Is Your Athleticism Holding You Back In The Water?

Last week on the blog we discussed swimmers who have low drag but poor propulsion. Not surprisingly we received a lot of emails and tweets asking us to take a look at the opposite situation, where your drag is high but your propulsion is relatively good.

To that end let's look at a case study involving just such a swimmer who has made some big strides forwards by reducing his drag:

If you've attended one of our clinics or talks in the UK recently you might have seen some video footage of Charles showing his legs lying low in the water when he swims:

This footage was taken in 2011 and we show it to highlight how your perception of your stroke might be very different from reality. Charles felt that his legs were quite low but estimated they were "4-5cm" lower than they should be. Watching back the video footage of his stroke, he was quite shocked to see that his legs were sinking by as much as 60cm (2 ft) beneath the surface.

Charles is a strongly built triathlete with lots of lean muscle mass. He's a strong cyclist and runner but finds swimming frustrating and looking at the shot above it's easy to see why with his legs sinking low in the water, creating a huge amount of drag. This a classic trait of our Arnie Swim Type, together with their strong tendency to fight the water with a crossover of the centre line in front of the head, as we see Charles doing here:

Just prior to taking this footage Charles swam 42 minutes for 1500m which (with his competitive mindset) he called "a disaster". Unfortunately it doesn't matter how fit Charles is, dragging his legs through the water like that is going to slow him down dramatically.

During our initial video analysis and stroke correction session with Charles we worked on:

- His exhalation technique into the water, ridding his lungs of excess buoyancy which otherwise lifts him up at the front and sinks the legs
- Improving his swimming posture to remove his crossover in front of the head
- Keeping his head low when he breathes
- Improving his kicking technique to avoid bending from the knee and scissor kicking the legs wide apart
- Slowing down his stroke rate a touch to help him straighten out the stroke

Charles found that immediately following this session he dropped his 1500m time to 35 minutes, which was a nice improvement in a very short period of time.

(Follow this stroke correction process yourself, or the one appropriate for your Swim Type, in our Swim Type Guides here.)

Is Your Athleticism Holding You Back When You Swim?

If you are an Arnie yourself, you will know how difficult and frustrating swimming can be despite your natural athleticism. Ironically it's actually this athleticism that is making swimming harder for you as your lean muscular legs sink downwards in the water.

If you have low-lying legs when you swim unfortunately there's no silver bullet to lifting your legs high, it's going to take diligent and consistent work on all of the areas of your stroke we mentioned above. However, be persistent and disciplined, and the improvements will come:

Two Years Later

Since that initial consultation in 2011 we hadn't seen Charles until he came back for a follow-up session with us last week. We were very impressed with how much his body position had improved since 2011:

Although he's not yet perfectly horizontal in the water, his body position is drastically improved and although there's still a slight tendency to cross over the centre line with the right arm, this is much improved too:

These stroke improvements are giving him some very large speed gains. In fact he recently swam 28½ minutes for 1500m, a full 13½ minutes faster than two years ago!

As well as consistently working on all the areas we mentioned above, Charles has found that swimming with a light flutter kick results in a lower effort than trying to use a minimal two-beat kick. Although some additional energy is being used in the faster kick, this is more than offset by his legs sitting higher in the water.

Some swimmers are naturally suited to a 2-beat kick, particularly those with good natural buoyancy and shorter punchier stroke styles. But with such a dense muscle mass, Charles will always be best served with a light flutter to help bring his legs higher. This a classic example of why you must always think of yourself as an individual and not follow a "one size fits all" approach to swimming.

Persistence And Chipping Away

After further refining his stroke technique in our follow up session, we are excited about the improvements Charles will now experience as he continues to improve his stroke technique. Getting into the 25-26 minute 1500m speed range is a realistic short term goal for him and he's also aware he will gain another minute or two when he dons his wetsuit for open water events. This means he should now exit the swim towards the front of his age-group rather than coming out at the rear and having to play catch-up on the bike.

So a big congratulations from us to Charles on the large improvements he's made with his swimming, it's not been an easy journey but your persistence and hard work is really starting to pay dividends. Thanks also for allowing us to share your experiences with the wider world.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Excellent post--thanks!

JamesBoH said...

He's also reduced his drag by not swimming in a tri-suit. ;)

Seriously though - good effort Charles.

Unknown said...

this is so me, but without any of the improvements!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. Although not quite as drastic, this is definitely the issue my 9 year old son has. Thanks for the ideas in how to overcome it. Your site is immensely helpful!

Coach Brad said...

I have this exact problem right now. No matter how much swimming I do, it takes a lot of effort and I am very slow. Thank you for posting.

Anonymous said...

I would consider myself to be a competent swimmer and having worked for years on improving my technique still struggle with resistance due to lean body mass. I have an efficient two beat kick but if I were to stop swimming I would sink to the bottom in about 3.2 seconds legs first. Balance emphasis has certainly helped. I am a solid sprinter but in long sets I will struggle to keep up with swimmers with more body fat and less athleticism sometimes.

nanoRat said...

BTW - a tight trisuit can be faster if you have a few extra kilos around the middle

Anonymous said...

This is one of the best posts I have read on here. This applies directly to me..I have made the corrections with head position and posture. I have been reluctant to use a light flutter kick over a 2 beat kick for fear of using more energy through my 1500 meter swims. I guess I will have to man up and do it..I typically swim 37 mins also per 1500 meters..Excellent work Charles on dropping the time beneath the 30 minute mark!

Adam Young said...

Thanks for all the positive feedback guys, the response to this post has been overwhelming on email and facebook too.

The key point I would make is that lean athletic swimmers are going to find that body position is more of an issue in their swimming but this doesn't mean it can't be overcome and you can't swim just as fast as any other swimmer.

Certainly many of the top sprinters in the world are of this build and raise themselves up high in the water through excellent technique. Interesting to note though that they nearly all use a 6 beat kick...

Anonymous2, it sounds like you should definitely experiment with a light flutter kick to see if it feels easier overall.



Unknown said...

Great Article - Made me review my own stroke and I switched to a flutter kick. To my surprise I saw several seconds come off my 100Y and 200Y times on the first day (today). Thank you very much!!! I am still slow but not as slow as I was yesterday.

T said...

Like a bunch of posters above, I think this post was written just for me! Definitely going to try out the suggestions and see if they help. I already use a 6 beat kick but still feel like my legs are way too low in the water.
I'm at about 37-38 mins now but want to get down to ~ 30 mins in the next 3 - 4 months.
Thanks guys and good on you Charles!

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