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by Terry Heggy

April 27, 2016

Learn from observing elite swimmers in action

A champion swimmer moving through the water is a thing of beauty. We notice the grace, power, and fluidity of motion and marvel at the talent on display. But in addition to being thrilled by the athletic aesthetics and the excitement of competition, we can also pick up some solid hints about how to improve our own swimming.

We want to imitate these superstars. But unfortunately, we’re not all born with the same physical gifts. And as we age, some of the movements we used to be able to make seem to have been covertly deleted from our repertoire. Even so, we can still improve using the OAA strategy: Observe, Adopt, and Adapt.


This year especially, we have abundant opportunities to watch fast swimmers. In addition to local meets, regional championships, and Masters Nationals, 2016 is an Olympic year. And the summer will be full of triathlons and open water races as well. If you’re unable to watch these events, there’s plenty of swimming posted online, including a nice collection of USMS training videos.

If you attend an event, don’t just bury your nose in a book when your heat is finished— pay attention to the fast heats. And instead of watching just to see who wins, pay attention to what they’re doing. You’ll notice a variety of individual styles, techniques, and racing strategies, but you’ll also notice some of the things they all have in common including:

  • Fantastic starts and turns. The best swimmers cut cleanly into the water and powerfully kick in streamline position until the precise moment they have slowed down to the speed at which they swim. They choose a line that brings them to the surface with perfect timing for the start of the arm stroke, and do not breathe during the breakout. Their turns are quick and smooth, with no time wasted on the wall.
  • Straight line swimming. Fast folks minimize drag by swimming with a narrow profile in both horizontal and vertical dimensions. They breathe without lifting their heads up or out of line to the side, and hold a tight and straight core to avoid kicking too deeply. Their hands enter the water directly in front of the shoulders without crossing over, and their pull exerts force to drive them forward rather than side to side.
  • Controlled hands and feet. There are no wasted movements in elite swimmers’ form. Their hands slice the water without slapping or turbulence, and they find their catch position without wobbling or waving. Their hands remain in “paddle shape” at all times, with no curling, cupping, or fist formation. They flex their ankles appropriately for the most effective and propulsive kick thrust. The fastest swimmers are constantly aware of their extremities and precisely control them for maximum momentum and minimal drag.
  • Focus. Elite athletes understand the mental part of training as well as the physical. Such mastery incorporates positive attitude and affirmations, visualization, and post-race analysis applied to training plans. They also focus on goal setting, nutrition, recovery, and purposeful workouts. They know what it will take to generate their best possible performance.


As you notice the elements that contribute to speed, resolve to adopt behaviors that will help improve those aspects of your own swimming.

  • Take notes about what you see, and then talk with your coach about incorporating drills or workout sets that can help you improve those techniques.
  • Visualize yourself swimming as straight and smooth as your role models. Create affirmation statements to help lock in the target behaviors. (Examples: “I keep my head in line when breathing.” “I hold my streamline off of every wall.”)
  • Get feedback to verify you’ve adopted the techniques correctly.
  • Practice your verified improvements until they become habits. (Don’t practice new techniques extensively without getting feedback. Don’t memorize bad form!)
  • Create reminders (memos on your calendar, sticky notes on the fridge, etc.) to remind you to reinforce and periodically re-verify the new techniques and to watch more elite swimmers at every opportunity.

Consider the feedback/practice loop as a continuous and eternal upward spiral. A successful technique adoption isn’t the end—it’s merely a signal that it’s time to begin the next increment in your journey toward being your best.


Imitating the best is a great idea in theory, but it’s time for a reality check. No matter how hard we try to duplicate the form of an 18-year-old national champion, our chances of 100 percent success are pretty slim. The cause might be genetics or injury—or it could be the cumulative result of years spent raising kids, sitting at a desk, or eating ice cream. Whatever it is, that root cause isn’t going to magically disappear. Therefore, we need to recognize the challenges we face and come up with the best possible solutions within our own natural constraints. Here are some examples that might give you some ideas for your own adaptations.

  • Problem: Ankles don’t flex the way they used to. Therefore, kicking harder simply puts more of your foot’s surface into the drag stream without adding propulsion.
    • Adaptation: Minimize kick amplitude. Work on increasing ankle flexibility, consulting a physical therapist if necessary.
  • Problem: Inaccurate kinesthetic sense (lack of certainty about where your arms and legs actually are during the stroke).
    • Adaptation: Get lots of feedback (including video), and focus on drills that help positional awareness (catch-up drill, for example).
  • Problem: Splashy starts with no momentum off the blocks.
    • Adaptation: Rather than leaping like a high-jumper, focus on letting gravity provide the momentum while you ensure a clean entry by getting your hands together and head between your arms to slice your entire body through one small donut hole entry point.
  • Problem: Arms won’t straighten out for a long catch, or shoulders rock when trying to reach for the catch.
    • Adaptation: Perform shoulder flexibility exercises. Within the flexibility you have, though, make sure that you keep your shoulders square, even if that means you don’t reach as far. It’s better to keep your body in line (minimizing horizontal drag profile) than to reach longer by wiggling from side to side.
  • Problem: Popping up too soon on starts and turns because you can’t hold your breath off the wall.
    • Adaptation: Practice every turn with good form, and your body will get used to the good technique. Regardless of time spent underwater, though, make sure you lock in the timing for a smooth transition to stroking as you break the surface.
  • Problem: Insufficient fitness because personal schedule (work, kids) interferes with workouts.
    • Adaptation: Use any available spare time to accomplish dryland exercises. Use stretch bands, do planks, park farther away and take more walks, stand on one leg—do anything other than just sit all day.

These are just a few examples, but each of us is unique and will find our own appropriate adaptations. The main thing is to keep watching the best, and experimenting with their techniques until you find what works for you. Good luck, and have fun!


  • Technique and Training


  • Stroke Technique
  • Speed
  • Tips