Adding thrust at the end of your stroke will help you swim faster
Swim coaches are known for repeating phrases such as “Two-hand touches!” “Streamline off the wall!” and “Now do it again, only faster!” (Some are also known for mumbling “I need more coffee!” but we’ll ignore that one for now.) And I’d be willing to bet that at some point in your swimming career, you’ve heard one or more of these:
- “Finish your stroke!”
- “Pull all the way through!”
- “Accelerate into the recovery!”
What exactly do these phrases mean, and what can you do to ensure that the coach says, “That’s what I’m talking about!” after you make your adjustment?
Stroke Length Considerations
Here are some generalized concepts that impact swimming results:
- Press backward on the water to create forward movement. The more forcefully (rapidly) you press, the more thrust you generate.
- As you press against water, it moves in response to the pressure. Therefore, you must accelerate (move your propulsive surface faster and faster) to maintain thrust.
- Different phases of a stroke generate different amounts of thrust.
- Speed comes from DPS (distance per stroke) and cadence (stroke rate).
- Eliminating drag can have a higher benefit than adding thrust.
These concepts are intertwined. If you apply great force but lose alignment in the process, the additional drag results in slower swimming. Likewise, if you lengthen your stroke but lower cadence or reduce thrust, you lose speed. There’s a sweet spot where your stroke length, power production, drag profile, and stroke cadence are in optimal proportions to maximize speed. The most gifted athletes seem to discover this balance intuitively; the rest of us must continually experiment to find it.
To make matters worse, those ratios change as your body responds to injury, aging, and training (or lack thereof). In other words, the search for the perfect stroke is an eternal quest.
If you have access to scientific analysis, you’ll discover exactly what adjustments to make. The next best option is the keen eye and patient tutelage of an experienced coach (especially when there’s video). But even without external resources, you can incrementally improve your stroke each time you’re in the pool just by paying attention to what you’re doing. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the finish of your stroke.
Finish with Force
Let’s define “the finish” as the part of the freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly arm pulls that takes place between the hand passing your rib cage in the direction of your feet and when it releases pressure and exits the water. For breaststroke, it’s the part of the arm pull that happens between the elbows’ widest separation and the return to the streamlined position that precedes your catch.
To enhance your finish focus, concentrate on three critical elements:
Freestyle and Butterfly
- Acceleration—Move your hand faster and faster to maintain pressure against the water. Pay attention to ensure your arms don’t relax until your recovery.
- Paddle pitch—Make your primary propulsive surface (the palm of your hand) lead the stroke (not your elbow). Your palm should always face the direction you want to apply force (toward your feet). If successful, your fingers will continue to point toward the pool bottom until you release the water at the end of your stroke. If your elbow gets ahead of your hand, your forearm and palm face the bottom, and you slip through the water with no thrust. If you make the mistake of moving your arm in a deep “clock hand” arc (rather than pushing straight back), you’ll push up on the water at the finish, creating a downward vector that sinks your legs and creates serious resistance.
- Exit—For most people, the proper hand exit point is past the hip and close to the side of the upper thigh (similar to where your hand would finish if you held yourself upright on parallel bars). Avoid the mistake of finishing with sideways thrust, such as pushing your palm toward your thigh (rather than your feet) or flinging water across your lower back. When your stroke is finished, immediately release your hand from the water with your fingertips pointing down, relaxing as you recover.
The ideas are the same as for freestyle and butterfly but with your fingers pointing toward the surface as you accelerate to the finish. At the exit point, though, you’ll finish with a palm-down motion (pushing toward your feet) as you release. The key is to think about pushing against the water in the direction of your feet (not upward or perpendicular to your body) and quickly recovering to avoid letting your arm remain motionless next to your thigh.
- Acceleration—Your hands accelerate as in the other strokes, but because the breaststroke pull completes a circle to finish in front, you won’t ever extend your triceps as you do in other strokes. Your hands remain in the forward quadrant throughout, and your top arm speed happens as you use your chest muscles to finish your stroke with forearm closure and shoulder compression for a narrow profile as your hands shoot forward into the recovery position. Think of the pull and return loop as a single motion, without pausing when your hands come together underneath. The only pause in hand motion comes when you’ve thrust them into streamlined position to minimize resistance during the kick.
- Paddle pitch—As with the other strokes, your best stroke power comes when you begin your stroke with a solid paddle consisting of a vertical forearm and palm with down-pointing fingers. To avoid slippage don’t allow your elbows to slice under your body and orient your palms in a nonpropulsive downward-facing position.
- Return—Breaststroke requires a more energetic motion to return your hands back to the catch position. Squeeze your chest and narrow your shoulders to shoot your hands forward as part of an integrated finish to the pull phase.
More Than Mere Arms
A powerful stroke finish requires support from the rest of your body. A strong and solid core enables the rotation or undulation that adds drive to your arms. An effective kick also promotes stability that prevents energy from being wasted in lateral motion. Train your support musculature with every bit of the focus you put into training your prime mover muscles.
The secret to developing a reliably powerful stroke finish is to think about it in every single workout. Spend some of your warm-up concentrating on feeling the pressure you apply during the back half of your stroke. During hard work sets, think about keeping your stroke long with pressure engaged throughout your stroke. Anyone can demonstrate an adequate stroke finish when totally focused on it, but the best swimmers are those who focus on it repeatedly—until it becomes a habit.
- Technique and Training