Category Archives: Technique

Learn to Ignore Your Hands When You Swim!

Here’s something really cool and really easy to try…

Have a friend hold their hand out, palm up, at about the height of your shoulder.  Now, imagine you are swimming “up” toward the ceiling/sky.  Reach up with one arm and start to take a stroke. As you “pull” down toward your feet, have your friend catch your hand with theirs, palm to palm, and resist your pulling motion.  While you are doing this, think about which muscles are engaging to press your hand and arm through the stroke. You will most likely feel your forearm, biceps, triceps, shoulder, and perhaps a bit of your neck and upper back.  Once you have a decent sense of which muscles were engaging, stop, bring your hand back up over your head, and start your pull again.  This time, have your friend catch you so their palm makes contact with your wrist and the very heel of your hand.  It’s not a particularly big change in location or distance, but notice which muscles engage this time.  Along with substantially more of your shoulder muscles, you should also feel your lats (the muscles along the side of your torso) engage.  And along with the added muscle engagement, you should notice a good bit more leverage and power, enabling you to press your friend’s hand toward the floor with much greater ease!  

When a swimmer focuses on their hand for their pull, they use much smaller muscles, which will have less overall power and will fatigue more quickly.  Biomechanically, the swimmer will be far more likely to drop their elbow as well, effectively reducing the total pulling area of the arm to just the hand, sacrificing a huge amount of potential value from the stroke.  Simply by changing the focus of your catch to the wrist and lower forearm, the elbow remains much higher, larger muscle groups are recruited, leverage improves significantly, and for reasons I’ll skip over here, drag is reduced substantially!
Better technique, better power, better endurance, better hydrodynamics, and most importantly, greater overall speed, performance, and results. Not too shabby for just moving your focus a few inches, huh?  :-D

Kicking in Swimming and Walking are THE SAME!

Yup, they really are! Think about the mechanics of walking.  You use the muscles of the hip and upper leg to move the femur (upper leg) forward. The knee joint is relaxed, allowing the lower leg and foot to trail behind. Once the knee has moved far enough forward, the momentum created from the motion causes the foot to swing forward and just as our knee joint fully straightens, we land on the foot, and our body uses that leg to support our body as it moves forward, with the hamstring and gluteus pulling the leg back behind our body. Meanwhile, the other leg has finished it’s pulling phase and is swinging forward.

Now imagine that same action, but with everthing moved from a vertical positioning of the body to a horizontal positioning.  The only joint that is in a specifically different position is the foot, as the ankle allows the water’s resistance to press it back, so the toes are pointing straight back toward where we’ve just swum from.  Otherwise, it’s all the same.  The power is created from the upper leg and hip muscles. The knee is not rigid, but relaxed.  This means that the leg does not stay absolutely straight, but rather, has some flexion and straightening through the kick cycle.  It does not, however, bend dramatically, which would only result from actually using the knee as a power source for the kicking.  (Imagine how silly you’d look if you purposefully bent your knee and then pressed your foot forward from the knee each time you took a step while walking.)
So give it a go.  Next time you are in the pool, instead of focusing on “kicking your way forward”, just try to “take a step” in front of your body.  If you keep it small and quick, you just might find it gives you better results with a lot less effort.

Your “P & L Statement” for Swimming Success (and Triathlon Success, Too!)

Did you know that water is 800 times more resistant than air? Or when you move through water, the number grows to 1600 times greater than air?  Fire a bullet from the most powerful handgun in the world while submerged, and it will be brought to a stop within eight feet!  The drag forces in water are that powerful.  Countless athletes attempt to overcome that resistance using strength, power, and sheer will.  The problem with that approach is that, unlike people, water doesn’t get tired. The water’s resistance will be just as strong for you first stroke, your last stroke, and every stroke in between.

At 41 years old, with four back surgeries to my name, it’s a safe bet I’m not stronger than any current players in the National Football League.  However, I’ll bet I could outswim 95-99 percent of those same men.  What would make that possible? The answer is simple: Technique.  I know how to minimize drag and maximize propulsion better than most, if not all, of them do.  You see, speed in swimming works similarly to profitability in business.  To determine a business’s profit or loss, you take total revenue and deduct total expenses.  If the number that remains is positive, you have a profit.  If it is negative, you have a loss. Swimming operates the same way, but instead of profits, speed is the objective, and instead of income and expense, propulsion and drag are the “currency”.

I’ve spent most of my life in the world of small business.  In that time, it’s been my observation that most successful companies focus first on keeping expenses down, and then on increasing revenues.  This way, market conditions pose a much smaller risk to the business’s survival. When revenue is the sole focus, with little or no control on expenses, a ton of income can still yield minimal profits, and if those revenues should fall, runaway expenses can be a death-blow to the business.

Let’s apply that idea to swimming, particularly as part of a triathlon.  By making it your first priority to learn proper technique in order to reduce drag and resistance, you’ll end up needing far less propulsive force (and the energy expenditure that goes with it) to move you forward.  It is at that point where, as you learn to maximize propulsion while maintaining good technique, you will see how similar increases in effort will deliver dramatically greater improvements in speed and endurance.  In other words, you’ll be able to use a lot less energy yet swim a whole lot faster.

Triathletes, right now is the off-season for most of you. There’s no better time to shift your focus and really work to improve your swim technique. Reducing volume and pure aerobic conditioning work, and committing yourself to the deliberate work necessary for improved mechanics may not feel as difficult or rewarding in the moment, but it really is the best investment you can make now for the best results next season. Imagine exiting the water next spring/summer with a better split while at the same time feeling less fatigued and more energetic. How would that impact the rest of your race? A quicker T1.  More energy and intensity available for the bike.  Better rhythm and flow throughout your race. It may not guarantee a faster overall time, but it certainly will make it a lot more likely.

So what are you waiting for?  Get moving, dive in, and make your profit and loss statement the best it can be!

Rhinocerously Yours,
David Wendkos


(As always, should you have any questions about this article or anything else swim related, please don’t hesitate to contact me. or @AquaticRhino on Twitter)