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by Terry Heggy

December 14, 2020

Subtle mistakes that steal speed from swimmers

It’s easy to catch and correct the big mistakes, such as lifting your head to breathe, crossing over on your entry, and one-handed breaststroke touches. But there are many opportunities to eliminate other common stroke flaws.

Here are five speed thieves that aren’t always obvious, and therefore require a coach to watch with a keen and focused eye.

Shoulder Water

A drag suit adds resistance with a pocket that impedes the flow of water. Your arm can create a similar result by trapping water between your head and shoulder. This happens during your catch and early pull, as well as during turns if you push off before achieving a proper streamlined position. The visible symptom is a gap between your deltoid and your head when your arm is extended forward, creating that “cup” that can trap shoulder water.

There are two primary causes of shoulder water:

  • Limited shoulder flexibility—If you’re unable achieve a deltoid-to-head squeeze position, do a dryland program to enhance your range of motion.
  • Faulty execution—If flexibility isn’t an issue, you need to practice bringing your shoulder forward during your arm recovery. Anatomical pocket traps should be considered self-inflicted drag suits.

Bobble Bodies

You might have a perfectly aligned entry and catch, smooth one-goggle breathing, and a decent kick. But if you don’t keep your core engaged, there can be a disconnect between the top and bottom halves of your body, much like one of those slinky-center wiener dogs. Waggling down the lane wastes energy and creates drag.

Doing planks provides a good reminder about long-axis stability and work well when followed by a set of 8 x 25s with your eyes on the lane stripe and your core tightened. Pull buoys and ankle bands make it easier to recognize and correct fishtailing motions.

Toe Anchors

It can be hard to spot in video shot from the deck, but if the top of your foot faces forward (toward the direction you’re swimming), it becomes an unmitigated drag surface. It doesn’t matter how hard you kick if your foot is angled in this anchor-esque drag mode. Poor ankle flexibility is most often the cause, but if you cross your arms over your body’s centerline or have poor breathing technique, you may use a wide scissor kick to offset the angular momentum of your head and arms, creating the same resulting anchor toes.

A consistent long-term program of dryland flexibility work will eventually help, but a quicker partial solution is focus on the position of your feet. Any drills that help with overall body alignment can be combined with mental focus on foot position.


The sneaky evil cousin of the toe anchor problem, overkicking can steal speed in a couple of ways. One is when you confuse energy with amplitude and misguidedly implement what is technically known as a “big honkin’ wasteful gigantic kick” that drives your leg to a depth where its drag exceeds any chance it had to be propulsive. For most Masters swimmers, that depth isn’t much below chest level, so remember that small, quick kicking is best. Similarly, when your foot leaves the water entirely, the energy used to lift your leg that high has no propulsive effect. You don’t go faster by kicking air. Likewise, when breaststrokers essentially do the splits to embiggen their kick, the drag exceeds the benefit.

The second way overkicking can rob you of speed is when there’s a misapplication of energy. Distance swimmers fatigue early if their kick is held at sprint intensity throughout the first 100. Others whose utter lack of flexibility make their feet act as permanent backhoe buckets are wasting all the energy they put into kicking. Keep your feet within your body’s drag profile where they’ll do no harm.


This speed thief could also be called “going too slow” or even “daydreaming.” You might be performing the most excellent stroke with utter perfection, but at the same time be missing out on extra speed that would be available with a faster turnover rate. If you feel too comfortable in practice, pick up the pace to the level required for the training effect you’re trying to achieve. Race-pace sets are great for learning how to perform at speed.


  • Technique and Training