How to Swim Faster: It's All in Your Head
One of the first things everyone always asks me when it comes to swimming is, “How can I get faster?” More often than not this question comes from the recreational swimmer, triathlete, or CrossFitter. And then they complain, “My legs are solid muscle and they sink so I can’t really swim.” Well, yes, and no. I too suffer from the solid muscle leg ailment (that's me in the photo below) and it has not stopped me from swimming the 50m freestyle in a little over 26 seconds, or even successfully completing 2km open water swims.
Like in other modalities, it all comes down to technique. If we use Olympic lifting as an example, your lifts significantly improve when your body is positioned correctly and the bar is traveling in the most efficient trajectory. Swimming is no different. Our body replaces the bar (our body is the load we are moving), and the “bar path” is typically our hand trajectory. But swimming has an added component. We swim in water, in horizontal position. The closer we can keep the body to horizontal, the more we minimize drag, which in turns means less energy required to move the weight load over distance.
But how about those big, muscly, sinking legs, I hear you ask? Well the solution to those is what I believe to be the number one issue with recreational swimmers, triathletes, and CrossFitters. The problem is in their head. No, not the psychological type of problem, and you won’t need a therapist to get over it, but the positioning of your head while you swim.
The position of the head while swimming is understated, and mostly overlooked, but this small detail is the answer to a lot of the problems for all the “sinkers.” While analyzing the head position of some of the non-swimmer athletes I have worked with, I noticed a high head position and tension of the neck that lead to low hips and, consequently, low body position (i.e. legs sinking). I believe a lot of these issues may initiate from inefficient/uncomfortable breathing while swimming.
So, what is the correct freestyle head swimming position? First you should be looking down. This will be easily accomplished by keeping your neck relaxed, ensuring proper head and spine alignment, which in turn will help your body remain as horizontal as possible. I am a visual person, and analogies have always helped me remember details. While swimming under Garrett McCaffrey, he used an analogy for this neck position that I will never forget, and it seems to be very helpful to everyone I have shared it with. He said, “Imagine you are a whale, there is a blowhole on your neck, and you need that hole accessible at all times so you can breathe or you will die. If your neck is angled you closed the hole and you can’t breathe. You need to position your head so your neck is at the right angle.” I can guarantee if you successfully do this your lower body will be higher in the water. Perhaps for those of us with big solid legs our lower bodies might not be the highest, but it will significantly improve body position and reduce drag.
So now that we understand what the correct head position is, how can we get it there? If you have no issues with breathing or any other basic things in water, then you should be able to get this head position by practicing with a series of drills. One I recommend is the six kick switch drill. In this drill you kick six times on your right side, six times on your front, and six times on your left side while keeping your head in the correct position. This is also a great drill for improved kicking, which further helps keeping your lower body higher in the water.
Another great way to practice the correct head position is by using a center-mount snorkel. FINIS carries a few that I highly recommend. The snorkel will allow you to breathe constantly without breaking your head position to breath. Practicing this will get your body used to the correct head position and eventually you alternate sets with and without snorkel to slowly introduce the complexity of turning the head for air without significantly raising the head or breaking the head and spine alignment.
Photo courtesy of FINIS.
So, what about these minor swimming issues? I call them minor, yes, but I understand for some people what I consider minor may be a major hurdle. It is pretty clear from all I described above your head MUST be in the water. If you are a head-out-of-water breather, nose-pincher, and so on, it is time to change that now if you are planning on becoming a better swimmer. Your face is going to get in the water, your hair, if you have any, is going to get wet (I highly recommend cap and goggles), and you need to be comfortable with rhythmic breathing in the water. You can start with easy breathing exercises, inhaling through your mouth above water and exhaling through the nose in water, keeping a constant rhythm. This is how we breathe while swimming also.
Exhaling through the nose will also provide a constant stream of air out and prevent water from traveling up your nose. If this is still not comforting enough, then go for the nose clip. If Missy Franklin and other swimming greats wear nose clips (granted they are wearing them for backstroke) there should be no shame in resorting to them, especially at the beginning. The nose clip is also used by a lot of swimmers while using the snorkel, although I don’t find it exactly necessary. Ultimately a lot of these minor issues are also in your head, this time the psychological kind. You will be in water; expect unexpected things and learn to deal with them.
While head position might not be the only issue, it certainly is one of the biggest culprits. Fixing the head will improve a number of other key points in body position leading you to swim faster and more efficiently, providing a more enjoyable swimming experience.