One of the most common emails we get at Swim Smooth is from swimmers wondering how much rotation (also called "body roll") they should have in their stroke. There certainly is a lot of confusion out there about this and there has been some wildly differing opinions from coaches over the years:
- In the 1990s a movement started telling swimmers to rotate to 90° on their side every stroke to "swim like a fish" and to remain in this position for as long as possible between strokes. Although this has now been recognised as too much rotation, you can still find this advice given in books and DVDs today.
- Other coaches have instructed swimmers to rotate as little as possible. In fact one of our swimmers in our squads in Perth tells how she learnt to swim freestyle with the Red Cross in the 1960s and the instructor would walk alongside the pool with a stick and rap her over the head if she didn't swim completely flat!
What's the right amount of rotation? Let's answer this question by looking at some footage of elite swimmers. Here's double Olympic Gold Medallist Rebecca Adlington at the point of maximum rotation in her stroke (you can click the images to expand):
There are some quite technical debates in swim coaching about whether the hips stay a little flatter than the shoulders but if you think about stretching tall through your core and rotating your whole body (including your legs) this will give you the right outcome for distance swimming.
Rotation is an important part of your stroke technique as it allows you to develop a high elbow catch like Rebecca's while engaging the large muscles of the back and core to power the stroke. Good rotation also reduces the forces through the shoulder joint (lowering the risk of injury) and allows the arms to recover easily over the surface.
The fact that breathing tends to drive rotation in the stroke is the main reason why we recommend you breathe to both sides regularly. Swimmers who only breathe to one side tend to have poor rotation on the non-breathing side and the simplest way you can correct this is to introduce breathing to your bad side.
However, be very wary of over-rotating when breathing. This swimmer has rotated fully onto his side as he takes a breath, causing him to scissor kick his legs apart to stabilise himself:
Does the amount of rotation depend on your stroke style? Sometimes but not as much as you might expect. Here's 7 time World Marathon Swimming Champion Shelley Taylor Smith displaying the shorter punchier 'Swinger' stroke style used by many elite open water swimmers and triathletes:
Above the water Shelley doesn't appear to rotate that much with the recovering arm swinging around the side (top photo) but this is deceptive. Below the water we can see that in fact she's rotating nicely to 45 degrees on every stroke.
How much rotation should you aim for? We recommend something in the 45-60° range. Obviously you can't swim with a protractor to check (!), so how can you tell? Ask a friend to film you with your phone and watch the clip back carefully or get some feedback from an experienced coach. If you are worried about your rotation, consider investing in a Finis Tech Toc which will give you live feedback on your rotation on every stroke as you swim.
Developing Better Rotation
Besides bilateral breathing, we recommend side-lying exercises such as our kick-on-side and 6-1-6 drills with fins to help you improve your rotation:
During these drills you rotate to nearly 90° which is too much for the full stroke but by performing the drill and then breaking into full-freestyle, the right amount of rotation should transfer nicely into your stroke:
Even if you feel that you over-rotate when you swim these side-kicking drills are useful because they teach you to become aware of and control your rotation. The improved stability and posture you will feel will mean you are less likely to over-rotate in your full stroke.
A couple of additional points:
- If you have low lying legs in the water you will find rotation hard to develop. To bring the legs up, work on your exhalation technique to rid your lungs of excess buoyancy and work on improving your kicking technique (see next week's blog). Then you should find it much easier to roll from one side to the other.
- If you only breathe to one side in your stroke, focus on your rotation to the other side. A good visualisation to try is to think about rotating your hip out of the way before the hand gets there. More on that here.