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Freestyle Swimming Tips for Maximum Efficiency

Hydrodynamics for Triathlons, Competition, and Fitness Workouts

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Freestyle swimming competition; photo courtesy McSmit

The freestyle swimming stroke which is also called the front crawl by some is arguably the most popular style. When done the right way, it is fast, smooth, and clean.

That is the primary reason that it is used in triathlons. But many people just don’t get it right. Without knowing and applying the basic techniques, many waste critical energy and sacrifice speed.

Read on for some form and stroke techniques that will help put you ahead in the pack. Swimming is the perfect aerobic complement to running and is known to be a key fitness activity.

This sport not only works the entire body, it also puts much less strain on joints, muscles, and connective tissues than many other activities. For these reasons, it is a great recovery workout for runners.

Sculling is Critical for Moving Forward

In my opinion kicking doesn’t count for much with respect to forward movement through the water, although it does assist greatly in maintaining proper form. Sculling is the action that gives you speed.

So what is it? It is that horizontal right and left back and forth motion of the hands while simultaneously pulling the arms through the water from front to back. Why is it effective?

Because only dead or stationary water is useful to you; moving water, not so much. When you scull you simply find more of it. Hydrodynamics 101. That is also why it gives you the ability to swim faster in deeper swimming pools.

Which brings us to this point—when you are racing, do your best to get a lane on the deep end of the swimming pool, if it is laid out that way. Every bit counts.

Float like a Boat, Don’t Sink like an Anchor

Your body must glide through the water as smoothly as possible. Go to any lap pool and study the form of the slower swimmers. In most cases you will notice that the front half of their bodies are on the surface (they have to breathe, after all), but from the hips down they are underwater.

Their bodies are forming an arc shape. It’s only logical that this creates a noticeable drag on their bodies. A multitude of problems are created by this.

Not only do they have to expend a lot more energy to maintain speed, but they tire out much sooner than their more efficient pals. In a triathlon, they will be more likely to be toast on the bike and run.

As an analogy, consider a sea anchor. It is a parachute-looking fabric device secured to the stern of a boat. It doesn’t touch the bottom. The boat still moves, but much more slowly.

To avoid being a sea anchor, imagine that there is a long steel rod attached to your spine from head to toe. Focus on keeping the rod (and hence your body) parallel with the surface of the water.

You will find this easier when you keep your chin down. Even when you do an open-water swim, you really only need to lift your head to sight every six strokes or so.

Concentrate on Your Arm Efficiency

Not to kick them when they’re down, but lets go back to our slow swimmers again. In many cases their strokes are too short; the entry point is close to the head. The effect is wasted energy and opportunity.

Instead of doing this, focus on stretching your arm almost as far in front of your body as you can before submerging your hand into the water while still keeping your elbow slightly bent.

Further, do not “cross over”. Your hand should enter parallel with our trusty steel rod in front of your shoulders, not your head.

Your hand needs to enter the water at about a 45° angle, like the slice of a knife. Concentrate on not creating much of a splash. Then pull your arm back while sculling deep, searching for the dead water.

This will come naturally after a while. If you concentrate, you will begin to feel the resistance of dead water compared to water that is moving with your body. Remember, moving water has little value for forward momentum.

At the end of each stroke, firmly and actively push the water with your palm as your hand comes to the surface and begins to exit the water. Finally, allow your body to glide for an instant while one arm recovers and the other readies for entry.

You might think gliding is wasting time, but it’s not; you have already paid for this forward motion so take advantage of it. It’s also important to roll your body.

When sculling with your right arm you should be rolling on your right side; when sculling with your left, roll left. Think of it as reaching for the bottom of the pool. This permits deeper, more efficient sculling, as well as easier breathing.

Practice Bilateral Breathing

This simply means alternating breathing on the right and left side. I know, I know, I don’t like it either. But unless you confine all your workouts to the pool and only sign up for triathlons that feature pool swims eventually you will have to do an open-water swim.

The wind will likely be whipping spray on one side or the other and it is much more enjoyable to be able to breathe on the side where that is not happening.

These are just a few tips to increase your skills, efficiency, speed, and enjoyment. They demand a lot of focus at first to employ them and not slip back into bad habits.

But, over time you will find the results amazing. Remember, it's all about hydrodynamics. Now go get wet.

Do you have any tips or experiences for improving your own freestyle swimming? Please share with our other readers in the comment section below!

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