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by Scott Bay

January 31, 2020

Competitive swimming is an underwater game

Without getting too far into Newtonian mechanics, let just make the factual statement that, other than the start, the fastest you’ll be going when swimming is immediately after you push off the wall. The rest of the swim is simply managing how much you slow down before you get to another wall. Figuring out how to maintain your momentum is done by reducing your drag profile or, in short, streamlining.

Moving Through the Water

If you look at things that move through the water effectively, it’s a matter of propulsive force overcoming drag force. A typical tugboat is 45 feet in length and can generate about 750 horsepower. By contrast, the US men’s Olympic eight rowing shell is the same length, and the eight athletes combine for about 5.2 horsepower. The rowing shell goes faster.

Why? It’s more streamlined in shape and has less drag, so it doesn’t need to move as much water out of the way, so it takes less power to maintain its momentum. So, you need to make yourself as long and thin as possible in the water especially, under the water. Here are some ideas to help you figure out your ideal streamline position

Basic Body Position

Before you work on your streamline in the water, practice them on dry land. From a tall standing position, get up on your toes. The base of your skull to your pelvis should be flat and your neck long. As for your arms, there is some debate about where your head should be. Even for people who have hyper flexibility in their elbows and can touch behind the head, a better streamlined position for most is still the squeezing-the-ears position. Practice this in the mirror or have someone get video from your front, back, and sides so you can check yourself.

In the Water

Before you push off the wall, your upper body should be in the streamlined position with your knees bent and your ankles and hips at the same depth under the water for a straight push-off. Push hard off the wall and hold that streamlined position with no other movements—no kicking—and mark or check how far you go relative to a lane line, or use a cone on the bottom of the pool. Repeat this several times, making sure to make only one adjustment to your body position at a time and checking how far you go without doing any kicking. Once you have the position dialed in, then you can add propulsion.

Adding Propulsion

Even though you’ve found your best position, you probably noticed that you still started slowing down right after you pushed off. This is where the kicking part comes in. If you’re a great dolphin kicker, you’ll want to maximize your underwaters. If your dolphin kick could use some work then try one or two and go to flutter kick—find a way to make it work for you.

How Fast and How Long

To determine how fast and how long you can effectively streamline, try different things. Have a friend time you to the 10-yard mark (where the little off-color disks are on the lane line) or just mark a measured distance away from the wall and get times while making adjustments. Try the same process with different kicks and longer or shorter streamlines. Figuring out which gets you to your test mark fastest is the goal. Once you find the right combination of streamline and breakout, stick with it for now.

Be Yourself

One of the mistakes swimmers make when trying to make a change is only looking to emulate others. No two swimmers are exactly alike, and all swimmers are working on something regardless of their level. The key is to find what works for you. If you find you’re faster on top of the water, then by all means shorten your streamline and get going with your stroke quickly. This is great news for you, too, because if you work on your underwater game, you can get much faster with some time and experimentation when you’re ready to work on it.


  • Technique and Training


  • Streamlines
  • Underwaters