There are two main things that swimmers should be focusing on every time they hit the water. The first is decrease our resistance in the water and secondly, increase our propulsion. Decreasing resistance is a major key to improvement. Now in saying that, there are certain times during your training cycles that require you to add a bit more resistance or drag so that when you get to competition and remove those elements, you'll go that much faster. This type of resistance is used to benefit your longer term training. However, there are several forms of resistances we should be striving to eliminate from our swimming.
Form resistance has the most significant impact on your swimming. It highly depends on a swimmer's technique and body position. For example, in Freestyle, if you have lower hips and have your head tilted upward looking at the end of the pool rather than the black line, then you are creating a high level of form resistance. Building proper technique throughout your strokes will help you reduce this resistance. Working on body position specific drills will help train your body towards proper technique with reduced resistance.
Here are a few things to think about during your stroke that can help you improve your body position.
- Am I looking forward? If you are this will cause your hips to sink. Focus on relaxing your neck and looking downward as you swim. By looking down, your hips will naturally rise up to the surface of the water.
- Are your arms continually moving? If you keep your arms in constant motion, you can cause your shoulders to rise up in the water which then forces your hips to sink. Try letting your forward arm extend forward and pause briefly after entering the water. This should be only a slight pause. Not a long lingering pause. To the naked eye, it shouldn't look like a pause at all.
- Finally, using a pull buoy can help you understand how effective a slight change in the way your body balances in the water can affect your overall efficiency and speed. This is also a great way to work on upper propulsion through your pull stroke.
Next is wave resistance. Wave resistance is caused by the turbulence at the water's surface. Essentially, waves rebound off the sides and bottom of the pool creating waves and small ripples that you have to push your body through. This is particularly noticeable in shallow pools and part of why it is believed by many swimmers that deeper pools are faster.
The best way to reduce this type of resistance is to learn to execute on the fifth stroke. The fifth stroke is the ability to swim underwater in a tight streamline position while using powerful dolphin kicks to propel yourself down the pool. It also incorporates the need to push off underwater from all walls at a depth that removes the wave turbulence near the surface.
Friction resistance is the one resistance type that we have a fair bit of control over. It originates from external factors like suits, caps, skin, body hair. Each one of these are small pieces that come together to make a larger drag force that can affect your speed. There is a lot of testing by large swimming organizations like Speedo and Finis to develop technology to help swimmers reduce this friction. This has lead to the development of the fast suits like the LZR suits, which became the first swimsuit banned from international competition. Speedo and other companies have worked closely with FINA, the governing body of world swimming, to create suits that are appropriate for competition while still helping swimmers reduce their friction resistance. When you selecting suits for competition make sure that the suit is well fitted. It's not like clothing where you want to grow into it or have it be baggy in any way. You want it to act like a second skin to your body.
For big competitions, swimmers can reduce their friction resistance even further by shaving down. Shaving down is a process for athletes to shave all the hair on their bodies. Yes this includes the men as well. This helps remove dead skin cells and hair that creates friction resistance. Shaving down should be reserved for your biggest competitions. If you aren't sure when you should be shaving down, speak to your coaches about when you should be considering it.
Distance Per Stroke (DPS)
The last two elements that we will discuss will help you increase your propulsion in the water. Let's start with Distance per stroke. Distance per stroke is exactly like it sounds. It is the distance a swimmer travels with each stroke. Some coaches refer to it as distance per cycle (DPC), but I prefer the term distance per stroke. Learning how to gauge and measure your distance per stroke will help you improve your overall efficiency. Basically, a swimmer with great stroke technique will be able move further with each stroke and use less energy to complete each lap. A few good indicators that I use with swimmers are:
- Freestyle and Backstroke should only require 12 strokes per 25 meters (average)
- Butterfly and Breaststroke should only require 8 strokes per 25 meters (average)
Now these numbers are based on Olympic caliber swimmers but they give young swimmers a tangible measurement and goal for their stroke. The goal of an athlete should be to improve their distance per stroke by learning how to maintain or increase their speed while taking fewer strokes in the water. To work on this, try counting your strokes in your next training session and get your time. Then try to reduce that count while still maintaining the same pace time.
Finally we need to talk about is stroke rate. Stroke rate and distance per stroke are closely related and should be talked about within the same conversations. Stroke rate is the measurement of how fast swimmers take their strokes. Some swimmers can move their arms extremely fast and usually make for excellent sprinters. Others struggle to increase their tempo but still have efficient strokes, they tend to make better distance swimmers. It can be quite difficult to train an athlete who has a slow natural tempo to speed it up while still maintaining their efficiency.
If you aren't sure of what your stroke rate is, then work with your coach or a friend on the pool deck who has a watch. Have them start their watch when you take your first pull at the start of a lap. Then stop the watch once they've counted 10 cycles. Finally, divide the time by 10 and that's your stroke rate. Try this a few different times with a few different strokes to gain an understanding of how you naturally move in the water and what changes you can make to your stroke to increase both your distance per stroke and your stroke rate.
You never want to "spin your wheels". You want to find a tempo that you can maintain and generates the optimal speed for your swim.
On your journey to becoming a great swimmer, you'll need to continuously focus on ways to decrease resistance and increase your propulsion. No matter what level of swimming you're at, these areas should always be in the back of your mind. Olympic coaches and athletes drill down deep into each of these to find the smallest improvements, which in turn have allowed swimmers to continue to redefine the odds on how fast the human body can move through water. I'll finish with the inclusion of a video covering the history of the 100 meter Freestyle race.
It makes you think where we will be in another 50 or 100 years. How will our knowledge of propulsion and our ability to decrease resistance help us continue to break down these barriers? Will we finally hit a wall? I'm definitely excited to see.