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by Terry Heggy

September 16, 2019

Here are some things coaches can try with their swimmers

The only time I’ve had an opposing team’s coach thank me after a race was when I beat his swimmer in the 1650. I was 25 yards behind at the 500 but slowly closed the gap to finally pass the guy going into the final length.

I assumed it was my superior fitness that granted me the victory, but my opponent’s coach set me straight. “I’ve been telling him to work on his turns,” he said. “But it wasn’t until he realized he was beaten by a slower swimmer that he finally got the message.” He explained that my streamline off the wall was the only advantage I had.

OK. Well, thanks, I guess.

The point is that turns do matter. Training your swimmers for excellence on turns provides a clear advantage on race day and adds to overall fitness, strength, and efficiency.

The Turn Commandments

Turns have only two purposes:

  • To change direction
  • To pick up speed

Many swimmers have toxic ideas about turns, erroneously thinking that turns provide opportunities for extra breathing, additional rest, or a chance to look down the full length of the pool to see if there are any unicorns frolicking in the deep end. (Why else would so many swimmers square up their faces and shoulders against the water as they leave the wall? Let me know if you have an answer.)

The first step toward creating a team of top-notch turners is to explain and demonstrate the key points of turn execution.

Minimize motion

Eliminate extra steps, such as:

  • Shifting the feet after planting them on the wall
  • Bringing both hands to the wall on freestyle or backstroke
  • Lifting the body upward or into the wall

Line it up

Emphasize that the body must be underwater and streamlined (hands together, head down) before the feet hit the wall to push off. If you push off at the surface, or before assuming the arrow position, the drag is exponentially higher. Early alignment enables the hot-potato touch and push-off the instant your feet make contact.

Determine the depth

Push-off thrust should be directed forward (not up or down). Buoyancy will provide lift to ascend to the surface. The optimal time underwater is however long the swimmer moves faster underwater than when at the surface. Experiment to determine the best underwater strategy for each individual.

Zero tolerance

The second step is to rigorously enforce excellence. Insist that turns be performed legally and with proper technique.

  • Two-hand simultaneous touches on every breaststroke and butterfly turn and finish.
  • Underwater propulsion until they’ve slowed to swimming speed (generally beyond the backstroke flags.

Some coaches (no names please) require their entire team to repeat the full set if any individual fails to honor these turn rules. You may not be quite as Draconian in your approach, but it does tend to get results.

Putting it Into Practice

Any pool swimming gives athletes a chance to practice their turns. But it’s good to insert turn-oriented sets into your regular rotation.

Build the body

Great turns require great core strength and a powerful kick. Include frequent kick-building sets in practice, especially:

  • Sets that target the abs, such as underwater dolphin kick and vertical kicking.
  • Underwater over-distance challenges that push people out of their comfort zone. These include underwater kicking to the 15-meter mark, double breaststroke pullouts, etc. (Do not encourage hyperventilation or hypoxia, and always keep safety as your top priority.)
  • Dryland sets such as planks, crunches, lunges, and ankle stretches.
  • Kick sets with challenging time goals (with and without fins).

Tune the technique

Include workout sets that emphasize specific turn elements.

  • Texas 50s—Start from just outside the backstroke flags and swim to the wall to create an extended three-turn 50 that ends just after the breakout stroke on the third turn. (A nice variant is the two-turn Alaska 25.)
  • Transitions—Swim full or partial IMs, focusing on getting off the wall well after each stroke change. I also like reverse-order IMs, because even though their turns aren’t used in competition, they force the swimmer to think about how to perform excellent transitions.
  • Mid-pool madness—Start from the middle of the pool and swim a specific stroke into and out of the wall, focusing on sprint speed and snappy turns.
  • Vertigo—Pick an interval (such as one minute on, one minute rest) for a flip turn burst set where you turn at the wall, break out, and then immediately flip again in the open water, then back to the wall. Repeat until time is up. This is a great set to mix with some dryland planks or leg lifts.

Before the big meet

Remind your swimmers of these two important points before their big meet:

  • The timing for initiating a flip turn changes with swim speed. A sprint turn begins slightly farther from the wall to account for momentum. Provide a chance during practice to execute turns at race pace before the meet.
  • Walls, pool markings, and lighting differ from pool to pool, and they should get to the competition pool early enough to practice turns at the venue before they race.

Be creative. Your swimmers will consistently nail their turns in competition if you help them make a habit of executing perfect turns.


  • Technique and Training


  • Turns