Technical Foundations Part I
Swimmers swim fast because of their superior technique.
While there are exceptions to this statement, those individuals are by definition exceptional in some way. While physical attributes can and do influence how technique is applied, it is ultimately technical effectiveness that will limit one’s ability to swim fast. Further, much of ‘talent’ lies in advantages of physical structure. They’re not easily influenced.
If technique is critical to performance, its development needs to be an organic part of the performance process, as much or more so than physical development. It cannot be an afterthought. Unfortunately, many of our coaching efforts directed at changing technique are unorganized. We see a flaw on a random day and decide to intervene, as opposed to systematically design practice sessions and seasonal development to improve the critical technical skills.
I believe that this approach stems from a lack of understanding of what really matters with skills. All of the technical skills we value are not presented in an organized way that simplifies how skills are understood. With a simple system of viewing what technique really is, we can make better decisions on a daily basis.
In this article, we’ll explore the critical aspects of great technique, as well as the subskills that comprise these three components. With this understanding, we can better create systematic changes in technique that will win races, as opposed to haphazard and reactionary
If technical interventions don’t work, it’s rarely because ‘you can change someone’s stroke’. It’s because our approach and the skillsets we apply are lacking.
The Keys to Great Technique
Going fast in the pool requires 3 simple steps. Swimmers need to minimize drag, maximize propulsion, and accomplish both by swimming with great rhythm. Simple, yet not easy. ALL technical models should exist within that framework and ALL technical corrections should be made within that framework. If your change is not going to make an impact in one of these three areas, it’s not going to affect performance. We always need to be asking, ‘what’s the impact?’, beyond what a change simply looks like.
Within those three categories, there are subskills that can be more directly focused on to facilitate change. These subskills tend to be interrelated in that changes in one area tend to facilitate changes in other areas. As an example, improves in floating tend to make breathing easier. The three major categories represent the technical goals, whereas the subskills represent the specific means to achieve these goals.
The foundational task of swimming fast is reducing drag. Better swimmers have a better drag profile. This is evidenced by the ability of little kids and older, former swimmers to completely dominate incredibly fit non-swimmers. It’s all about reducing drag. Swimming with a great drag profile is more about what you don’t do then about what you do. As such, these skills can be challenging to teach, and are often overlooked by coaches. While these skills are difficult to teach, with different approaches, they can certainly be learned.
Although skill is a huge component of minimizing drag, body dimensions do have a direct impact on the amount of drag that is created. Taller individuals do have an advantage that allows them to be more effective as they tend to create a better drag profile. The drag profile is also related to the body surface area that is exposed to the water. Thinner individuals will have an advantage here, as will those with thinner ribcages. Having a tapered torso tends to be advantageous as well.
Lastly, possessing smooth body contours reduces drag. This can be impacted not only by the shapes of the bones, but by the shape and size of the muscles. While we can’t influence the size and shape of our bones, we do have influence over body composition, as well as the size and shape of the muscles to a lesser extent. However, our influence on the amount of muscle and bodyfat a swimmer has is not total, and while we have some control over the amount of each, there is less control over the distribution of both muscle and fat. Finally, there is always a cost to manipulating body structures, and these costs must be considered prior to making significant changes.
Flotation is a skill that determines the effectiveness of all others skills. Those learning to swim struggle not because they can’t ‘hold water’ or develop a strong kick. They simply can’t float. As the lungs represent our strongest source of buoyancy, floating well is dictated by the ability to leverage the position of the body around the lungs. For most swimmers, this requires learning to ‘lean’ into the lungs’, ‘lean into the buoy’, or ‘press into the water’. If young swimmers are not taught how to float effectively as the primary skill, compensations for this shortcoming will be begin to accumulate.
If swimmers are unable to float by managing body position through their torso, they will have to do so with the use of their limbs. Not only is this less effective, it prevents the limbs from being fully utilized to serve their primary purpose, creating propulsion. When we see swimmers with excessive sculling or lateral kicking motions, we tend to work to correct these movements. However, swimmers are performing these actions not out of ignorance, but to compensate for ineffective management of their flotation in the water.
Individuals with low bone mineral density in general, and low body density in particular, will have an advantage. They will simply float better and ride higher in the water, which makes any given task easier to accomplish in the water as less effort is required to float. They also tend to find these positions more easily during the learning process, which reduces the number of errors accumulated as young swimmers as they learn to float.
Body torque also influences floating. Those individuals with longer and heavier legs will tend to sink in the water. There’s a reason why Michael Phelps was lauded for his short, stubby legs. They helped his position in the water. When it comes to heavier legs, there is something of a trade-off present for the sprinter, as more muscle mass can help with propulsion during starts, turns, and kicking, and these swimmers pay less of a penalty in the extra energy cost due to their short events.
When swimming, our primary task is going to be breathing. Swimmers are going to do whatever they have to do to breathe and feel comfortable breathing. If a solid foundation of floating is in place, most swimmers will find a way to breathe without significant disruptions in body alignment. However, if swimmers are not floating very well, there will be significant compensations.
Regardless of floating ability, every time the head is moved out of alignment to breathe, there is an increased drag cost as the body moves out of alignment. The main goals of effective breathing are to sufficiently exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, minimize the deviation of the head from the body line, and minimize the duration the body is out of alignment. The breathing action should small and fast. If the breathing action is not timed appropriately within the stroke cycle, it will difficult to accomplish this task. Timing matters as well.
A caveat. The head can be used to create momentum in the stroke, particularly in facilitating undulatory rhythm in butterfly and breaststroke, as well as rotational momentum in freestyle. In these cases, movements that may temporarily disrupt alignment can create a greater net benefit to the whole stroke cycle. What’s important is appreciate the trade-off that is occurring, and to consider is whether the trade-off is worth it. There are no right or wrong answers here; it will take experimentation.
This is an area of skill that I believe is grossly under-appreciated, incredibly important, and challenging to teach. With each action and each stroke, our drag profile in the water is shifting slightly. To facilitate propulsive actions, recover the limbs, and breathe, we are moving into positions of greater drag. The critical difference is that more skilled swimmers move into positions that create less drag, and they remain in those positions for less time. These small differences begin to add up to significant differences in speed.
The challenge here is that these small differences are very challenging, if not impossible to see, and the required adjustments are going to be very subtle. It’s going to be an aspect of skill that swimmers are going to need to feel. One of the areas that swimmers can be ‘talented’ is in their ability to feel opportunities to reduce drag throughout various transitions in the stroke.
Coaches talk A LOT about streamline. It’s one of the fundamental concepts in swimming. However, it’s often conveyed as a static posture that we exhibit off the start and off the turns. In reality, ‘streamline’ is an ever-changing, dynamic concept that applies at every moment of a swimming stroke, and it’s influenced by multiple factors.
This reality has been discovered by our best swimmers, conscious or not. They’ve learned to manage their position in the water by floating effectively, they control their position through while exchanging air, and they maintain position moment-to-moment, always balancing the need to create force while minimizing drag. These skills are influenced by physical characteristics, some alterable and others not, as well as skill. As coaches, it’s up to us to help swimmers influence what can be modified.
In part II, we’ll explore how swimmers create force, and the factors that influence the amount of propulsion that is created.