Choosing The Right Head Position For You

Many swimmers (and some coaches) believe that every swimmer should look straight down at the bottom of the pool when they swim, so as to improve their body position. Is this true? Let's look at some swimmers underwater to find out :

The Star Of The Pool

First up we have double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington, showing us a mid head position, looking at the bottom of the pool 1-2 meters ahead of her:

(click images to enlarge)

As you can see Rebecca sits fantastically high in the water, a body position she can easily achieve despite looking slightly ahead. This is very typical of elite pool swimmers who rarely look straight down or very far forwards.

Key point: The very best pool swimmers in the world tend to use a mid head position, looking slightly ahead.

The Professional Triathlete

Fraser Cartmell is a star of the 70.3 world stage and a great swimmer to boot. Like all elite triathletes, Fraser's main concern is performing well in open water swims and so he uses a very forward looking head position:

Looking so far forwards helps him navigate effectively and find the toes of other swimmers to draft effectively. Note that he can do this while still maintaining a high body position in the water (despite being super-lean).

Key point: If you have good stroke technique, you can achieve a high body position despite looking forwards and for open water swimming this is a major tactical advantage.

The Buoyant Age Grouper

Marina is an age group swimmer with a naturally high body position in the water, she's been told to look straight down at the bottom of the pool when she swims but this was very bad advice for her:

By looking straight down she starts to rise up out of the water at the rear:

In a wetsuit, the extra buoyancy exacerbates this problem further, leaving her feeling very unstable. We coached Marina to look a little further forwards, rebalancing her in the water while still maintaining an excellent body position. Looking further forwards also helped her proprioception (body awareness) in front of her head so that she could develop a greater feel for the water during her catch.

The extreme version of this advice is to ask swimmers to 'swim downhill', which is a disaster when their natural body position is already very good :

Here Barbara has added huge frontal resistance after being asked to bury her head in the water. Returning to a higher head position and not pressing down with her chest allowed her to immediately swim more efficiently and be much more comfortable doing so.

Key point: For swimmers with a good natural body position, looking straight down harms their swimming. If you feel unbalanced when swimming (or in your wetsuit in open water) try looking further forwards and see if it helps gives you stability.

The Sinky Legged Swimmer

Glen is a former professional Aussie Rules football player and is relatively new to swimming and triathlon. He suffers greatly from low sinking legs in the water:

Much stronger on the bike and run, this athlete is massively held back by the drag from his low lying legs. To improve his body position there are numerous things he can work on in his stroke, such as:

- Removing hand-entry crossovers which cause scissor kicks and drop the legs downwards.

- Exhaling better into the water to remove excess buoyancy from the chest and make him feel more relaxed.

- Keeping his head low and using the bow wave trough when he breathes.

Once he's worked on these things he can also try a lower head position to help bring his legs up further.

Key point: Looking down can be a useful modification for those with sinky legs. However, it makes navigation and catch development harder so treat it as a last resort by working on other areas of the stroke to improve body position first.


You can see from the examples above that selecting a head position should be an individual thing for individual swimmers - there is no universal head position that is best for everyone.

Try swimming 100m yourself experimenting with your head position, looking in each of the directions below for 25m in turn :

Choose the one that feels best for your stroke and allows you to swim faster and more efficiently, then stick with it. When we try this exercises on our Swim Smooth Clinics we always receive a range of feedback with some swimmers feeling better looking forwards, while others improve when looking downwards, others feel best somewhere in between.

You can repeat this exercise in your wetsuit, you might well find you can look further forwards which can be a great advantage for open water navigation and drafting.

Swim Smooth!


Gilly said...

Thanks for this excellent post. I find it very reassuring.

I tend to look forward and I've received advice to look down, which doesn't feel good at all with my swim style.

Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

good post! I've watched and tried out lots of techniques over many years. The universal acceptance of head down to pull the legs up is one of swimming's great myths in my opinion. Distribution of body wt. just varies too much from person to person. In addition joint flexibility is so individualistic you can't advocate a single style in any aspect of crawl technique. I have seen some very fast swimmers with straight arms and high heads!

TMLW said...

Great post. Balance is always my issue (I'm about 10 sec. per 100 faster with a pull buoy) so I always assumed I should be looking down. Tried looking down, slightly ahead and way ahead today at the pool and found I was faster (4-5 sec. per 100) and felt much more in synch while looking way ahead. Very interesting! Thanks for the tip

Mike Alexander said...

Excellent post. I tend towards the face down approach (probably look about 1m ahead). It may be a false impression, but I always feel like the curvature of my upper back (particularly when pulling) is another significant factor in keeping me higher in the water.

Rudolf said...

There are two interesting pieces you have in this post that i would like to get some additional info on:
1:) swim downhill
i have heard some of the US elite athlets mention it as the new A and O of fast swimming - but still not exactly sure what it looks / feels like???
2:) a naturally high body position in the water
In this post mentioned as "a problem of sorts" - while i always thought "get that b.u.t.t up as high as you can" - looks like i got something wrong here, maybe my hip section is to high in the water, what difference should i experience if i "ignore" the lift, mainly achieved with the way i kick these days...

On this note one more question:
I swim at Canada's elite swimmers pool. Thus i can "spy" on them (and i sure do), and it appears to me that a lot of their forward push comes actually from their hip / body roll pushed from the hip?? This is what i see when they train, not race, but even so they are still much faster than me. Their footwork does not look like much at all, their catch seems pretty good standard.

Barbara said...

Hi Paul & the team - hope this isn't my 15 minutes of fame! I can honestly say I never EVER swam with my head this low after seeing this video of me and am much faster for it. The only draw-back is that I do occasionally get sore in the back of my neck.
Rudolph - if you want to see what "Swimming downhill" feels like - look at my picture - this was exactly what I was visualising at the time!!

Ali Dennis said...

Thanks for this post Swim smooth I'm always interested in what thoughts you have about current line of thinking. I have a few thoughts to share.

As a swim coach I do start with the basis of head and chest down but do adjust for individuals based on the buoyancy you mentioned. I do however have another and more important reason for the head down or what I increasingly refer to now as neck relaxed or flat and that is swimming straight and reducing shoulder tension. What are your thoughts on a relaxed neck allowing the head to drop to a position that is more neutral? ie letting the head find its own buoyancy. This, I believe, helps swimmers in open water swim straighter (as their is less tension in the muscles causing the head to be held out of alignment) and therefore helps minimise the head up navigation causing tiredness. Also when the swimmer exits for the ride they haven't pre exhausted their shoulder and neck muscles before hitting the aero position on the bike. As a run coach also I notice the changes in running posture toward the end of a triathlon due to tightnesses in the upper body.

I just goes to show as you suggested that there is no size fit all but rather an individual approach. Having said that we have to start with something.


Paul Newsome said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul said...

Nice to hear from you Barbara - like you say, the key thing is that you're now faster.

As Ali mentions above, you don't want to be straining to get your head position higher but really just being aware of where the head sits in the water and how this then affects your stroke.

Cheers all!


Delio said...

I cannot being impressed with your articles so congratulations to you all. This will certainly be my 5 minutes of fame or infamy...:-). I never had swimming lessons and made my way through learning the hard way when I was a teenager swimming from a beach in Algarve to an island 500 meters away and back. I swallowed so much water that eventually water became my natural element. I cannot swim properly anything else than freestyle and even that I guarentee you it is not much of a style but gets me through pools, open water flat or wavy for as long as my body temperature can sustaine. I am now 46 and two years ago I embraced Triathlon as a sport and I am finaly taking lessons and swim smooth became my online bible for swimming. However I still struggle with so many changes I need to do in order to improve my technique and a couple days ago I was surprised to see something that I never paid attention. My wife filmed me swimming with me knowing from an above view. I was just swimming relaxed with no effort but I could see in the small video clip my legs spread apart and bending producing so much drag that I wonder if this isn't one of my major flaws, now how do I get those legs to work with the rest of the body?

Stella Rawlings said...

It's always better to know the basics of how to swim effectively and safely. In this way, you can assure yourself that you can take good care of yourself while dipping in to the pool.

andy b said...

I think there is another important point that you have missed from the discussion about head position. and that is to do with muscular tension in the neck. One of the advantages of a neutral or head "down" position is that the neck and head can be free from tension. This definitely helps less experienced swimmers to feel more relaxed and comfortable. and in general releasing tension from the body in motion will result in improved efficiency, i'm more of a runner than a swimmer but I know thats definitely the case with running.
So I would say that head position is not just about buoyancy, its also about comfort and hot holding unnecessary tension in the body

Subscribe to Feel For The Water
And receive the amazing Mr Smooth animation as your optional free gift.
Find out more: here

* required
I consent to receiving tips to improve my swimming and occasional information about our products and services from Swim Smooth. You can unsubscribe at any time. See our Privacy Policy
Powered by Blogger.


Blog Archive

Recent Posts