6 Key Elements to Improve Your Swimming Technique
A triathletes guide for efficient swimming in their triathlon training.
Swimming is a unique sport compared to the other aspects of triathlon. Unlike running and cycling, increasing your fitness or strength won’t necessarily translate to speed in the water. Swimming is by nature a technique driven sport. Proper form will garner much larger returns than any amount of strength.
Before we get into the techniques, here is a quick lesson in hydrodynamics, or how water moves around solid objects. If you place your flat, open hand straight down into the water and attempt to move it side to side in the direction your palm is facing, it will be more difficult than if you move it forward and back in the direction your thumb is facing.
This is the essence of swimming:
Minimizing surface area to reduce drag: How your head and body are positioned in the water for forward movement
Maximizing surface area for propulsion: Utilizing your arms and legs to push water behind you
To help you get the most out of your time in the water, we’ve broken down the 6 key elements that will keep you in alignment and most efficient in the water.
1. Breath control
Step one of swimming has nothing to do with “swimming” and everything to do with breathing. If you haven’t reached proper breath control comfort, nothing will flow naturally. To determine if you have adequate breath control, try doing some bobs in the water.
A bob is when you jump up above the water and sink down below it, over and over again. Your goal is to calmly breathe in clean air above the surface and blow out slowly and completely underwater. Practicing this will help you find your breathing rhythm.
2. The apex of your head is your north star
Where your apex (the very top of your head) is pointing is where your body will go in the water. If you are looking forward with your eyes and your head is pointing towards the ceiling, you will swim “uphill”. Your legs will drop and you’ll kick too far underwater. You will move forward at an angle, dragging more water. Your back will tighten and your shoulders will fatigue more quickly.
Instead, make sure your goggles are pointed either straight down or at a slight angle while still looking at the bottom of the pool. (That line at the bottom of the pool is there for a reason.)
3. The longer you are, the faster you can go
Think of yourself, from the tips of your fingers to the bottom of your toes, as a torpedo. The key here is to create the smallest surface area possible that could create drag in the water. The longer and narrower you are, the more streamlined you become.
That full extension is also important to generate the most power or propulsion possible. If you shorten your reach, or don’t finish through with your kick, you are missing water that you could be pushing behind you and therefore, not generating the maximum amount of power possible with each stroke. Essentially, by swimming short, you are slowing your body down and it will now take more fuel (air and energy) to keep you moving.
4. Your hands and your forearms are your paddles
It’s common for many early swimmers to think that their hands are doing all the work when swimming. The reality is that you have a paddle from your elbow to your fingertips that can push a large amount of water.
The key is to learn the feel of that water pressure on your paddle. Sculling is a drill that can help with this. Here you push off the wall with both hands in front; instead of full strokes, swimmers will move their hands, sweeping in and sweeping out in front of them. Their hands should go no wider than shoulder width apart, and they should have just a slight flutter kick to help maintain their body position.
Doing this drill will help develop a sense for what pushing water feels like across your fingers, hands and forearms. When transitioning back to a normal stroke, you can maintain that sense of “feel” for the water.
5. Power originates from your core
Your core is your center of power. All of your swim motions should be triggered and led by your center. While your core is the power, your hips are the harness. The power is derived from the rotational momentum your body creates (long-axis). Think of your torso–from your shoulders to the top of your femur bones–as a solid board. When you turn your hips, your shoulders turn too. What connects and syncs your upper body with your lower body (and harnesses the power from your kick) is your rotation.
Your paddles are attached to your arms, which are attached to your shoulders, that are powered by your core rotating left and right. As you move through the water, think about that rotation as the origination point triggering that chain reaction. You will know you are doing it wrong if you are bouncing in the water.
Being mindful doesn’t mean strictly focusing on all of these fundamentals when you swim. In fact, when you are practicing these, you should only focus on one element at a time.
Mindfulness is a technique you apply after you’ve started to get the hang of the aforementioned key elements. Create a checklist:
- How is your breath control?
- Is your spine tall?
- Are your eyes resting on the bottom of the pool?
- Is your apex pointing straight ahead?
- Are your paddles long and strong?
Reviewing these will help you center yourself as you fatigue.
Swimming form is something that has to be honed and perfected over time. It takes practice. A feedback loop from a coach or second set of eyes can help fine tune your stroke. It is when the technique breaks down that we slow down.
Think of it this way… at a final swim event at the Olympic games, all of the swimmers behind the block have trained and perfected every detail of their race. But the person who finishes ahead of everyone else is the swimmer whose honed technique breaks down last.
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Kaitlin Krause is the founder of, and head teacher at Rising Tide Effect, a 501c3 that seeks to bring positive change to underserved communities through the aquatic experience. She was the former COO of the largest swimming school in NYC and has over 15 years of teaching experience. Additionally, she was a Division 1 former competitive swimmer and team captain and has more than 30 years of swimming experience.