly before your entire body has finished surfacing. Exhale throughout your underwater effort so that your lungs are ready to accept a full gulp of air when you take your first breath. Establish your desired arm cadence right from that very first stroke.

Lock it In

Yes, it is a challenge to consistently work the walls. But the behaviors you repeat become the habits that determine your performance, so it’s an effort worth doing. Recruit your friends, your coaches, and your family to help remind you that every wall represents an opportunity to develop more speed.

*You can access this SWIMMER magazine (September-October 2015) cover story, “Building Better Breakouts” by Scott Bay, via your My USMS account.


  • Technique and Training


  • Flip Turns
  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills
  • Turns