Friday, February 5, 2010

Increase Your Propulsion Or Reduce Your Drag?

Very broadly there are two ways to become a better swimmer:

a) You can reduce your drag by slipping through the water more easily. You'd achieve this through a better body position and better streamlining.

b) You can increase your propulsion for the same level of physical effort. You'd achieve this by developing your catch, pull, rhythm and timing.

Both of these would increase your overall swimming efficiency. Increased efficiency means you go faster for the same effort, or the same speed for less effort.

So which is more important? What should be my priority?

poor propulsion
That depends on you. If your drag is very high working on your propulsion will only bring you small gains in speed. Instead, working on improved streamlining and body position will boost your efficiency and so your speed.

Alternatively, if you have been swimming for a good while and have been told you have a nice stroke but are still slow, a focus on propulsion makes sense. If you are in this situation we know how frustrating it is to be told you are doing everything right but you aren't making any speed improvements. This is more disconcerting than for someone who has a clear problem to fix! Start focusing on the right thing and you too can make big strides forward.

If you have access to a coach, ask them to watch you swim and tell you whether drag or propulsion is a priority in your stroke. If you don't have a coach, next week on Feel For The Water we'll be posting some techniques you can use to determine which area is a priority for your individual stroke. It's one of the most useful facts to understand about your swimming.

Swim Smooth!


TriMoot said... about timing! This is exaclty where I'm at! I have been swimming for about 5 years now and I'm just not making any improvement. I have a buddy who has a coach and normally he's always a little slower than me. Well now he's going to blow me out of the water since his coach has him going from a 26+ stroke count down to 19! And I'm stuck on 23. I had him recount everything the coach told him and I tried it last night and only gained frustration as my stroke count started to increase! I can't afford a coach and the master swim class basically just throws distance at you, so what's a guy to do? HELP!!!!

rebecca said...

I am a fairly new return to swimming as I swam as a teen and took a break for a couple of decades.
If we had a propulsion or a drag problem, what are you recommending?
You write that we should focus on the problem that we need to be focusing on without giving us a specific solution to each.
thanks for all your assistance

Adam Young, Swim Smooth said...

Hi Tim,

Don't forget that a reduced stroke count doesn't necessarily make a more efficient or faster swimmer. It tends to be a good sign but a difference of 1 or 2 strokes per lap better than yourself is unlikely to be definitive. It can easily be the difference in personal style or individual characteristics like height.

I know money's tight but can you afford to invest in our DVD Boxset? It contains everything you need to boost your swimming!

Hi Rebecca,

We're going to be visiting your question on an ongoing basis on this blog. Take a look back through our previous posts, there's loads of tips there already. Also, our main website will give you lots of specific information. Some articles not to miss:


Drag and propulsion:


I'm really not here to sell you anything but as I said to Tim above, it's hard to look past our DVD Boxset. It's super comprehensive, it contains all our methods to reduce your drag and increase your propulsion.

Cheers, Adam

Anonymous said...

Hi Adam,

I am a fairly newcomer to swimmer. I have enjoyed perusing your site and have learned a great deal. One question I have with propulsion that I have never seen discussed is actual muscular effort exertion. My thoughts are that it is very similar to cycling where cranking low revolution in a high gear is a typical beginner mistake that inevitably leads to muscle fatigue. When I try and reduce my stroke rate while maintaining a constant pace, I find that I can do so by exerting more muscular effort during the stroke. However, I tend to think the same problem will arise after enough time. Namely, I will fatigue and that this is really not the optimal approach.

I realize that technique improvements will allow me to increase pace at the same stroke rate, but I see muscular exertion as one more variable that can be adjusted. This view perhaps is my inexperience talking, and it could all just be thought of as technique, but I'd appreciate any comments you would share regarding this.

Thanks and Regards,

Adam Young, Swim Smooth said...

Hi Marc,

It's an interesting question you ask there. I agree with you that there will come a point where a longer stroke for the same speed reaches a strength limit for the swimmer but I kind of think this is faster and harder than you might be thinking? To me, the question is how lower cadence and so higher force movements effect your lactate threshold - this is the key fitness determinant for endurance sports. The arguments over cadence and economy in cycling are very complex and different studies produce different conclusions. Swimming would be even more complex because of the interaction with propulsion itself.

A few points I would make around the subject of force / effort and stroke rate:

Because swimming is a high drag sport, the comparison is better made to cycling up a gradient. Here if you use a very large gear at low cadence you begin to stall between pedal strokes. The exact same thing happens in swimming, doubly so in the open water where waves, swell, chop and even other swimmers can act to stall you.

Good technique allows you to use the larger muscle groups of the lats, back and core to generate propulsion. Poor technique overuses the shoulders, which are relatively weak. Great swimmers can put high force on the water which would be well beyond the strength of the shoulder groups overused by a poor swimmer.

Further to that, good technique isn't just about producing forces using the strong muscle groups but applying them to the water in the right way. Most poor swimmers push the water down, rather than pushing it back behind them. In many cases the forces they are generating are large enough to swim very fast but they are directed in the wrong direction. Now, here's the key point - when you push the water down, it's a slow process. You're changing the water's direction. It has high mass and this takes time to do. When you improve your technique and pull the water backwards (helping it on its way) this is faster and so your stroke rate naturally increases. There's such a huge interaction here between propulsive technique and stroke rate. When you develop good propulsive technique, particularly the catch, it's very hard to swim at a low cadence - the only way to do it is to introduce a mega deadspot at the front of the stroke which feels very nasty!

I realise some of those points are away from your question but I feel they are relevant to your overall quest to choose the right stroke rate for you with the goal of swimming as fast as you can.



Marc said...

Thanks Adam,

Your comments were helpful. I particularly appreciated your point where you identify that a more technically sound catch and pull naturally leads to a higher stroke rate. That's exactly what I was noticing in my swimming. My lactate exertion level was relatively constant, my time was getting better, but my stroke rate was increasing as well. What I couldn't say for sure was how much of this improvement was lactate threshold improvements and how much was technique. This makes me think it's more technique.


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