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Don’t be a Drag! Understanding how to be efficient in the water

Since hanging up my goggles and retiring from professional swimming over a decade ago, I have been fortunate enough to turn my hand to coaching. A vocation which I love as every day is different and no two swimmers are the same. I have coached a wide range of swimmers, from complete beginners who have never put their face in the water, to international standard chasing a 10th of a second PB.

Regardless of the swimmers ability I always say the same thing “efficient swimming boils down to increasing the amount of water you push behind you, whilst reducing resistance (drag).”

Although I would not say physics was my favourite subject at school, I was more of a PE and DT kind of girl, everything I do as a coach is now centred around it. I believe having a basic understanding of physics helps swimmers become more efficient and develops their knowledge of how best to use their energy.

I start with Newton's Third Law of Motion which states that, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In swimming this means to propel forwards through the water, there has to be an equal and opposite backwards force. This part of the stroke is usually called the Catch Phase, by many it is revered as the most important part of any stroke, (I will return to this is a bit). However, in swimming there is water resistance to take into account and this is commonly referred to as Drag. Here’s a fun fact for you, water is 784 times more dense than air, so swimmers have far more resistance than a runner does whilst running.

There are four elements that cause frontal drag in swimming which are:

· The swimmer’s position in the water.

· The surface are of their body.

· The swimming costume that is being worn.

· The speed at which they are swimming (the faster the swimmer, the higher they are in the water therefore less drag).

Now I have explained the basic science behind swimming what do we need to do become as efficient as possible?

Here is front crawl technique in a nutshell.

I liken developing swimming technique to building a house, you start at the foundations and work up to the roof. In swimming the head and breathing are the foundations, working up the floors through the arm entry, kick and hip rotation until you reach the catch phase, the roof of the stroke. Like when you are on a building site you need to ensure all of the previous floors are cemented firm before you move to the next element of the stroke.

Starting with the head position, keep the head in alignment with the rest of the body. Do not be tempted to overly lift or drop your head as this will have a negative impact on your body position. Your nose should be at approximately 45 degrees to the bottom of the pool and when you turn to take a breath focus on keeping your cheek on the water, like you are resting it on a pillow, as you can see in the photo below.

Breathing is important, try to ensure your breathing rate is even and you are not holding your breath. I regularly observe swimmers holding their breath for long periods of time and as a consequence fatigue quicker due to oxygen debt.

Arm entry, there are two elements to this how and where you put your hand into the water. I will start with how, I was taught to go in thumb 1st into the water, this puts your shoulder into impingement and over time it wore away my Bicep Head tendon. So to reduce the risk of injury its important to enter with a flat hand. My top tip is to think your hand is a letter and the water a letter box, post the top of your middle fingers into the water and extend forward, like posting that letting into a post box. Do not be tempted to point your fingers directly downwards as this will take centimetres off of your overall distance per stroke. As a result, you will need to complete more strokes to cover the same distance.

Secondly where do you put your hands in? It is important to keep in the back of your mind that you want to position your body in its strongest position biomechanically to start the catch phase. A way to test your body’s natural strongest position is to look where you put your hands when pushing yourself out of the shallow end of the pool. Your hands will be slightly wider than your shoulders, this is exactly where you want to put your hands into the water, at 11 and 1 o’clock to your head.