By Coach Steve
"I feel like I'm swimming with poor technique, and perfecting
it with each workout!" — an IronMan distance competitor
So what is good swim technique? You'll get as many different answers
as there are swim coaches, but when you listen to their advice keep
in mind that there are distinct differences between fitness swimming
and swimming where the goal is pure speed. This article assumes
you've achieved 'fitness,' and now your goal is to build speed.
Here are a few key points that will help you move fast through the
- When you swim your body is moving through the water, but your
hand/arm is not; your hand/arm should hold onto the water like
an immovable object. Your body should feel as little resistance
as possible; your hand should feel the most resistance possible
as it holds the water effectively.
- Water has extremely high resistance to movement (friction),
so you'll slow down very quickly when you're not generating force
to pull/push your body forward. In fact it's to your advantage
to minimize glide time, so, "You must always be pulling." - Sheila Taormina
- The most efficient force to drive you forward will be exactly
opposite your direction of movement (remember that from Newtonian
Physics?), so changes in depth of your hand or lateral movements
cause slippage—energy lost. Hand angle is also crucial,
and pulling surface area (hand/forearm) should be optimized.
- Poor body position (head and shoulders high/hips and legs low),
or an inefficient kick will increase drag negating a distinct
percentage of the pulling force you can generate.
The most common technique flaw is a poor beginning of the pull
as your hand first enters the water. This is usually caused by too
much time focused on minimizing strokes per length (glide). To achieve
fewer strokes per length most swimmers will spend progressively
more time gliding (keep in mind that strokes per length is determined
not only by proper form, but also by a swimmers size. Assuming both
have perfected form, a 5' tall swimmer with short arms will never
achieve as few strokes per length as the 6' tall swimmer with longer
arms. The shorter swimmer can create similar speed with faster turnover).
Perfecting glide is good when it contributes to optimal body position
and streamlining, but gliding without a pull is just decelerating
at a lesser rate. If you focus on holding the water well through
your pull, you'll get across the pool with fewer strokes.
It's true that a fully extended arm at entry will optimize your
glide, but why glide when you could be pulling and maintaining momentum?
Also, while gliding on a fully extended arm, elbow locked, hand
pointed forward, how can you begin to pull? You can't; all you can
do from that arm/hand position is push down toward the bottom of
the pool which contributes no force to move you forward, and worse,
it's the most common cause of shoulder injury. This is where the
high elbows dogma comes in, with high elbows (more on this later)
above water, your hand entry will be angled downwards into the water
not far ahead of your head (some coaches describe this as "spearing
the fish"). This is good!
Upon entering the water your hand should go to a depth of about
12 inches immediately. Also, your elbow should be very slightly
bent out front, never locked. As soon as your hand has entered the
water and your arm is fully extended (not to the point of elbow
locked) in front, your wrist joint should flex (some coaches describe
this as, "dropping your pinky") so your hand is at an
angle where you can hold the water and begin to pull. The sensation
you should feel is pulling your hand/arm toward your body, not going
deep to the bottom of the pool.
Consider what happens if you optimize glide with your arm fully
extended near the surface, elbow locked, hand pointing forward.
All you can do from that arm position is push downward. That generates
no force to drive you forward. In fact, if you push down with a
fully extended arm you'll be creating force to lift your head and
upper body which in turn pushes your legs lower- not good! This
form flaw is the cause of most shoulder injuries for swimmers.
Next think about the pull, ideally your elbow is slightly bent
out front, elbow higher than hand (high elbows again), the wrist
flexes so your hand is perpendicular to direction of movement as
you're starting to pull your body over your hand/arm. Yes, think
about it—it's your body that moves through the water not your
hand! The goal is for your hand/arm to hold the water efficiently
as you pull your body forward over your hand/arm that's holding
the water like an immovable object (like grabbing the rung of a
ladder and pulling yourself up). If you can keep your elbow high
(there it is again) from the start of the pull, you'll increase
the surface area that you're pulling with to more than just the
palm of your hand—a good thing! You'll be using not only your
hand, but your whole forearm to hold the water with your
Now let's consider slippage. When your hand changes depth or moves
laterally that's slippage—wasted energy. Focusing on an 'S'
pattern pull creates slippage; pulling straight back in line with
your shoulder/side is the way to go. Keep it simple. When you rotate
your body to breathe, body position as related to your hand/arm
changes and in fact this is your 'S' pull pattern.
Another factor to consider is hand depth. If your hand goes too
deep you gain leverage, but lose power and especially endurance.
Think about it, when you're pulling/pushing yourself up out of the
pool will it be easier with a straight arm out in front of you,
or a bent elbow with your hand close to your body? This applies
to your stroke; an elbow bent at 90 degrees as your body moves over
it is more powerful and efficient than a straighter arm that goes
Now how about the finish (push) of the stroke? As your body moves
over your hand-arm unit to hold the water effectively, your hand
angle must change so it's always perpendicular to the direction
you're moving. This means when it's under your chest your hand is
in-line with your forearm, but at the finish of your stroke it should
be pronated (at 90 degrees to your forearm, as if pushing yourself
out of the pool with hands at thigh level). Your stroke should finish
up with your hand right next to your thigh just before your hand/arm
pulls out of the water, not away from your body. The finish of the stroke is the best time for swimmers to think about
glide as it promotes pushing all the way back, and a focus on correct
One more important thing...if your hand doesn't follow your body
line as it pulls, it will cause lateral motion of your body and
legs (turning). If your hand changes depth as it pulls, it may cause
your body to move up and down. Both are bad and will slow you down.
Many swimmers compensate for these stroke flaws with their asymmetrical,
big kick, but this just compounds the problem and creates more drag.
Good body position has your head and shoulders low (just a sliver
of your head showing above the waterline), with your feet and legs
high, no lateral movement through the hips, legs. The goal is
to be as close to perfectly horizontal as you can. Your kick
should come mostly from your hips and not be too big (feet should
not separate by much as big kicks can actually create more drag
than propulsion). Beginner or pro, dedicate part of every swim workout
to form work!
If you've never actualy seen yourself swim I recommend having a coach videotape
you in the pool. A coach can carefully describe all the changes
you need to make. The first time I saw my swim form on video it was a revalation. Of course I thought it would be fabulous, but in fact it was a mess. I made changes during the very next swim and gained speed!