Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Tri College 101--Today's Lesson--Freestyle Technique

I've been doing a lot of reading lately and listening to podcasts so I'd thought I'd share some of the information on my blog. At the very least, it will be an archive I can refer to to help optimize my training. I plan on covering any and all topics. Please let me know if you have suggestions on what to cover.

Swimming has been on my brain lately. It's my greatest limiter, and I've been throwing myself in the pool a lot to try and work on my technique. The thing I like to start with is thinking about my form. I break it down into pieces and swim several laps, focusing on that part of my body until I can incorporate it into a whole piece. What to think about?

Body Positioning:

Most important and best place to start. You want to be streamlined, everything aligned, in 1 unit. Balance is key. You want to float equally from your head to your toe. You also want to be efficient in this streamlined position on either side.

1. Head down.

The head is the heaviest part of the human body. Our instinct is to raise our head (for breathing purposes) but this pushes our legs down, causing drag. By focusing on keeping my head down throughout the stroke, it allows my legs to remain in the same plane as my torso so I'm more streamlined. I like to pretend there's a laserbeam on the top of my head, and I focus on pointing the laser at the wall.

Drill: kick (no kickboard) while focusing on streamlined, head-down position. Turn to side to take breath as needed. Try 1st with arms by sides. Then, try with arms out in front.

2. Press the buoy.

Because our lungs are filled with air, this tends to raise our torso up, further pushing our legs down. To counteract this, I like to focus on pushing my chest down into the water, as if a big weight was tied to it. When done correctly with the head down position, my feet raise up and break the surface of the water. I get a "downhill" feeling as I swim, allowing my shoulders to feel free and a snappier, easier recovery. In effect, it's a double-whammy because I'm more streamlined, and my upper body is more free to generate power in the stroke.

Drill: Repeat as in #1, but add imagery of weight tied to chest.

3. Body roll

I'm more streamlined on my side than on my stomach. In addition, by twisting from side-to-side, I generate more power by recruiting the larger muscles in my core and back. I also create less strain on my shoulders this way. I like to think about twisting as one unit from hips to shoulders (the power is generated in the hips) as if I'm impaled on a skewer, a corkscrew, or a board, turning back and forth. As I twist, my legs twist too so I'm kicking while on each side. My head remains in the same position; it's the twisting from the hips that lifts the head out of the water to breathe. I only need one eye out of the water to be able to breathe. I don't need to lift my head. To ensure this, I make sure I can feel my head "resting" on my shoulder as the hips rotate my head for a breath.

Drills: 1st kick on left side. Then, kick on right. 3rd, start on left, take breath, and twist to right side (take 1 stroke), focusing on using core to move to other side. Repeat to return to left side. 4th, begin stroking slowly, 3 at a time (start on left-then stroke to right-left-right), again, focusing on using core and hips to turn body as 1 unit.

4. Bilateral Breathing:

Symmetry will make you a more efficient, faster swimmer. Practice breathing every other stroke (also good for lungs). Practice side kicking drills while on either side.

5. Kick:

Focus on maintaining a small flutter kick, emanating from the hips. Your feet shouldn't come far apart, which prevents drag. The kick mainly helps maintain body position but doesn't add much for speed, especially for triathletes, who need to save their legs for the bike and run (and don't need to kick much at all with the extra buoyancy of a wetsuit). Practice kicking on either side to ensure body position is maintained efficiently.

The Stroke:

Now that, we've worked on body positioning and we have the basics, what do we do with our arms (and core and back!) during the stroke? There are 4 phases: recovery (before next stroke begins), entry (where the arm enters the water), catch (entering arm extends fully), and pull (other arm begins propulsion towards hips to generate power).

6. Recovery:

Stroke finishes with hand fully extended by side and leaves the water, pinky finger up from hips. It feels like you are taking your hand out of your pocket, or "zipping" up a jacket. The elbow should be bent and raised high, while the rest of the forearm is relaxed and limp. The recovery arm is then thrust forward, led by the shoulder and lats. I need to focus on keeping my arm relaxed during recovery, a common mistake. Also, swimmers often focus on a "quick" recovery because it's the "dead" part of the stroke where speed decelerates until the next pull begins.

Drills: There are a ton of options here. I particularly like the "zipper"drill and the "limp noodle" drill.

Zipper drill: Swim on side, lower arm extended, as for side kicking drill. After breath is taken and head is down, practice recovery arm leaving side from hip, pinky finger up, elbow high, as if you were taking your hand out of your pocket. Drag fingers up as if you were zipping up a jacket. Once arm reaches eyeline, dip fingers into water, where you would proceed with entry. As you feel hips "falling" (normally you would thrust here for entry), turn back and return to original position to repeat.

Skim the Surface: A complimentary drill to emphasize high elbows in recovery. Drag tips of fingers across surface of water during the recovery.

Limp Noodle: To emphasize relaxed arms, visibly dangle the forearm from the elbow during recovery phase. You'll look ridiculous but it really helps.

Lat/Shoulder Throw: To emphasize leading the recovery with the shoulders, lead with the shoulders. Overexaggerate by "throwing" your arm (from the lats) forward. Emphasizes a quick recovery.

7. Entry:

Hand enters water at eyeline or a little out in front with high elbow. Because you're on your side, gravity wants to push you in the direction of your entering hand. Let it. Use the thrust from your hips and core to "help" gravity drive the entering arm down and forward. I used to want to keep my arm out of the water for way too long, entering out way too far in front. However, the sooner I enter the water, the sooner I can propel myself forward. Time out of the water is time wasted.

8. Front-quadrant swimming:

I used to swim like a helicoptor. When 1 arm was out of the water, the other 1 was directly below. It's much more efficient and more streamlined to leave the leading arm out in front and "wait" for the other arm to enter the water before dropping the other arm. Balance drills are key here (swimming on side with lower arm extended) since the recovering arm pushed our torso down. The natural instinct is to lower the leading arm to counteract this but it's much more efficient to leave it out in front. It also allows us to be tall and lean. The taller we are in the water, the more distance we can cover. Not only are we more streamlined, but waiting for the other arm gives us more power. Instead of having to drag our pulling arm through the water, now we have the other arm as a fixed point for leverage to help us out. That allows more recruitment of large, stronger muscles like our lats and core, which gives our shoulders a break (preventing overuse injuries). When done correctly, it feels like climbing a rope. Also, you should feel like a corkscrew with an engine in your belly.

Drill: Catch-up--a favorite of mine. Leave extended (lower) arm in front until recovery arm enters the water and "tags" the extended arm before beginning the pull.

9. Entry:

After entry, the arm fully extends, making you feel tall and lean. To become even taller, at this point, twist to your side so you are looking at the side wall. Make sure your extended arm stays somewhat relaxed. I had been focusing on "tall and lean" so much I was hyperextending my shoulder. Bad. Also, focus on extending your arm in the plane directly in line with your shoulders and hips. Straying out of this line causes drift (and shoulder strain), and we want to swim as straight as possible (most efficient--shortest distance between 2 points). I picture 3 lines, 1 down the midsection, and 1 at the outer edge of each hip. As I turn, I point the extending arm towards the opposite hip, as if I were skating down railroad tracks. (I tend to extend my arm too far away from my body. Some people cross the midline, which is just as bad. Helps to know your personal swimming habits since form focus and drills is a highly individualized activity depending on your needs.)


Long & Lean/Body Roll--Extend arm fully as if you were reaching on tiptoes for something on the top shelf. Turn fully on side and look at side wall as you do this.

Skating--pretend the line down the center lane is the middle of the railroad tracks. Align with the center of your body. Focus on lining extended arm up with the tracks as you swim so you swim in as perfectly straight a line as possible.

10. Pull:

The most elusive part of the freestyle stroke (because it's underwater and hidden from view) for me and also the most important because it generates the power that propels us forward. After the recovering arm has entered the water, it's time for the extended arm to begin the pull. It has "caught" its place in the water, the extended arm has reached above it, higher on the rope, and you will now "climb" up the rope. Begin with your pinky finger. Yes, your pinky. Sounds weird but ends up generating the most power. With high elbow, bent, begin pull with pinky, hand down and facing wall behind you (pretend you're going to slap it). Begin propelling your hand towards your hip. When done correctly, forearm makes a serpentine ("S") shape under your chest. Here, you don't want to take a straight line since that will be the least time under the water. More time, means more power can be generated. Your elbow, forearm, and hand create a paddle, like an oar, which is why it's so important to have a bent elbow. During the pull, your hand is accelerating throughout so that it is moving the fastest at the end when it reaches your hip. When done correctly, your hand should feel as if it's "flinging" out of the water. You should feel "slippery" or "silky." You should not feel tired or lots of resistance. This indicates you aren't recruiting your larger core and lat muscles and instead are relying more on your arm and shoulders.


Closed-fist swimming: Simply swim with a closed fist instead of normal open hand. Emphasizes how important "paddle" part of forearm is in creating power. Also gives you a great feel of water when your return to normal swimming.

Carry the barrel: Pretend you are carrying a barrel under your arm as you pull. This encourages the high elbow feel so important in the pull.

Hip Brush: To ensure fully completing the pull, touch your hand to your hip before your hand leaves the water.

This completes the stroke! Remember, imagery is everything. If you lose that slippery, downhill feeling and the water suddenly becomes "heavy", you're muscles are tired and your form is deteriorating, which is your body's way of telling you, "Enough!" Swimming beyond this is going past the point of diminishing returns.

Helpful websites:


Cliff said...


This is a really good post about swimming..thanks for posting this up.

A few months ago i was swimming and my back starts to ache after the swim. I know something ain't right.

What i mean to say is that in swimming..if i swim 'right', i will swim very relax and smooth.

The better i swim, the smoother I will be...which lead to more streamline and faster!!

Unknown said...

Great info. Here's a link to add to your list:

Fizzgig said...

This makes me want to take swimming lessons! I wish I knew how to swim..I can tread water, and I swim like a frog. The exact same way.

Unknown said...

Great post on swimming. I know I'm supposed to do drills a lot more than I do if I ever what to get better...I just never seem to fit them in consistantly. That's probably why I'm still so darn slow.

RunBubbaRun said...

thanks for all the info, if you find a place that sells a magic pill to make me swim faster let me know also..

JeffM said...

Great info! I've found that ab work has helped me keep straight and the legs up.

Kewl Nitrox said...

Fantastic post and very timely for me too! I am definitely struggling on the swim. One that I will book-mark and come back to read again in detail. Thanks again!