Swimming Smarter not Harder
For many coaches, swimming faster is the result of gradually increasing the length and intensity of swimming workouts so that the general fitness level rises. While conditioning has its place, this is not all there is about swimming faster, because swimming is a very technical sport. There are a few gifted swimmers that instinctively learn how to move efficiently in the water. Given enough time and practice, they will always improve. But most of us only have a vague sense about our efficiency in the water. Remember, we are land animals! Because of this, swimming lots of laps will often just make our bad habits more permanent, while our swimming technique only improves slowly or even not at all. So what do we need to do? In fact, to learn how to swim faster and better with less effort, we need to swim smarter, not harder. Specifically, we need to work on two facets of our technique: We need to decrease drag in the water. We need to improve propulsion in the water.
The importance of swimming with the least amount of drag is often neglected. However, this is an area where we can significantly improve our efficiency in the water. Water is much denser than air. Drag in the water increases by the square of the speed at which we swim. So there is quickly an upper limit on how much force we can apply against the water to increase our speed. On the other hand, reducing drag requires skill rather than force. So there’s a lot of room for improvement there. That’s why it should be the priority for learning how to swim faster.
Principle 1: Improving Your Balance
The first and most efficient way to decrease drag is to improve your balance. This means that you try to stay as horizontal as possible while moving through the water. When you do this, you disrupt the least amount of water molecules on your path, which translates into reduced drag. As an example, while swimming freestyle, swimmers often lift their head to breathe or look ahead. When they do this, they lose balance, and their hips and legs drop. Their body is less streamlined and generates more drag while moving through the water. Additionally, they need to kick harder to keep those legs up. A lot of energy is wasted while doing this.
Principle 2: Swimming Taller
The next way to decrease drag is to make yourself as tall as possible in the water. The theory behind this is that for the same mass, a long tapered object moving through the water creates less turbulence than a short compact object. In fact, this principle has been used by naval engineers for hundreds of years. To swim taller in the freestyle stroke, you enter your recovering arm early in the water once it has passed your head. You also make sure to completely extend your recovering arm forward underwater before starting the downsweep and catch.
Principle 3: Compact and Efficient Kick
In world-class front crawl swimmers, the kick contributes for up to 10% of propulsion, while the arm stroke contributes for the rest. So an efficient kick is important for fast swimming but less than what is commonly believed. What is equally important is a compact kick, meaning that it should neither break the water surface nor move too low below the body line. Otherwise, unnecessary drag is created which will only slow you down.
Once you have reduced drag to a minimum, you can work on improving your propulsion. Again, this is mainly done by improving your swim stroke mechanics, not by building bigger muscles.
Principle 4: Swimming More on Your Sides
The first way to improve propulsion is to roll more from side to side with each arm stroke. Rolling more on your sides allows you to better engage the large back muscles in addition to the shoulder muscles. However, floating on your side is counter-intuitive at first and requires some practice for getting used to.
Principle 5: Using Your Core
This is another secret of how to swim faster. You should engage the large back, hip and torso muscles while rolling from side to side. The synergy between your core muscles and arm muscles allows you to apply more force to your swim stroke. It is a little bit like a baseball pitcher when he throws the ball: first, his body twists backward, then his hips initiate a rotation forward which is channeled through his upper body into his shoulder, arm, hand and finally into the ball, with acceleration at each step. Once you have integrated this technique, you will be able to swim longer and faster and tire less quickly, as your core muscles have more endurance than the ones in your shoulders and arms.
Principle 6: Anchoring Your Arms
This is the last piece of the puzzle on how to swim faster with less effort. Before applying propulsive force in the water with your arm, you need to make sure that your hand and forearm are aligned and facing backward. You can then effectively move your arm back like a big paddle. This swimming technique is often called the high elbow catch in the freestyle stroke because you need to keep your elbow above your hand to be able to do this successfully.
We covered the principles of how to swim faster with less effort. You can start to integrate those principles in your stroke by following our sequence of swimming drills for the freestyle stroke. Have fun!