swim more efficiently in open water – fix these 4 parts of your stroke!

The very best open water swimmers tend to swim smoothly and glide through the water looking like they’re almost expending no effort at all. It can often seem a bit unfair, you’re putting in all you’ve got and then you see someone effortlessly glide past…you’ve probably asked yourself:

‘how come they’re swimming so quickly but they look like they’re hardly exerting themselves at all?’ 

The secret is they’ve developed an efficient stoke – a stroke that affords the swimmer minimal resistance and allows them to glide smoothly through the water. It’s true that developing such a smooth and effective swimming technique can take a bit of practice (plenty of miles in the pool and lots of drills) but it’s definitely achievable.

Here we’ve broken down the most efficient swimming technique into its 4 key parts:

  1. Develop a streamlined body-position
  2. Learn to breathe correctly
  3. Fix your leg-kick!
  4. Get your arms to do most of the work

By working on each of these 4 parts of your stroke you will start to develop a much more efficient swimming technique – allowing you to conserve energy and to swim faster and further in open water. Don’t worry about trying to master each of the 4 parts all at once, instead pick one to work on and then move onto the next.

1. Develop a streamlined body-position

The ideal body-position for swimming is a narrow arrow-like shape whereby the body is in a straight line all the way from the head to the toes and where the arms and legs remain in within this ideal streamlined body-shape.

This streamlined shape is ideal as it affords swimmers the least drag as they move through the water. However, when this streamlined shape is interrupted, for instance by the legs or arms splaying out to the sides, then drag will increase dramatically. An increase in drag will then cause the swimmer to slow or to increase effort to counteract this increase in resistance.

In order to maintain a streamlined body position it helps to imagine a central axis running through the body from the crown of the ahead all the way along the spine and then out by the feet. When you the swim, the body must rotate along this axis but NEVER deviate from this axis by moving laterally as this will then break this streamlined shape. Even the slightest tilt of the head to one side, or a cross-over of the arms, will mean that you’re moving laterally and that you’re no longer swimming in this ideal streamlined position.

Check out these top tips for streamlining: 

No lazy leg-kick!

Don’t allow the legs to drop below the hips. The legs should break the surface of the water and should stay close together at all times (imagine the big toes almost brushing past each other). It’s important that the legs stay in-line with you body, if your leg-kick is too wide – either the legs splaying out to the sides or too far up and down – then this will interrupt the body’s streamlining and increase drag (this is what we want to avoid!).

Further still, a weak leg-kick or having no kick at all can cause the legs to drop down under the water, again causing unwanted drag by interrupting your streamlining. Think of a racing car opening a parachute after crossing the finish line…not ideal for swimmers! Don’t let your kick, or your lack of of leg-kick, let you down.

Rotate your body (don’t cross-over) 

Developing a strong and balanced rotation is crucial when striving for that ideal streamlined body-position. A swimmer with good rotation utilises the large core muscles of their torso and the back to help deliver a powerful arm-pull.

This decreases the risk of the arms crossing-over the central line of the body and therefore diverting away from that crucial central axis which we talked about above. You must avoid any temptation to move laterally – i.e. the arms crossing-over in front of the head or the body moving from side to side. Instead, the body should actually pivot along its central axis therefore allowing you to ‘slip’ through the water in the most efficient manner.

If you fail to rotate and end up swimming flat through the water then drag is greatly increased and you will slow down or end up expending much more energy than you actually need to. Further still, swimming flat can lead to you ‘snaking’, moving side to side through the water, and this therefore makes swimming-straight (an essential open water skill – read more here) nearly impossible.

Control your head-position (no lifting!)

Swimming with an incorrect head position in the easiest way to ruin your streamlining efforts. The most common error we see is a lift of the head to breathe (rather than a rotation) or a sway of the head from side to side (usually after having taken a breath).

If you do lift the head off that central axis of the body, then the legs will drop and this will cause drag to dramatically increase. If the head moves laterally, a sway from side to side, then again this will lead to unwanted drag but further still this may cause your body to ‘snake’ in the water and will reduce your likelihood of swimming-straight.

Above all then, it’s crucial that you keep your head still – the only exception being when you rotate your head when breathing. The head is like a rudder, when it moves the rest of the body will move – so keep it still!

2. Learn to breathe correctly!

Effective breathing in open water environments can sometimes be a little bit more challenging than it is at your local pool.

There’s a few things you need to tackle, firstly wetsuits (for those who choose to wear them) can often lead to a feeling of tightness across the chest making breathing seem a little bit uncomfortable.

Secondly, the cold water itself will naturally cause your muscles and your lungs to initially contract making breathing, at first, a little bit more difficult. And finally we can’t forget the challenge of unpredictable weather conditions and those pesky swimmers either side of you who might just happen to be kicking water in your face.

But with all that said, there are plenty of strategies to ensure that breathing in open water is pretty straight-forward and hassle-free. Above all, it’s crucial to allow your body and your breathing to adapt to the open water environment before you start to swim (read our guide to acclimatisation here).

Check out these top tips for effective breathing:

Remember to Exhale! 

When it comes to effective breathing in open water, the breathing-out phase really is the most important. Many swimmers fall into the trap of breath-holding while they’re swimming, or when they do come to breathe out, they fail to breathe out fully. Failing to breathe out fully into the water will lead to a build of CO2 in the bloodstream, which in turn will lead to feelings of breathlessness and then at some point…to feelings of panic (eek not ideal!).

To avoid this scenario make sure that whenever your face is in the water you’re exhaling smoothly and fully (your face should be in the water blowing bubbles). And then in advance of your next inhale you should have completely emptied your lungs – this will allow for an effective exchange of gases and will help you to avoid any feelings of breathlessness.

As we discuss in our acclimatisation guide, before you start swimming it is helpful to spend some time repeating some simple exhalation exercises (breathing out for 5 secs, 10 secs, 20 secs). This will allow your body, your lungs and your mind to adjust to the open water environment and will help you to counteract the initial effect of the cold water on your body which naturally causes your muscles and lungs to tense and to contract slightly.

Learn to breathe bilaterally!  

Breathing bilaterally is a crucial skill for open water swimmers. Above all, breathing bilaterally allows you to develop a balanced stroke and will help you on your way to mastering swimming-straight. Bilateral breathing also helps the swimmer to rotate evenly and to gain a balanced muscle proportion – and to avoid a stiff neck (ouch!).

Further still, having the ability to breathe to both sides will help you out enormously in challenging weather conditions and in certain racing scenarios. For instance, if you find yourself in a situation where waves are hitting you from one side, then you will then have the option to adapt your breathing pattern so that you can breath to the opposite side (away from the waves). Likewise, in racing scenarios – such as mass starts – then you might find that you it is beneficial to breathe to one side rather than the other to avoid turbulence from swimmers in front and beside you.

Breath in the bow 

As your body speeds through the water it creates a natural bow wave, pushing the water either side of your head. This is the very same process as happens when boats and ships plough through the water and act to push water to either side of their bow.

This bow wave is a natural GIFT to us swimmers as it creates a natural trough into which we can breathe (without lifting the head!). The unfortunate thing is that most swimmers fail to take advantage of it and they insist on overly lifting their head.

In fact, if you lift your head out of water (rather than rotating it to the side) then this bow wave will not be created and you have a much larger chance of gulping in a load of water! When you turn your head to breath, ensure that your head position stays low and in line with the water and that you rotate your head along the body’s central axis.

If you want to make sure you are breathing into the bow get a friend or coach to film you swim and watch it back. We spend lots of with our open water improvers to make sure they master this breathing skill – it really can make a massive difference to your swimming!

3. Fix your leg-kick! 

Leg-kick is an area of the stoke with is often overlooked by open water swimmers. It is true that the leg-kick doesn’t offer much in terms of propulsion – even elite swimmers can only ever expect 15-20% forward propulsion from their leg-kick at best. BUT that said, there is no reason simply to ignore your leg-kick. In fact, an incorrect leg-kick can actually severely hamper your overall stroke – acting to increase drag and to significantly slow you down.

It’s actually quite common for open water swimmers to ignore their leg-kick because they think the added buoyancy of their wetsuit (if they choose to wear one that is) will keep their legs in the right position. Further still, it’s common for triathletes to neglect the importance of a good and effective leg-kick in an effort to ‘save’ their legs for the cycle and the run. We want to make it clear that a correct leg-kick is an essential skill for open water swimmers…ignore your leg-kick at your peril!!

Check out our top leg-kick tips:

Kick from the hips (not the knee!)

The perfect leg-kick should involve the whole leg and should originate at the hip. The swimmer should be kicking with a relatively straight (albeit a relaxed and floppy) leg in a motion that starts at the hip and ends at the feet. With a good kicking technique, the knee will naturally bend slightly as this relaxed leg moves downwards and then back upwards – but note that this knee bend is not intentional but rather just a natural response to the relaxed leg moving up and down from the hip. Remember also to point your toes while keeping the leg relaxed and floppy (this is harder than it sounds!). And also make sure the big toes are almost touching as you kick up and then down – this will make sure that the legs remain in a streamlined position and don’t splay outwards to the side.

Unfortunately many swimmers fail to achieve this ideal leg-kick and instead find that they’re kicking way too much from the knees rather than from their hips. And in this instance, it is triathletes who are the often the worst offenders, more accustomed to developing power from the knee, as is the case in cycling and running, they then tend to carry this habit over into their swimming technique (big mistake!).

Rhythm and rate

So we’re getting a little bit technical here…but stick with us! The timing of the kick is again an element of the stroke which is often overlooked, and even more so amongst open water swimmers, but it can make an important difference to your swimming. The basic premise to good timing is such that: when the hand enters the water to initiate the arm-pull at the front of the stroke, the opposite leg should kick. Fortunately most swimmers tend to kick with correct timing naturally and rarely need any correction – but still, it’s good to know exactly how your arm-pulls link in with your leg-kick! And if your timing is wrong then this can actually impede your body rotation by acting against it.

Having established how the leg-kick timing works, then there a variety of rhythms, or kick-cycles, that the swimmer can use. For instance, the swimmer could perform a 2-beat, a 4-beat or a 6-beat leg-kick. In the 2-beat leg-kick then each single leg-kick is then matched to the opposite arm-pull as it enters the water, moving upwards to a 4-beat and then a 6-beat kick means that there will be extra kicks in-between.

Don’t overly obsess about the timing of your kick – before anything-else focus on making sure that your leg-kick is CORRECT (kicking from the hip with a relaxed leg…).You will  most probably then discover a leg-kick rhythm that naturally works for you – it’ll just feel right. We would say that for those of you who are very keen to conserve energy – distance swimmers and triathletes we’re looking at you – then your best bet is a 2-beat leg-kick.

Avoid a scissor-kick!

This is one of the most common stroke errors that we see. A scissor-kick occurs when the swimmer overly-widens the legs – usually when taking a breath. A scissor-kick will significantly interrupt your stroke, and slow you down, given the enormous amount of drag that it generates. This stroke error is most commonly caused by a lack of balance and/or core strength in the water.

The best way to eliminate a scissor-kick is to practise the ‘side-kick’ drill. This drill will teach you how to control your leg kick and it’ll also help you to build up your core strength – therefore allowing you to eliminate the instability and imbalances that may have caused this stroke flaw in the first place. Further still, another top tip is to add an ankle band when you swim normal freestyle, this will prevent the legs flaring and help build your core stability.

4. Get your arms to do most of the work!

The freestyle arm propulsion equates to around 75% of total in-water propulsion, so it is well worth spending a bit of time on! And even the slightest stoke adjustments can make the difference between a strong arm-pull and a weak arm-pull – most important of all is the ‘catch.’ A an effective ‘catch’ and a correct pull technique will make you a faster and much more efficient swimmer – in fact it is these two elements, a competent catch and an effective arm-pull, which make the biggest difference between a normal swimmer and an elite swimmer. Overall, the strongest open water swimmers tend to have a relaxed long stroke with a short choppy rhythm not allowing for any pauses or too much gliding in the stroke.

Follow these pointers below to maximise your arm-pull propulsion: 

The catch and ‘feel of the water’ 

The catch is the most important part if the underwater propulsion, around 85% of the propulsion is created in this area. The ‘catch’ is the term we swimming teachers use to refer to the very first part of the front-crawl arm-pull just after the hand and arm have entered the water. Many people don’t realise just how important this initial part of swimming technique is – but, trust us, it really does make the difference between an ok swimmer and a very good swimmer.

The key to a great catch is a combination of correct arm alignment and ‘feel of the water.’ The arm should enter the water directly in front of the shoulder…it is at this point that the catch initiates – the hand should tip slightly downwards (pressing inwards towards the body) followed straight afterwards by a bend of the elbow. The forearm then reaches a vertical position in the water and act to press the water backwards towards the hip.

To improve your ‘catch’ or ‘your feel for the water’ (pretty much the same things) then you should practise drills such as sculling on your front. Developing a strong catch is a skill that we drum into our Tri Squad swimmers – it really can make a big difference to your swim times.

Entry, Stroke length and Pull-through 

The hand should enter directly in front of the shoulder with the middle finger sliding into the water first. A high elbow recovery will help set up the arm for an easy entry position. Avoid rotating the hand so the thumb enters the water first as this may cause shoulder injuries over the longterm.

A great way to decrease energy expenditure is to work on decreasing the distance travelled with each pull-through. A common mistake is to increase the glide at the front of the stroke but instead you should focus on developing a strong catch and an efficient pull-through. The arm should extend out from the shoulder as much as possible, imagine you are grabbing a large barrel with your arm and pushing it behind you, this is the general arm position and motion needed for a strong propulsion.

Stroke rate and rhythm 

Stoke rate is something that is individual to the swimmer and takes time to adjust. Your stroke rate should be dependent on the length of your swim, for example a 50m sprinter has a faster stroke rate than a 1500m swimmer.

Those who need to increase their stroke rate generally have dead spots in the stroke which they must work to eliminate. On the other hans, those who need to reduce their rate tend to have poor feel of the water and tend to rush through their arm-pull without an effective ‘catch’ or ‘feel for the water.’ To find out which category your fit into you can ask a coach to analyse your stroke or you can use a tempo trainer.

Remember every swimmer is different with their own strengths and weaknesses, to fully understand the areas you need to work on visit your local open water training centre and find a coach that is qualified to give you a full stroke analysis.

Happy swimming! Any questions then please leave a comment or send us a message.


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