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5 Focal Points to Supercharge Swimming, Part I

By Steve Brodsky and Joe Petrush

In this article, we’re going to show you how to improve your swimming and your triathlon performance by training smarter. We’ll start by defining our terms. Supercharge: you’ll swim faster and longer at speed while using less energy. Smarter: you’ll swim with purpose, paying close attention to five focal points that you will fold into your current training (without going harder or longer in the lap lanes).

Now, let’s dive in.

swimTechnique, more than fitness or strength, yields swim success. The simple reason for this is that water is about 1000x denser than air. Small technical flaws are amplified and become exponentially large in the water. So, in Part I, we focus on three key technique elements to help you unlock easy power.

Focal Point 1: Optimal Swim Position
If you watch most swimmers for a lap or two, you’ll see that their hips sink while their upper body is high in the water. They forever swim uphill, and work too hard, consequently. Additionally, most freestylers swim flat on their stomachs, creating tremendous drag and inefficient movements.

Optimal swim position occurs when you swim downhill — your hips higher in the water than your upper body — and on your sides at an angle of up to 45 degrees. As you stroke, your body is turning, your hips and shoulders rotating from one side to the other. In this position, you’re creating the smallest possible hole in the water to travel through.

Here are two keys to achieve optimal position:

A. Head. Your body follows your head. Keep your head neutral in the water to help you to swim downhill. (Neutral position is maintaining head-neck-spine alignment like when you stand before a mirror.) As you swim, imagine a rope coming out of the top of your head and connecting with the far wall just below the water’s surface. If you lift your head, you’ll break the rope. If you stay neutral, the rope will guide you along smoothly. Keep the head neutral when you breathe too. Practice breathing in a mirror: simply turn to breathe, don’t lift. Stay focused on head position as you swim.

swimB. Body Balance and Rotation. Easy swim power begins with balancing on your side at about 45 degrees. Power is then generated through coordinated body movement and rotation.

Imagine your low side as you swim. Optimally, your low hand is pointed ahead, low shoulder, and low hip are aligned at about 45 degrees below the surface. This is the “balanced 45” position. Power comes as you rotate from this side to the other side’s balanced 45. (We’ll work on this rotation in the next section) Practice holding this balanced 45 position and become aware of it: Push off the wall and glide on one side at 45 degrees with the lower arm pointed ahead and the upper arm at rest on your side. Focus on holding your body at an angle of 45 degrees or less. Kick to propel yourself and hold the lead arm ahead. Do this on both sides. Be aware of your head position. Keep it down and neutral throughout. Now, practice holding this position while stroking.

Focal Point 2: Whole Body Power
Many swimmers rely on independent arm and leg movements for propulsion. Limb-biased swimming like this has a high energy cost for a minimal return. Whole body power, though, is efficient and uses far less energy for a much greater return.

Here is a key to unleashing whole body power:          

swimDrive forward, finish forward. Focus on directing your energy from the whole body forward, instead of focusing on limb power in the pull phase of the stroke. Concentrate on a coordinated turn of the body from the hip to the shoulder to the hand as it enters the water after recovery. Now continue the whole body turn to drive the arm and hand forward and down. But do not over-rotate (beyond 45 degrees). You should feel the power begin in your core and amplify as your whole body turns and delivers the power forward through the hand that is entering the water. Practice the timing and power delivery by recovering with a high elbow and feeling bodily rotation — from hips to shoulder to elbow to hand — drive your hand down and out as you finish forward.

Focus on maintaining your balanced 45 (the head down and neutral here) with lead arm extended while your opposing arm recovers and then enters. Be conscious and wait for your entering hand (traveling down) to pass your lead elbow. At this point, you begin that coordinated turn that we just covered. The pull of the lead hand follows this turning. As your hands pass, you are switching sides. And, again, the hand driving forward extends and holds patiently as you maintain a balanced 45 on this side.

swimFocal Point 3: Patience in Position
You’re delivering easy power from whole body movement. As this happens, you’ve got to hold your body in active streamline (your balanced 45) and allow that easy power to carry you forward. This active and efficient glide in the middle of your stroke is the hallmark of supercharged swimming. Each time your high side turns and drives forward you must then hold in balanced 45, being “patient.” (In part II we’ll discuss increasing your distance per stroke by holding your “balanced 45.”)

Harnessing whole body power requires focus, practice, and control. Your goal is to become conscious and in control while you swim so that these elements are functioning in every stroke. In part II, we’ll be bringing you two more focal points. Until then, work to master one of these technique elements and then move to incorporating the next. Soon you’ll have all three elements functioning in your swim!

Steve Brodsky is a professional writer, English professor, and avid triathlete. Along with his writing partner, Coach Joe Petrush, he has written articles, newsletters, coaching manuals for USAT, and two chapters in a forthcoming triathlon book for over 50 iron-distance triathletes.

Joe Petrush is a certified USAT Level II coach and race director. Additionally, he is a Total Immersion swim instructor. Joe has participated in USAT’s elite mentorship program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado and frequently shares his knowledge at USAT coaching certification clinics. Joe is the founder and head coach of both Bayshore Swim and Premiere Coaching. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.