In competitive swimming, sometimes a tenth or hundredth of a second can make the difference between first and last place, especially in the sprints like 50 Freestyle or 100 Freestyle. Did you know this can be easily achieved just by spreading your fingers apart in your stroke? It's true. During a presentation at the 69th Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Fluid Dynamics results were revealed from an ongoing study by Physicists who experimented with a 3-D modeled hand and arm models to consider the impact of five different finger positions on swim speed. The results were quite surprising to many.
The study showed that by spreading your fingers apart by 10˚, swimmers can create a greater drag force to work with during their pull. By separating your fingers slightly, you are increasing your hands surface area in the water, which then allows you to capture more water during your pull phase. The researchers experimented with 0˚, 5˚, 10˚, and 20˚ separations. The researchers determined that the separation of 10˚ can help boost a swimmer's speed by up to 25% compared to swimmers who close their fingers tightly together. Whereas the 20˚ began to convert to a loss of drag force and power.
The speed difference of a 10˚ translates into roughly several tenths of a second over a 50-meter freestyle race. This is an enormous margin considering that the 2016 Summer Olympics 50-meter women’s freestyle race was won by 0.02 seconds.
So why does this work?
I'll start with what I was taught. I was always told growing up in the pool to keep my fingers close together. That I needed to keep my hands almost cupped like a spoon. That any separation of my fingers would cause me to lose water and reduce the power of my pull. As the years went by, this thinking began to change. Coaches began telling swimmers to have relaxed fingers, rather than the rigid cupped hands. This helped reduce cramping in the hands and flatten out the hand which already gave swimmers a greater surface area to work with.
Later on and the current method taught is to have a slight separation between your fingers. What this accomplishes is a webbing effect between our fingers. This webbing allows us to capture more water at our entry but at the same time prevents any of the water from slipping through our fingers. This is similar to other water mammals and of course Amphibians.
The difference in water captured with a tightly cupped hand to one that is slightly open is significant. As the research discovered, a 2.5% difference when translated into power. There are additional factors that do contribute to this power, though. You must have your fingers pointed slightly down. When you enter you want to have your fingertips enter first, followed by your wrist, then forearm, and then elbow. Remember you are trying to push the water behind you, not down towards the bottom of the pool. This helps provide you with more propulsion forward rather than lift up.
In practicing how this feels, you can do a combination of sculling drills. While doing these sculling drills, play with opening your hands more or less so that you can feel where the optimal drag is created for you. This will help you gain a greater feel for the water while also understanding about how to gain the greatest power in your catch and pull.
Between opening up your hands slightly and entering with a more relaxed hand you will be on your way to creating a more powerful and efficient stroke. Sometimes the greatest changes to our strokes can come from the smallest details.
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